From the editor-in-chief
Kalawati, a widow with nine children, acquired national prominence, courtesy Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi three years ago. Her husband, a cotton farmer from Vidarbha unable to pay his debts, committed suicide in 2005. In July 2008, during the tenure of UPA 1, Rahul, in an evocative speech in Parliament, spoke about how he visited her home and found that her husband had committed suicide because he was dependent on only one crop. His widow subsequently resolved her problem, according to Rahul, by sowing three crops, acquiring two buffaloes and digging a pond. As this was part of the nuclear energy debate, he said that nuclear energy would be the country’s insurance policy in times of need just like Kalawati’s pond was her insurance policy in times of drought. It so happens that the prospect of nuclear energy looks dismal in India, and so does Kalawati’s future.
After her husband’s death in 2005, her son-in-law killed himself in 2010. One of her daughters, tired of the humiliation of prolonged illness and continued penury, committed suicide this year. Kalawati has lost four relatives in the last six years. Rahul Gandhi’s visit brought her attention but no compensation from the Government. Some generous NGOS gave her money. However, her life today remains a struggle. There are many other less famous women in that region who lead lives harder than even Kalawati’s. All of their farmer-husbands committed suicide, unable to pay their debts.
For our cover story this week, Deputy Editor Damayanti Datta, Assistant Editor Kiran Tare and photographer Bhaskar Paul drove 700 kilometres from Nagpur to visit 10 villages in Vidarbha. Says Datta, “The farmers of the region are so desperately poor that in addition to farming the small landholding they own, they also have to work as labourers on other farms. In the end they still earn no more than a total of Rs 2,500 a month.” This region is an important cotton farming belt of India. Cotton is a commercial crop and should, logically, yield decent returns. What then drives farmers to suicide? Some activists blame the introduction of genetically modified Bt cotton a decade ago. That, they say, has raised the prices of seeds, while requiring farmers to buy new seeds every year. However, there is considerable evidence to show that Bt cotton gives substantially high yields and higher returns than the older varieties it has replaced. The real problem is with systems.
Vidarbha, unlike say Gujarat, another Bt cotton-growing state, has little irrigation, which means the probability of crop failure gets hugely magnified if the monsoon fails. Farmers are entitled to financial support from the local administration and public sector banks if the crop fails. Both usually fail to deliver. The administration demands proof that farmers used “approved” seeds. They often use cheaper unapproved varieties. Banks demand collateral which they do not have. That forces them into the hands of moneylenders who charge interest rates as high as 40-50 per cent, the main cause of suicides. The Government can play a preventive role: by investing in irrigation, by getting rid of unnecessary rules of approval, and by ensuring that banks give credit.
It is a travesty that starvation and suicide should haunt a region as large as Vidarbha in a state as industrialised and prosperous as Maharashtra in a country making such rapid strides elsewhere, growing at the rate of more than 8 per cent a year for a decade. Rahul may not be able to save India’s nuclear deal but, perhaps, he can get the Government to save Kalawati and others from their miserable plight.
OUR JAN 1981 COVER