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Karnataka sugarcane farmer suicides: what can be done to stop the rot

Ramakrishna Upadhya | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:21 IST

The situation

  • Over 80 farmers have committed suicide in one month in Karnataka
  • Mandya district, the sugar bowl of the state, has been swept by 25 farmer suicides in six weeks
  • CM Siddaramaiah is facing heat from his own party\'s veteran leader SM Krishna
  • After being among the top farm suicide states for two decades, Karnataka started fudging figures in 2011

The background

  • Mounting debt, crop losses and delayed payments by sugar factories are reasons for the suicides
  • The Karnataka Sugarcane (Regulation) Act, 2013, requires factories to pay farmers within 14 days
  • In the last two years, the dues have mounted to over Rs 900 crore
  • Farmers are forced to borrow from moneylenders at eye-popping interest rates like 36%, even though rules prevent rates above 14%

The silver lining

  • Karnataka\'s Hubballi district has a fantastic model of an Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee
  • This has helped farmers by introducing e-tendering and e-payment
  • Open auctions give farmers the best price without any middlemen
  • PM Modi has recommended the Hubballi model to the rest of the country
  • However, 175 other APMCs across Karnataka haven\'t been able to replicate it

Suicides by over 80 farmers in one month should have stirred the Karnataka government into urgent action.

But the general stupor that Chief Minister Siddaramaiah suffers from was very much evident in this case too, until his octogenarian adversary in the Congress, SM Krishna decided to teach him a lesson by visiting some of the distressed families of the victims in the Mandya district.

The political game

Closely followed by television cameras and hundreds of followers, Krishna, 84, just back from his three-decade-long passion of making an annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of tennis, Wimbledon, walked into the humble homes of farmers, sympathised with the families and handed over envelopes containing Rs 50,000 each.

During his interaction with the media, Krishna wasn't openly critical of Siddaramaiah, but his actions caused sufficient embarrassment to the chief minister.

The CM used a radio broadcast the very next day to deliver his 'Dil ki baat' (as opposed to PM Modi's 'Mann ki baat') to farmers, urging them not to lose confidence, but to trust his government to come to their rescue as he is also a son of the soil.

On Sunday, the CM rushed to the houses of some of the victims in Mandya and Mysore districts and also shot off letters to all his cabinet colleagues to tour their districts immediately.

Coming from the dominant Vokkaliga community, Krishna is too shrewd a politician to be ignored. Having enjoyed a long stint in politics as Assembly speaker, chief minister, governor and external affairs minister at the Centre, Krishna wasn't averse to another shot at the CM's post during the May 2013 elections.

He even registered himself as a voter in Mandya, his home district. But the Congress high command had made up its mind on backing Siddaramaiah, and denied Krishna the Assembly ticket.

Though the high command has junked him, Krishna keeps reminding Siddaramaiah that he isn't finished politically by regularly interacting with some ministers who owe their loyalty to him, and occasionally, taking a swipe at the chief minister.

Sugar bowl running dry

Being the sugar bowl of Karnataka, with abundant irrigation from the river Kaveri and the Krishna Raja Sagara dam, Mandya district is home to rich farmers who have had the wherewithal to survive the vicissitudes of agriculture.

But for the first time this year, Mandya has been swept by about 25 farmer suicides in a matter of six weeks. Mounting debt, crop losses and delayed payment by sugar factories have forced them to take the extreme step.

Take the case of the handicapped farmer, Ningegowda (61), of Pandavapura taluk. Frustrated at not being able to sell the sugarcane grown on his farm, Ningegowda set fire to his crop and jumped into it. He decided to take his own life as he found the pressure from money lenders unbearable.

Mounting debt, crop losses and delayed payments by sugar factories have led to 25 suicides in Mandya district

Another farmer, Rajendra (66), of Channenahalli in Srirangapatna taluk, caught in the vicious circle of crop failure and escalating interest on loans, hanged himself, as his debt had risen to Rs 12 lakh - half of which was borrowed at an usurious interest rate of 36%.

In fact, a major cause of heartburn for the farmers is two-fold: extremely delayed payments by the politically-connected owners of sugar factories, and the forced reliance on blood-sucking money-lenders for their requirement of funds.

Laxity in implementing the laws

The Karnataka Sugarcane (Regulation) Act, 2013, requires sugar factories to pay the farmers for the cane supplied within 14 days, failing which they can be punished, but in the last two years, the dues have mounted to over Rs 900 crore.

The Siddaramaiah government has tried to cajole and coerce the factory owners to pay up, but many of the factories being run by ministers and legislators of all parties simply do not listen.

Recently, deciding to act tough, the government began sealing godowns, but in many instances, the officials who had gone to put the seal found the sugar stocks having been spirited away on prior information.

Caught in the spiral of the vagaries of nature, uncertain crops and income, rising costs of production, huge interest burden, lack of sufficient storage and marketing facilities and generally un-remunerative prices, farmers are forced to borrow as they never seem to have enough funds at their disposal.

Successive governments in Karnataka, as elsewhere, have tried to meet the farmers' needs through the cooperative sector banks by offering loans at as low as 4 % and even interest free in some cases.

But these efforts remain a drop in the ocean as a majority of small and marginal farmers are not members of either the cooperative societies or banks and they fail to meet the 'criteria' required for availing loans.

They are forced to fall back on unscrupulous moneylenders (who are themselves into politics or hand-in-glove with local politicians), who suck the farmers dry under official patronage until a spate of suicides makes everyone sit up and take notice.

During Krishna's tenure as chief minister between 1999 and 2004, over 9,200 farmers committed suicide across the state, which became a source of acute embarrassment for his government and one of the main reasons for its downfall.

He set up an expert committee headed by the former vice-chancellor of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, Prof. GK Veeresh, to study the problems and make recommendations to help the farming community.

More importantly, the Krishna government enacted the Karnataka Prohibition of Charging Exorbitant Interest Act, 2004, under which, charging more than 14% interest was made punishable with a fine and imprisonment of up to three years.

Under the Act, the debtor could deposit the principal amount with interest in a court of law and demand the moneylender return the moveable or immovable property taken by him as security. In the last 11 years, there has not been any report of a single farmer being able to get this law enforced in his favour.

Coming under fire for letting the moneylenders rule the roost, besides the unbridled entry of private financiers such as Muthoot Finance and Mallapuram Gold, Siddaramaiah has advised the deputy commissioners of the districts to take stringent action against moneylenders who violate the laws and slap cases of abetment against them if a farmer's suicide is related to exorbitant interest.

Dubious distinctions

Karnataka has the dubious distinction of being among the top five states in farm suicides for two decades now and, being unable to improve the situation, has begun manipulating the figures since 2011 to show a reduction in numbers - like all its fellow 'culprits'.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in the last 20 years, nearly three lakh farmers have ended their lives, mostly by ingesting pesticides or by hanging themselves. Maharashtra, with 60,000 farmers' suicides, tops the list.

Suicides among farmers were 47% higher than for the rest of the population nationwide and, in some states, which were the worst-hit by the agrarian crisis, they were over 100% higher, as per 2011 statistics.

But from 2012 onwards, fudging of figures, known as 'data massaging' in some circles, has begun, with some states now declaring zero or near zero farmers' suicides.

Chhattisgarh, for instance, which recorded an average of 1,567 suicides during the 2000s, has shown 'zero' farm suicides for three consecutive years since 2011. This has been achieved by clubbing farmers suicides with the 'others' category.

Karnataka, which averaged nearly 1,500 farmers' suicides till 2004, has dramatically reduced the numbers, bringing them down to 77 in 2012-13 and 58 in 2013-14. But experts in the field know that these are bogus numbers which try to hide the real picture.

The Hubballi model

What is surprising is that since 2010, Karnataka has a fantastic model of an Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) at Hubballi. This has helped farmers reap rich benefits by introducing e-tendering and e-payment, but it has not been fully replicated in the other 175 APMCs across the state.

A combination of vested interests and apathy on the part of officials seems to be at work here. Buyers and sellers from other states, too, log in and the open auction process gives the farmers the best possible price without any middleman taking his share.

Karnataka has been among the top five states in farm suicides for 20 years and has begun fudging the figures

The Hubballi APMC, which has a turnover of Rs 500 crore, has caught the attention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Cabinet recently decided to recommend the Hubballi model to the rest of the country.

On 9 and 10 July, officials and agriculture marketing ministers of 18 states visited Hubballi to understand how the system worked so that they could implement it in their own states.

This may be a silver lining to the dark cloud of serial suicides.

First published: 20 July 2015, 11:06 IST
Ramakrishna Upadhya @rkupadhya9

Ramkrishna Upadhya is a senior journalist based in Bangalore, currently working with TV9. Earlier, he was with Deccan Herald, The Telegraph and The Indian Express.