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.

(Aroon Purie)


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