Rural Starvation, Suicides Scripted by Liberalization

(Starvation and farmers'suicides are no longer the monopoly of “backward” Orissa; Maharashtra , Kerala and even LF-ruled West Bengal tell the same story. Who is scripting this tragedy? CPI(ML) fact finding teams visited some of the affected areas in WBengal and Kerala, and Comrade Mukta Manohar of the Lal Nishan Party reports from Maharashtra )

Farmers' Suicides In Kerala

[A CPI(ML) Fact Finding Team on Farmers' Suicides in Kerala visited victims' families in Wayanad and Palakkad districts on 14-15 August, 2004. The team included V.Shankar, CPI(ML) CCM, John K.Erumeli, CPI(ML) State Secretary of Kerala, and Gopal, State Secretary of Karnataka. Dr.V.Lakshminarayana of PUCL, Karnataka, Javariah of CPI(ML) Mysore , Devarajan of CPI(ML) Wayanad, joined the visit to Wayanad district. T.Joy Peter, Velayudhan and O.P.Kunjupillai along with Rajan joined the visit to Palakkad. Excerpts from their report follow.]

‘God's Own Land ' has become the Godforsaken Ghostland. Kerala is, at it is, the suicide capital of India . Liberalisation, through unemployment, poverty, and debt, in one form or another, scripts these suicides.

More than 871 farmers have committed suicide in the state of Kerala from May 2001 to Dec. 2003. More than 70 farmers have committed suicide since the beginning of this year in Wayanad district alone, while the agriculture minister, erstwhile Marxist Gowriamma, invokes the familiar arguments of habitual alcoholism, psychological problems, etc., as causes for suicides, like her counterparts in the previous regimes of Andhra and Karnataka. The Cabinet Sub-committee formed to look into farmers' suicides, merely offered a compensation of Rs.50000 to the victims' families, and a second committee of experts headed by Mohan Isaac, a psychiatrist from NIMHANS, Bangalore has been formed to study the problem further. The composition of the committee itself is an indication of the government's intention to blame the victims and small farmers, rather than acknowledge the suicides as a socio-economic problem and a fallout of the policies of liberalization and globalisation.

Some Aspects of the Agrarian Crisis

The root cause for suicides lies in the fact that agriculture is increasingly becoming unprofitable in the backdrop of liberalization. Take Wayanad, the scene of widespread commercialization of agriculture, where many farmers turned to commercial crops like coffee, pepper, ginger, tea, cardamom, etc., when paddy cultivation became increasingly loss-incurring. In the steep hilly terrain, the switch from paddy cultivation to commercial crops caused water to drain out very quickly. Ripe coffee also got damaged in the scorching summer that followed a good monsoon.

The price of crops like coffee and pepper crashed very badly because of the WTO-dictated import policies of the government. The price of pepper per quintal has come down from Rs.27000 in 1998 to Rs.6500 in 2002 and that of coffee beans from Rs.11000 in 1997 to Rs.2200 in 2001. The farmer waiting five years for the yield, with accumulated debt every year, becomes unbearably desperate when he encounters a situation where he cannot even secure the production cost in the face of a price crash.

Many branches of various nationalized banks and private finance companies like Sundaram, Mahendra, etc., suddenly sprang up to exploit the prosperity of the region, issuing loans under various heads at 15.5 to 17.5 percent. Surprisingly, the credit target for the district in the suicide year 2004 is Rs.450 crores while the same in previous year was only Rs.398 crores. When we enquired about this, we learnt that the banks offer fresh loans every year to settle the previous loan and the total debt of each farmer increases manifold. The total dues to be paid to banks always stood at 2-4 times higher than the principal amount. The menace of private moneylenders, known as ‘blade' (cut-throat) financiers, is rampant and they operate an elaborate black economy network in rural areas. Most of the victims' families that we visited, deliberately avoided identifying these ‘blade' financiers for fear of harassment.

WTO-dictated policies date back to the LDF government led by the CPI(M). Discontent among farmers in the wake of the price crash induced by WTO-dictated policies was one of the major reasons for the downfall of the left regime in the last elections to the State Assembly. The prices that crashed during the LDF regime never recovered again. Now, the CPI(M) is claiming to oppose these policies, but, being part of a coordination with the Central Government, is not prepared to go all out to force the Govt. to reverse the policies responsible for suicides and the larger agrarian crisis.

The CPI(M) is also responsible for the incomplete land reforms, oriented towards the neo-rich.

Poverty, Growth and Disparity

While small and marginal farmers are the main victims of suicides, even the class of agrarian labourers and small and marginal peasants are not protected by the policies of the system. This section has no protection and the BPL population is on the increase. Despite minimum wage legislation, the wage level of agrarian labourers, in practice, has come down to Rs.70 from that of Rs.150, much below minimum wages.

Further Liberalisation And Impending Turbulence

Rather than finding ways of making agriculture profitable and generating new avenues of non-farm employment, the state government is planning to remove the ceiling on land so as to pave the way for corporate capital and to introduce contract farming so as to effect land consolidation. Already, reverse tenancy dominates the rural scene. With such policies, the spate of suicides can never be checked.

In the backdrop of farmers' suicides in Kerala, the Fact Finding Team of CPI(ML) raised the following demands:

1. Complete reversal of economic policies followed by the Center and the State.

2. Immediate sanction of compensation of Rs. 1 lakh to each victim's families, employment to the heir of the victim, distribution of 70 kg rice per month to the households of weaker sections and effective monitoring so as to prevent ‘Blade' financiers from usurping the government compensation.

3. Special package for the suicide prone regions, particularly Wayanad and instituting a fund to develop support mechanism and rehabilitation.

4. Waiver of all agricultural loans issued to small and marginal farmers owning less than five acres of land.

5. Easy access to institutional, interest-free loans and enactment of a legislation to curb the activities of ‘Blade financiers'.

6. Free electricity and free inputs to small farmers.

7. Minimum Support Price and Insurance Scheme for all major crops.

8. Guaranteeing employment throughout the year for agricultural labourers and the unemployed.

9. The Committee on Farmers' Suicides should comprise of economists and sociologists and not psychiatrists like Mohan Isaac.

10. Reviving the system of government procurement and ensuring fair prices for the produce of the small farmers.

— V Shankar

Starvation Deaths in Melghat of Maharashtra

Melghat's story is the familiar story of discrimination, cultural domination and ruthless exploitation of the original inhabitants. Melghat means ‘meeting of ghats' and that is just what the area is - a large tract of unending hills and ravines scarred by jagged cliffs and steep climbs. At the northern extreme of Amaravati district, on the border of Madhya Pradesh, lies Melghat in the South Western Satpura mountain ranges. Melghat area was declared Tiger Reserve in 1974. Up to 1970 it was legal to hunt tigers and export skins. During 1950 to1960 three thousand tigers lost their lives. Project Tiger was formed. Then wildlife lovers took the initiative and this area has been declared a Tiger Reserve in 1974. After hearing of the starvation deaths of children, one can say the tigers may be luckier than the tribal children.

Statistics on Children's deaths in Melghat region in Dharni and Chikhaldara Talukas
Year 0 to 1 yr. per 1000 0 to 6 years per 1000

Total deaths in the year

1994-95 73 30.56 894
1995-96 74 25.71 931
1996-97 77 31.52 1050
1998-99 63 18.94 706
1999-2000 40 12.16 519
2000-2001 37 11.84 500
2001-2002 38 12.37 500
2002-2003 36 12.10 491
2003-Mar-04 37 12.85 495
April to June 40 -- 86

After Melghat was declared a Tiger Reserve, villagers lost their rights over the forest. Today the reserve covers over 1,676.93 sq. km and includes the  Gugamal National Park and the Melghat sanctuary. There is a controversy about the Tiger Reserve project. Some argue that there is no co-relation between Tiger Project and recent deaths of tribal children. On the other hand few activists in the area feel that the tragedy began with the Tiger Project. Lack of continuous employment for Korkus, who constitute the bulk of the population in the two talukas is the major issue. Even so many years after independence, there are no jobs, no education, no agricultural development and not enough food to eat. There has been no effort to consider the tribals and their relationship with forests.

Disturbed by the continuing malnutrition related deaths of Korku children in the Melghat region, Sheela Barse, a well-known human rights activist, filled a petition in Nagpur High Court seeking information about and redressal for Korku communities reeling under the onslaught of hunger and illness. It was revealed that 1070 children had died in the year 1996 only among the Korkus. The total population of the food gatherer and agriculturist people in the Melghat region was estimated to be 1,13,000 according to 1991 census. Around 40 percent of the community are to be found in the Melghat Tiger Reserve. Sheela Barse confirmed that the deaths of infants had taken place outside the tiger reserve, and this fact was ratified by Mr. R.C. Sinha, who had been asked to investigate the malnutrition incidents by the Maharashtra Govt. This was because in Dharni and Chikhaladara where the forest have been degraded, urbanisation has replaced the forest way of life. However in the tiger reserve, Korkus and other forest dwellers were able to collect fruits and medicinal plants due to which they saved their children.

But, even from Tiger Reserve Zone, most women and men migrate for work. This did not however improve their condition. People continue to suffer due to the policy of both central and state Governments to wash their hands off any responsibility for social security, food, or health. These policies take their toll on the poor; the marginalised tribals may be the worst hit, but rural and even urban poor are not far behind.

— Mukta Mahohar

Starvation in West Bengal

A Fact-Finding Team comprising Comrades Sankar Mitra, Sajal Pal, Srikant Rana, Sailen Maity and Tarun Ganguli visited Amlasol village of Midnapur West District in West Bengal where five tribals had died of starvation. A report.

The remote village of Amlasol had hit headlines in the media, not as a model of LF govt.'s reforms, but as one of the most neglected villages. We found that most of the inhabitants of Banspahari Gram Panchayat (GP), where Amlasol is located, in Binpur-2 block of Midnapur West district, are scheduled tribes – mainly ‘Sabar' and ‘Lodha' tribes. The village consists of 85 families (400-500 of adult population) of which most are agricultural labourers. The alliance of Congress and Jharkhand Party won this GP for three consecutive terms, but this time the CPI(M) won.

There is no regular transport system to this village, so people have to walk far to reach a market, hospital or other facilities. There is one primary school, which is attended by very few students, since most children go to work. Among the youth population of the village, only 2 go to college, 2 others are in higher secondary and four in the secondary level. In the rainy season, the road to town disintegrates, and even patients die on the way to hospital.

Though the news of the death of five persons seemed a startling fact, in fact 20 people had earlier died of starvation in this region. Drinking water is scarce. Of the 3 wells which the Gram Panchayat had undertaken to dig, one has already been abandoned, another is far away from the village and the remaining one, that was in the house of Somai Sabar, has stopped functioning. In addition there are 2 tube wells. How does the BDO claim that there is one water source for every 20 villagers in a village with 85 families?

The main sources of income of the rural poor in Amlasol, or for that matter in the whole Banspahari GP, are the traditional: weaving of ropes from Babui grass, picking Tendu leaves, and collecting dry wood from the forest. Government schemes of food for work or relief could never come to their rescue. Following a verdict of the Supreme Court, forest dwellers have been deprived of their traditional right over the forest. The DM restricted the collection of Tendu leaves and dry wood, robbing the tribals of their only sources of survival.

Ropes made from Babui grass sell at the rate of a mere Rs.5 per bundle. Collection of dry wood is the main profession of the people dwelling near to the forest, who sell it to an agent 18 km away. They also collect Tendu leaves, dry them and then separate the requisite type of leaves. Bundles of these leaves ( Chetai ) contain 2000 leaves each. On an average a workers earns Rs. 25 per day. Some agents buy green leaves as well, get them processed and then sell them to bidi-manufacturers or to Large-scale Multi-purpose Cooperative Societies (LAMPS). In three months of the rainy season a person earns Rs.1000. But this time the labourers of the Gram Panchayat demanded a raise in the leaf price and in retaliation the traders have stopped buying Tendu leaves.

So circumstances converged to close all doors of livelihood of these people. However, despite their distress there was no trace of the government relief or sponsored schemes: the Left Front government had promised to give 100 days' work to the rural poor during off-season. We found, and the BDO admitted, that no work had been done in the past 4 years under the Sampoorna Gramin Rojgar Yojana in this block. Only four persons in this village get relief under Annapoorna and Antyoday Yojana and there is no plan to expand it. In the whole Gram Panchayat, only 18 persons get relief. There is no plan of constructing roads under Pradhan Mantri Gram Swarojgar Yojana, nor has any work started under Employment Assurance Scheme. The BDO admitted the existence of excess land, but could not give any reason for the failure to distribute it. Correction of the BPL list had started in 2001, but till date no BPL card has been distributed here.

This apathy of the government towards the people who have been robbed of their traditional rights has resulted in malnutrition, food deficiency, illness and starvation, which over a period cause death.

Most heinous is the fact that the BDO and even CPI(M) cadres gave the logic that ‘it's no use trying to give relief to the tribals; they spend it all on liquor. Even their children are fed with wine'. Many scholars have researched the ‘Sabar' tribe, their alienation, distress and other problems. Writers like Mahashweta Devi have been trying to draw the government's attention to this problem. But the government has taken no effective initiative in this regard. The condition of ‘Lodha' people is similar. Administrative officials try to separate the tribal people from the general poor saying that ‘they are culturally backward', implying that the tribals are to blame for their condition, and also that the poor in general are tolerably better off. But in fact the condition of the rural poor, including the tribal people, is turning worse in West Midnapur , Bankura and Purulia districts. CM Buddhadev himself had to admit that Amlasol was no aberration, and that such conditions prevail in several villages of West Bengal .

Yet, despite the scarcity of funds to eradicate poverty, last year the State Government returned part of the fund allocated for rural development by the central government, only because no planning had been undertaken at the state level.

When in Orissa, poor people were forced to eat mango kernels, and BJP leaders claimed it was the ‘traditional diet of tribals', the CPI(M) and LF govt. cried itself hoarse. However, when asked about Amlasol, CPI(M) leaders said as long as there were rats and snakes, tribals could never starve. Like all other ruling parties, they trotted out every excuse from ‘alcoholism' to ‘disease' to avoid admitting ‘starvation'. What to say of such double standards?

-- Srikant Rana