Telangana farmer suicides: 536 and counting

End of the commodity super cycle, with cotton prices touching record lows, adds to growers’ woes in Telangana

Jinukula Raju, whose brother Rajasekhar, a farmer from Warangal in Telangana, committed suicide last year. Photo: Harsha Vadlamani/Mint
Jinukula Raju, whose brother Rajasekhar, a farmer from Warangal in Telangana, committed suicide last year. Photo: Harsha Vadlamani/Mint

Hyderabad/Warangal: On New Year’s eve, Jinukula Rajasekhar, a young farmer from Shamirpet village in Warangal district of Telangana, consumed a lethal combination of alcohol and profenofos, an insecticide sprayed on crops to kill pests. He died four days later in hospital.

“On the evening of 31 December he called me from the field to say he drank pesticide,” said his elder brother Jinukula Raju. “He wanted me to pick him up and save his life.”

It was too late. Jinukula Rajasekhar’s family cremated him on the arid patch of land they owned. This was the land where the family was to sow the winter crop of paddy—something that didn’t happen because the bore well the family dug to water the crop turned out to be dry.

Not only was the family not able to procure water for the field, forcing it to abandon the rabi planting, it ended up with an additional debt burden of Rs.1.20 lakh on account of three failed bore wells. The family owes Rs.5 lakh in all.

The story of Rajasekhar is all too familiar in the cotton growing regions of Telangana, which became India’s 29th and youngest state in June when it was carved out Andhra Pradesh.

The tale of distress has been more pronounced this time. Not only have the region’s farmers had to deal with an errant south-west monsoon, they have confronted the end of the commodity super cycle that has seen cotton prices plumbing record lows.

Rajasekhar’s family invested Rs.2 lakh in the cotton crop and harvested less than five quintals from as many acres in the summer. Forced into distress sales that earned only Rs.17,000, Rajasekhar finally decided to kill himself one day before 2015 dawned.

So far, 536 farmers have committed suicide in Telangana since 2 June 2014, according to Rythu Swarajya Vedika, a network of grassroots non-profit organizations—a toll that’s at vast variance with the official estimate of 82 deaths.

With 124 farmer suicides, Warangal is the district worst hit by agrarian distress, followed by Nalgonda (115) and Medak (86), according to the organization.

The making of a crisis

The odds were stacked against farmers from Telangana in the June 2014-May 2015 crop year. The south-west monsoon, the principal source of water for growing cotton, was not only delayed but was deficient.

The overall rain deficit in the June-September monsoon season was 34% of the long-period average, compared to 12% for the entire country. To make matters worse, the entire crop season experienced prolonged dry spells. Even the north-east monsoon, from October to December, crucial for the rabi crop, was deficient by 52% in Telangana (compared to 33% for the entire country) and 56% of land was unsown as of 14 January.

The electoral promise of farm loan waivers compounded the problems for farmers. Banks started turning away farmers, who were already under pressure from accumulated debt, applying for fresh loans, forcing them to fall back on local moneylenders who charge interest rates in the range of 24%.

According to the latest National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) report, Key Indicators of Situation of Agricultural Households in India, released in December, over 89% of all farm households in Telangana, are indebted (compared to 52% for the country) with an average debt of Rs.93,500 (compared to Rs.47,000 for all India). The debt situation of farm households in Telangana is the second worst in the country, next only to Andhra Pradesh, where 93% farm households are indebted.

Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh after a five-year campaign for statehood led by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which came to power in the first assembly elections in the state last year. “The Telangana Rashtra Samithi banked on farmers for their support in the statehood movement and during the elections. The party promised to review all farmer suicides since 1999 blaming the earlier spate of suicides on an insensitive political administration from Andhra Pradesh. Little has changed after it came to power,” says Kondal Reddy, a Right to Information activist who has been tracking suicide cases in the state over the past decade.

Not everyone concurs.

“The present government is yet to announce an integrated agricultural policy but we are seeing noticeable changes,” says M. Kodandaram, a professor of political science at Osmania University, Hyderabad, and a leading ideologue of the Telangana statehood movement.

The government announced an ambitious plan to revive traditional minor irrigation tanks in Telangana (over 46,000 have been identified) and is revamping public health and education infrastructure, the lack of which forced families to fork out more money to avail themselves of these facilities from the private sector, Kodandaram notes.

“In the absence of government extension services in agriculture, private dealers have aggressively marketed input intensive Bt cotton. There was no one to tell the farmers that they should diversify crops. Limited success stories like the non-pesticide management was overshadowed by intense campaigns by companies,” adds Kodandaram.

Fatal attraction

Interestingly, farmer suicides are rife both in Telangana and in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, where cotton is grown without irrigation and hence the crop is entirely dependent on the monsoon.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)’s data for 2013 shows that undivided Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, with 2,014 and 3,146 farmer suicides, respectively, together accounted for 44% of the 11,744 farmer suicides in India.

“The initial shift to cotton was in resource rich areas with assured irrigation (after Bt Cotton was introduced in 2002). Post Bt, cotton area went up from 20% to over 40% of kharif acreage replacing red gram and millets that are resilient to drought,” says G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, a former scientist at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and presently director at the Hyderabad based non-profit Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. “Areas with shallow soils unsuitable for cotton were added based on perceived high yields and soaring price of cotton in the international market,” he added.

Numbers from the state irrigation and agriculture departments show the lopsided crop choices. In spite of the severely deficient monsoon, more area was brought under cotton last year (cotton acreage was 109% of the normal cotton sowing area). Similarly, 42% of kharif acreage was devoted to cotton in a state where only 26% of the cultivable land had any source of irrigation.

Officials at the district level refuse to admit that all farm suicides are linked to agrarian distress and list family disputes and consumption loans as major reasons. “This year the situation is severe due to poor rains but then farmers don’t listen to us when we advise them to diversify crops—they are obsessed with cotton. Growing cotton is like a gamble and every year the groundwater level is dipping by two-three metres due to new borewells,” said G. Kishan, district collector of Warangal.

“There has been no significant effort from the government to encourage ID (irrigated dry) crops like oilseeds and pulses while India keeps importing them. A serious fallout of cotton monocrop is that (since the crop yields no fodder) households are unable to rear livestock which are an insurance in times of crisis,” says Beeram Ramulu, a grassroots activist with Rythu Swaraj Vedika.

Industry denies it is pushing Bt cotton in areas unsuitable for its cultivation. “The issue of Bt cotton being planted in poorly irrigated areas needs to be looked at from the fact that out of the hundreds of Bt cotton hybrids approved for use, some are suitable for irrigated areas and some are suitable for rain-fed areas,” said Ram Kaundinya, chairman of ABLE-AG, the association of agri-biotech companies in India. “Poor yields may be a result of lack of rains and various other agronomic practices including pest control. There is no additional distress because of Bt cotton.”

“There is always competition between different categories of pests in nature. While bollworms are well controlled by Bt,” said Kaundinya, “it is not meant to control other pests including sucking pests. Due to lack of natural competition other pests could come up and they need to be controlled by farmers.”

Details of farm suicides show an overwhelming number of farmers killing themselves are in the age group of 25 to 40 years. Experts say the numbers are concentrated among tenant farmers who pay between Rs.10,000 and Rs.15,000 upfront to the landlord towards the lease.

Their only hope is that a good harvest of cotton can help repay past debts and relieve some of the fiscal pressure. In dry and arid Telangana, hope and reality seldom match.

For Chekkala Pochavva, a woman in her mid-forties from Cherial mandal (an administrative unit) in Warangal, this will be another year of mourning. Her son committed suicide in 2011, leaving the family with debt of Rs.2 lakh. Pochavva and her husband took 2 acres on lease hoping to repay loans with a good harvest—they paid Rs.20,000 for the lease and spent another Rs.80,000 to dig bore wells by borrowing from local moneylenders at 36% annual interest. After a failed crop this year and repeated visits from lenders, her husband consumed pesticide (Thymate) in September 2014.

After two consecutive deaths in the family Pochavva moved out of her house. Her daughter-in-law rolls bidis for a living and her youngest son is an auto-rickshaw driver. Pochavva will be the last farmer in the family.

To be sure, not everyone in the ecosystem of cotton farming is badly off. Kandukuri Manohar, 38, is a success story, albeit rare.

His shop stocking fertilizers, pesticides and seeds caters to farmers from twenty villages in Raghunathpally mandal of Warangal; he advances inputs on credit and sometimes cash loans. This year, on account of repeated sowing, his seed sales shot up by 20% but sales of fertilizers and pesticides nearly halved. By his own admission, he clocked sales of Rs.2.6 crore.

Kandukuri believes the Telangana farmers have seen some money only after Bt cotton was introduced, but refuses to comment on the sensitive issue of farmer suicides.

A ray of hope

Ironically, in a year when farmer suicides are continuing unabated, a significant experiment, the largest of its kind so far in India, is gaining momentum.

In response to the continuing farm distress, the undivided Andhra Pradesh government introduced a programme on non-pesticide management and crop diversification in 2005. The community managed sustainable agriculture (CMSA) programme, under an autonomous government agency, Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP), now covers an area of 1.5 million acres in Telangana and 1.9 million acres in Andhra Pradesh.

The programme has managed to convince 800,000 million farmers in Telangana and another 1.9 million in Andhra Pradesh to reduce use of chemical pesticides and move away from mono crop cotton to poly crop—mixing cotton with red gram, sesame or castor.

“Unlike the agriculture department, which focuses on production, we concentrate on improving farm incomes,” says D.V. Raidu, director of SERP, “We teach farmers how to substitute chemical inputs with organic inputs produced locally, thereby reducing costs of farming. Additionally, intermixing cotton with other crops evens out the risk of a total crop failure.”

Instead of using broad spectrum pesticides which do not spare friendly insects, under CMSA farmers use pheromone traps, border crops, sticky plates and bonfires to target specific pests. Raidu claims that this reduces pesticide costs by 80%.

This has also other benefits. A study published in 2008 in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry compared villages in Khammam district of Telangana which do not use pesticides with villages where chemical pesticides are employed.

The study showed a declining trend of suicides in the former and concluded that this was because of reduced access and availability of pesticides. It further observed that with declining cost of cultivation, net incomes have increased and farm households have been abe to pay off debt.

Muddam Mallikharjun, from Akkampeta village in Warangal, testifies to this. By cultivating Bt cotton without chemical pesticides, he saved Rs.11,000 on five acres of land and got an impressive yield of 13 quintals per acre.

He mixed cotton with sesame and red gram and is growing onions, brinjal, maize, watermelon, bottle gourd and turmeric as intercrops in the same cotton field.

More From Livemint