Home/ Industry / Agriculture/  Western Uttar Pradesh farmers on the brink

On the night of 28 August, at 1.30am, 40-year-old sugarcane farmer Rambeer Rathi shot himself in the head with a country-made revolver. A few days earlier, Rathi, of Tikri village in Baghpat district of western Uttar Pradesh, had sold two of his buffaloes to repay a bank loan of 80,000 taken last year. But even after repaying his dues, no bank was willing to extend fresh loans to him.

At the same time, sugar mills still owed him 1.53 lakh from cane sales last year. And this year’s poor monsoon rains made it imperative for him to provide his sugarcane crop additional irrigation.

The squeeze was hurting and a desperate Rathi turned to the local sahukar, or money lender, to borrow money at a usurious interest rate of 3% per month or 36% annually. He also had to eke out money for the treatment of his ailing father and find the school fees for his children. The pressure got to Rathi.

“He was extremely worried. We had just 700 left, but I never thought he would kill himself," said Manju Rathi, Rambeer’s wife.

Farmer suicides in western UP are a comparatively recent trend. But this year, several cases have been reported from Baghpat, Bijnor and Shahjahanpur districts. Unlike the dry and arid districts in the Bundelkhand region of UP, which is known for distress migration and occasional suicides, western UP—or Harit Pradesh—is known for its prosperous farmers who thrive on sugarcane crops.

Suicides are most commonly associated with the rain-fed cotton-growing areas of Maharashtra (Vidarbha region), Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In 2013, of the 11,744 farmer suicides in India, 44% were in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra; in comparison, UP recorded 750 farmer suicides (6.4% of total farmer suicides in the country).

“Most farm suicides in UP is concentrated in the poorer Bundelkhand and eastern regions of the state. Western UP is a recent phenomenon—where high levels of indebtedness, deficit monsoon and sugarcane arrears have intensified the farmer’s economic distress," said Sudhir Panwar, president of farmers’ forum Kisan Jagriti Manch and professor at University of Lucknow.

Desperate farmers

On the face of it, the farms of Baghpat do not convey the sense of panic pervading the farming community of this district. Instead of parched fields, one is greeted with stretches of green. But a closer look reveals sugarcane leaves are wilting and the paddy crop is way too short. Farmers have salvaged what they can and are now bracing for the worst.

Take the case of Dharampal Singh, who, with his younger brother, grows sugarcane over 7 acres of land in Bamnauli village. For Singh, the year has gone from bad to worse. Rain was elusive and he had to incur additional costs to run diesel pump sets to save the sugarcane crop from drying up.

Apart from an outstanding bank loan of 3 lakh, Singh had to borrow 1 lakh to pay for additional irrigation and fertilizers. To make matters worse, sugar mills did not pay the 6 lakh owed to Singh from the sale of sugarcane last year.

On the afternoon of 30 August, 62-year-old Singh decided to drown himself in the Krishna, a rivulet flowing next to his village. But because of the prolonged dry spell, this monsoon, the water was not too deep, and a shepherd grazing buffaloes on the banks of the rivulet saved his life.

“It costs 400 to hire a generator for an hour. Sugarcane needs watering every 15 days and we spent nearly 70,000 to save the crop," says Deepak Singh, Singh’s son. He adds that electricity supply is irregular—farmers get two-three hours of power on some days and none for days together. Yet the family has to pay 1,390 every month for the unmetered power connection.

No surprise then that when a farmer in the neighbouring village of Khanpur Muhari climbed the electric pole in a suicide attempt by electrocution, even that desperate bid came to nothing—there was no power to electrocute him and, eventually, he gave up after waiting for five hours.

Monsoon deficit

The immediate trigger for the financial crisis buffeting farmers of western UP has been this year’s poor monsoon. The country’s rain deficit hit a peak of 43% in June, shrinking to 11% now. However, the figure masks wide regional disparities. According to the India Meteorological Department, in the ongoing kharif season, as on 14 September the rainfall deficit was 53% for western UP. Out of 71 districts in UP, 41 recorded a monsoon deficit ranging between 20-59%, while 27 districts recorded scanty rainfall with a deficit higher than 60%.

“Sowing has been completed in 95% of the area but survival of crops is a concern. In western UP, farmers are somehow managing with irrigation facilities such as tubewells and canals but we are unsure of the yields," said Debasish Panda, principal secretary of agriculture in the state government.

Harbir Singh, a farmer from Asaifpur Kharkhari village, spoke about how a delayed and deficit monsoon impacts yields. Due to the unpaid sugarcane dues, Singh decided to grow paddy this year. He completed the nursery in the first week of July but had to wait for a month to transplant the rice saplings to the fields.

Transplanting month-old saplings means the plants cannot adjust well to the soil that nurtures them. Late sowing also means a late harvest; and as the temperature begins to cool by September, the crop does not get the requisite humidity which reduces the yield.

“My paddy yield will be 25-30% less than normal. I have no idea how to repay the loans; perhaps I will have to sell my land," said Singh, who has sown paddy on 2 acres of land and has an accumulated debt of 4.5 lakh from banks and moneylenders.


The UP government, according to senior officials, is expected to declare a drought in districts which have received less th

“Averaging out the rainfall data across UP or anywhere in the country hides the distress of farmers. Baghpat, for instance, faced prolonged dry spells with intermittent showers (the seasonal deficit as on 10 September is 27% of the long-period average for Baghpat—less than the 50% deficit required for declaring a drought). When the district was declared drought-hit more than a decade ago in 2002, farmers received a paltry financial assistance of 20-500," said Krishan Pal Tomar, a former agricultural scientist with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and general secretary of the All India Farmers Welfare Association. Tomar, who owns a hectare of land in Baghpat had received a cheque of 360 on 19 June 2003, a year later.

On 8 September, Uttar Pradesh chief secretary Alok Ranjan announced the government’s decision to stop revenue realization in all drought-hit districts till March next year.

“This means farmers who own more than a hectare of land will a get a relief of a few hundred rupees. The government should (instead) step in to bear the costs farmer incurred for irrigation and expedite the payment of cane arrears," adds Tomar.

On 4 August, the central government had announced a 50% diesel subsidy with an allocation of 100 crore for providing irrigation in monsoon deficit areas. However, the scheme meant little for farmers like Dharampal Singh—it could be availed of only when a district receives a deficit rainfall of 50% or is declared drought-hit. And even then the centre’s contribution is capped at 1,050 per hectare.

Together with unpaid sugarcane arrears, the errant monsoon has made the situation acute for the farmers of western UP. The state is the largest grower of cane and the second largest producer of sugar in the country. As on 11 September, sugar mills in UP owe farmers 4,557 crore. On 10 September, Union food minister Ram Vilas Paswan expressed his disappointment at the fact that although the government had extended soft loans, raised export subsidies and hiked import duties, mill owners had failed to clear their dues.

The centre has authorized the state to take necessary action, he added.

Sugar mills argue the non-payment of arrears is due to a high state-advised price of 280 per quintal—declared by the UP government—and low realization from sugar sales, due to which sugar mills are running at a loss. “We are not denying our liabilities to farmers. But neither the central nor state government is ready to link cane prices to sugar prices," said an official at the Uttar Pradesh Sugar Mills Association who did not want to be quoted. “Sixty-six mills which crush 75% of cane in the state have sent closure notices to the government and we will not resume operations in the next season," he added.

The next crushing season in UP begins around 15 November. If mill owners refuse to resume crushing, it will mean the crisis for the sugarcane farmers will worsen.

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Updated: 15 Sep 2014, 11:20 AM IST
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