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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 July, 2004, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Drought fuels India farmer fears

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC correspondent in Maharashtra

Maharashtra is one of India's most prosperous states - but despite that, farmers have been committing suicide for the past three years in despair at crop failure, drought and growing indebtedness.

Village boy
Local villagers say they are in dire straits
Their plight has been worsened by the lack of rain this year and officials say the situation could get worse.

The long, vast agricultural belt of Maharashtra's Vidarbha region is facing a crisis that has been largely ignored.

Far better known is the crisis in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh.

There, the steady rise in farmers' suicides has become a shameful public scandal, even forcing the new Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to pay a visit earlier this month.

But Vidarbha's despair and that of its five million farmers has yet to make the headlines.

In denial

According to statistics provided by the Cotton Growers Association of Maharashtra, 330 farmers in the cotton and soya bean-growing region of Vidarbha committed suicide in the last three years.

More people will commit suicide if interest payments and debt are not waived
Sonbaji Dhondbaji Patil
Its general secretary, Prakash Pohare, who has documented each of these suicide cases, insists all of them were heavily in debt and were being harassed by banks and village money lenders to pay their dues back

Government officials told BBC News Online there was nothing to suggest failing crops and farmers' unpaid debts led to all the suicides.

But farmers' leaders say official denial is part of the problem. They say it is no coincidence tragedy is sweeping Vidarbha.

The region abuts Andhra Pradesh, where more than 3,000 farmers have taken their lives in the last few years because of crippling debt.

Maharashtra's farmers suffer the same problems as Andhra Pradesh, which is drought, debt and official apathy, the activists say.

The local villagers in Vidarbha warn the tragic toll may be about to spiral. Fifty farmers have committed suicide in the region's Nagpur division since 2002, a year of severe drought.

"More people will commit suicide if interest payments and debt are not waived," said one farmer, Sonbaji Dhondbaji Patil.

Lack of rain

The civil servant who runs the Nagpur division admits the situation is bad.

Shanta Bai Dongre
Shanta Bai's husband committed suicide recently

"But it is not a crisis yet," stresses divisional commissioner Shailesh Kumar Sharma.

Mr Sharma says the area badly needs plentiful rain - and fast.

"If it does not rain - and rain well - in the next eight to 10 days, 35-40% of all the crops will be destroyed. If there is no rain for 15 days, the situation will get very serious".

The authorities claim they have an emergency plan in place and ready to go, should Vidarbha need it.

But Meerabai Humne, the widow of a debt-ridden farmer who committed suicide eight months ago, says she has little hope of redress.

"Our family is in dire straits. The government hasn't given us anything, not even the 100,000 rupees ($2,162) promised by the state government to the dependents of farmers who committed suicide."

Driven by debt

Meerabai's story is echoed by Shanta Bai Dongre, whose husband Sita Ram Dongre became Vidarbha's most recent suicide statistic.

Without rain most of the crops will be destroyed

Shanta Bai says her husband took his life two weeks ago, on the very day the mobile bank arrived in their village to settle accounts.

She says her husband was "drowning in debt" and under pressure from "bank officials who used to come and harass him".

Angry farmers say the state government will be made to pay, come election time, for continuing official denial of their plight.

Divisional commissioner Sharma says the authorities are not about to write off all outstanding debts anytime soon.

It is a controversial line and was publicly expressed by Maharashtra's former energy minister Manikrao Thakre, who said debt-waivers are not a sustainable solution to farmers' problems.

Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, agriculture experts agree.

Analysts warn against "economic gimmicks" such as offering farmers free electricity and bank loans on easy credit.

Instead, they say, the authorities need to focus on the real problem, which is "the industrial farming model that shifts the focus on to cash crops".

But that may be the big picture and the long-term solution.

For now, Vidarbha's distraught farmers say they want early justice - and if not justice, then electoral revenge when state elections are held in October.

Drought warning adds to India woe
21 Jul 04  |  South Asia
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03 Jun 04  |  South Asia
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23 Aug 02  |  South Asia

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