More than two decades after journalist P. Sainath’s book Everybody Loves A Good Drought put rural distress in the national spotlight, a new study mapping the crisis across Maharashtra highlights the severity and causes of the crisis, under-reporting of farm suicides, and the wide gap between rich and dirt-poor areas of the state.
The study of 124 villages by journalist-activist Heramb Kulkarni makes damning observations about wide social and economic disparities between the economically vibrant Mumbai-Pune-Nashik corridor and the large swathes of dry-land in Marathwada, north Maharashtra and Vidarbha.
“The idea was to take a hard look at rural Maharashtra more than 25 years since India woke up to economic liberalization. While claims are made about reduction in rural poverty, some of the findings paint a contrarian picture," Kulkarni said.
He says he selected 24 of 35 Maharashtra districts to make sure all regions are represented and the “diverse nature of poverty across regions" is reflected in the study.
“Rural poverty is not restricted to Vidarbha and Marathwada. The study documents extreme poverty in western Maharashtra districts like Sangli and Satara also," Kulkarni said.
It identifies the root causes of farm suicides in Vidarbha and Marathwada as shrinking land holding, chronic drought, lack of access to formal credit, and dependence on private moneylenders. Land holding among Dalits in rural areas is relatively smaller, shrinking livelihood options for them and making them vulnerable, the study points out.
It cites some representative cases. In Bodbodhan village of Yavatmal district in Vidarbha, 60% of its 500 families are landed farmers and the rest are landless farm labourers. In 2017, the village lost 90% of its tur crop to drought. Between 2000 and 2017, it reported 24 suicides, 40% of them by small and marginal farmers owning less than 5 acres. “Due to low holding and inferior quality of land, these farmers do not get formal credit and they have to depend on local moneylenders and micro-finance companies who charge exorbitant rates of interest. This drives the farmers to desperation and suicides," the study says.
It takes a very critical view of the government blaming alcoholism for farm suicides.
“To establish this, the government officials point at the post-mortem reports which establish the presence of liquor in blood. But the government does not investigate the frustration that in the first place drove the farmer to addictions," it says.
The study also points to bureaucratic attempts to under-report farm suicides. “Procedural bottlenecks are used to show that non-agrarian reasons are responsible for suicides so as to deny the kin of the deceased farmer government compensation. In Sukli village of Akola district, 21 farmers committed suicide between 2000 and 2017 but only seven of these were recorded as farm suicides," the report says.
The study did not find starvation among landless labourers and tribals working as farm labourers, attributing this to Food Security Act and the public distribution system, but says the poor are not aware of the quantity they are entitled to at ration shops.
“The PDS rule says one person is entitled to 5kg of food grain per month but in several villages, we found out that a family of eight persons was allowed only 5kg of wheat and 10kg of rice. Not many villages get the entire stock of ration that has been allotted. Even though the government has started biometric system for PDS, many people complain about not getting ration in time," says the study.
The study says the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) delivers wherever NGOs are alert in demanding work under the Act. But across Maharashtra, labourers who get work under the scheme receive wages much after the work has been completed, the study says.