Banda/New Delhi: “I have made up my mind. I cannot repay my loans. I cannot free my land. I will die," Ram Bahadur Singh said, with a casual chuckle. The neighbours seated around did not react; after all, this was not the first time that the 52-year-old from Banda district in Uttar Pradesh had talked about taking his life. Similar thoughts have, in recent months, crossed their minds, too, especially after unseasonal rain ravaged standing crops this year, adding to a debt crisis.

Singh lives in a region that is possibly the worst place in India to be a farmer. The Bundelkhand region, spread over 70,000 sq. km in 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, was blighted by continuous drought between 2003 and 2010, floods in 2011, a late monsoon and deficit rain in 2012 and 2013, and a second spell of drought in 2014.

What makes Singh’s story unique is the process through which he and others ended up in his current predicament—ironically, they were the consequences of rational but risky bets that Bundelkhand farmers undertook to fix farming problems as to better their lot.

Faced with the choice of either continuing to depend on erratic rainfall for their regular summer crops or invest in irrigation to free themselves from the dependence on rain, and grow the more lucrative—yet riskier—winter crop of wheat, the farmers of Bundelkhand opted for the latter.

Unfortunately, demand for irrigated water outstripped supply, with the result that the harvest was inadequate to cover even the investments, leave alone any surpluses. Worse, the unseasonal rain then dashed what little hopes they had of recovery. And without the cushion of adequate safety nets, they sank into a debt trap.

Singh, for instance, owes banks more than 12 lakh in addition to other amounts owed to the local moneylender. Most of his 10-acre land is mortgaged. Singh has borrowed to buy a tractor, to pay for bore wells, for the marriage of his daughters and to repay past loans. “I hear the government is paying 7 lakh for every dead farmer. If I die, my family can free some land with that money," said Singh.

The choice

Over the years, the luckless farmers of Bundelkhand have tried everything in the book to meet the challenge of unpredictable weather.

The chronic drought from 2003-2010 and then again in 2014 prompted farmers to shift from growing a mix of dry crops—like millets and pulses—during the monsoon-dependent kharif season (June-September), to input-heavy and irrigated winter rabi crop of wheat alongside cash crops such as chickpea and mustard (November to April).

In the seven Uttar Pradesh districts of Bundelkhand—Banda (where Singh lives), Chitrakoot, Hamirpur, Jalaun, Jhansi, Lalitpur and Mahoba—the area under wheat cultivation increased by 60%, from 550,000 hectare (ha) in 2007-08 to 877,000 ha in 2013-14.

This means that today, the irrigated winter crop and not the rain-fed kharif is the main cropping season in Bundelkhand. For a region bypassed by the high-growth years of Indian agriculture beginning in the new millennium, the change in cropping pattern was the only option available to farmers—at least those among them who chose to stick to their land.

Despite the absence of a support system that could aid this transition, these farmers put everything at stake. In the absence of irrigation facilities, they invested in bore wells. They purchased tractors and threshers on credit and paid for costly inputs such as seeds and fertilizers. Formal credit came in handy in the initial years (starting in 2007), but debts piled on on non-repayment.

As in many other parts of rural India, there was little support by way of crop insurance or relief for crop damage.

“The long-standing belief that the Indian farmer is risk-averse no longer holds today. They are experimenting and investing to better their lives and to help the next generation move out," said Ramesh Chand, director of the National Institute for Agricultural Economics and Policy, Delhi, and member of the national task force on agriculture under the NITI Aayog.

“The choices that the Bundelkhand farmers made were rational but risky. Farmers across the country are exposed to price and weather risks. In such a situation, increasing access to credit cannot be the only solution. They need public investments in irrigation, marketing support and insurance."

Governments did roll out a number of irrigation schemes in Bundelkhand, but these were insignificant before the grave needs of the region, notes a 2014 study Bundelkhand Drought: Retrospective Analysis and Way Ahead by the National Institute of Disaster Management, Delhi. Only 45% of the crop area in Bundelkhand has any access to irrigation—that too with ground water as the primary source.

“The prolonged drought forced farmers to look for an alternative. They started digging wells and bores after taking to wheat. It took a toll on the ground water and many bore wells have dried up," said Raja Bhaiya, who runs Vidya Dham Samiti, a livelihoods and rights based non-profit organization from Banda district, Uttar Pradesh.

Deaths on the farm

In 2009, Uttar Pradesh received 3,506 crore as part of a 7,266 crore Bundelkhand package from the centre, but Bhaiya says the money benefited contractors, not farmers. Instead of increasing farmers’ access to irrigation, the money was spent on building warehouses, market yards and check dams—without village-level planning.

In the alternative crop plan of the Bundelkhand farmer, the untimely rain was a spoiler. In 2014 and this year, the rain from end-February through March destroyed crops across the region. The shrivelled and darkened wheat had fewer grains, the 10-month crop of arhar (pigeon pea) failed, and yields of chickpea and mustard dipped by 90%. The failed harvest led to a spate of suicides that is continuing to this day, spiking decadal numbers.

“The shift in cropping pattern coupled with erratic rainfall led to spiralling debts. Weak implementation and massive corruption in social security schemes like subsidized rations, supplementary nutrition for children, and rural housing schemes meant farmers had nothing to fall back on. This fuelled a spate of distress migration," said Bhaiya.

In Ram Bahadur Singh’s village alone, 110 households owe nearly 2 crore to banks and moneylenders. Outstanding credit from rural and semi-urban branches of commercial banks grew nearly threefold in the Uttar Pradesh districts of Bundelkhand—from 2,319 crore in 2010 (as of March) to 6,114 crore in 2013 (excluding loans from cooperatives, regional rural banks and informal loans), according to the Reserve Bank of India.

“Wheat was the only way we could survive and we did manage a few good harvests," says Ram Swarup, who spent 2 lakh to construct a dug well on his land. “But the government never purchased from us (at support prices). Since last year, our crops have been damaged by rain, but we do not have insurance."

According to ActionAid, a global non-government organization working on poverty and human rights, between 1 March and 23 April, 217 farmers committed suicide or died of shock in the seven Uttar Pradesh districts of Bundelkhand after untimely rains damaged their crops. Mint could not independently verify this claim.

A statement from the Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s office on 23 April said the government has given 3.86 crore to families of deceased farmers. It also said a sum of 831 crore was distributed as immediate relief to 1.758 million farmers affected by untimely rains.

“In 80 cases of death due to accident or shock, we provided compensation to families. It is hard to determine whether a farmer committed suicide due to agrarian distress or other reasons," said Suresh Chandra, state finance secretary.

No safety nets

Farming on 20 acres of land, Ram Naresh Dwivedi, 39, from Siklodhi village in Banda cannot be compared with a tenant or small farmer. But he too succumbed to the same risks.

Last year, he took loans to buy a tractor and started building a new house. His hopes were dashed by the sudden rain. His bank manager asked him to renew his loan of 1.35 lakh and threatened to seize and auction his land, according to his family members.

A month later, on 22 March, Dwivedi returned from the field after surveying ravaged wheat and mustard crops. He asked his daughter to fetch him a pack of chewing tobacco. When she left, he shut the door, lay on a charpoy, and most likely pulled the trigger of a gun with his toes.

It is common for bank officials and agents to take a 5-10% “commission"—a bribe—to arrange a year’s crop loans or long-term loans for capital investments such as bore wells and tractors, said Sudhir Panwar, a professor at Lucknow University and a member of the state planning commission. “After paying bribes for loans and premium deduction for crop insurance, what returns can they expect even in a good year?"

Panwar said that existing insurance schemes are fraught with delays and follow an area-wide approach for assessing crop damage instead of looking at individual plots. “Damages vary widely in the same block, but insurers follow the area approach to cut costs. Exclusions are an added problem; weather-based schemes cover for hailstorms, but not freak rain."

Existing yield- or weather-based crop insurance schemes are mandatory for farmers taking a Kisan Credit Card loan. The deduction for premium for insuring the wheat crop is 3.25% of the loan amount, said Gopal Gupta, a branch manager at state-owned Allahabad UP Gramin Bank in Bisanda block of Banda.

“Most farmers cannot avail insurance as they are defaulters (insurance is valid on fresh crop loans for a fixed period of one year). After the debt relief in 2008, they stopped repaying. Crop failures have only worsened the problem and repayment is now lower than 5%," adds Gupta.

The failure of existing crop insurance schemes is stark in Bundelkhand, where weather uncertainties are chronic, but the situation is similar in the rest of the country.

Only 4.7% of wheat farmers in India insured their crops in 2012, according to a situation assessment survey of farm households released by the National Sample Survey Organisation in December last year. In 2012, 4.8% of paddy farmers and 10.4% of cotton farmers insured their crop, the survey found. Among farmers who never insured their crop, 43% of paddy growers did not know about crop insurance. The numbers are 21% and 40% for wheat and cotton farmers, respectively.

Ram Bahadur Singh did not get the benefit of crop insurance that was deducted from his loans. Even his extreme hope of extracting a life insurance benefit, by way of the government compensation of 7 lakh on death, is unfounded.

The compensation of 7 lakh is for farmers dying due to an act of god—for instance, death by lightning while working in the field or being hit by a hailstone—and not for those committing suicide, said Dhirendra Kumar, a sub-divisional magistrate in Banda.

He is right. After Ram Naresh Dwivedi shot himself, all that his family got from district authorities was 50kg of wheat.

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