Vijayawada, June 8: The clerk at the district sub-collector’s office here mans a telephone that rings every 30 minutes or so. At the other end of the line is invariably a distraught farmer, sometimes one who threatens to consume the pesticide endosulfan.
Black humour in Andhra’s countryside has it that there is so much spurious pesticide being sold that while it is not good enough to kill insects, it can surely take a farmer’s life.
In two weeks, farmers have committed suicide in Nalgonda and Nizamabad, in Krishna and in Anantapur, across Telengana, Rayalseema and coastal Andhra Pradesh. Some have consumed pesticide, some have hanged themselves and some have set themselves ablaze.
The question that is worrying the new regime is why there has been a spurt in suicides when it is making promises of change to farmers.
The answer probably lies in the time of the year — May and June are the months that are the driest, banks send loan recovery notices and moneylenders “tom-tom” the names of defaulters in the villages humiliating the farmers and their families. And all of this climaxes nine years of the Chandrababu Naidu regime that cut farm subsidies, saw costs of inputs go up even as monsoons failed year on year.
Since the Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy government took over in Hyderabad in mid-May, it has set up telephone helplines for farmers in every district headquarter and major town.
On average, says K. Prabhakara Reddy, district collector of Krishna, Andhra’s rice bowl, the office gets about 70 calls a day from farmers.
The week before last in Nalgonda, one more farmer carried out his threat, taking the toll in the district to six in eight days. Palreddy Laxma Reddy, 45, of Gorenkapally hanged himself in his shop. He was literate and unlike most suicides, he had penned a note. It was addressed to the chief minister, the MLA, . Narasimhaiah, and to the MP, Congress leader and Union information and broadcasting minister S. Jaipal Reddy. He urged them to take care of his family.
Last week, during the debate in the Assembly on the governor’s address, Telugu Desam MLA Rajeshwar Rao alleged that there have been 234 suicides by farmers and another 24 by weavers since May 12, or since about the time the government changed.
He insinuated that the Congress government has incited farmers to commit suicide.
Rajeshwar Rao was overstating the case but even the figures the administration accepts put the number of suicides at more than 100 in two weeks. Chief minister Reddy says that many of them are still being investigated but roughly 50 per cent appear to be straight cases.
Statistics on farmer suicides are somewhat questionable because each case cannot be verified. There is suspicion that some farmers may have taken their lives for causes not related to agriculture, like in the case of a man who took endosulfan because his wife had eloped.
The focus on farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh since the Naidu government was voted out has led to a debate — is the compensation package of Rs 1 to 1.5 lakh the administration has announced actually encouraging some of the desperate to commit suicide' Are there more suicides now than there were in the past'
There are two constants to the story of Andhra farmer suicides. First, they are not new, certainly not something that has developed over the last two weeks or even over the last two years. Second, they are not region specific — suicides are reported from Telengana, Rayalseema and coastal Andhra. There have been, and there continue to be suicides, in Warangal and Medak and Anantapur, in partly fertile Krishna and, even in East Godavari through which flows the massive river the district takes its name from.
“Normally, this should not be the case here,” says Prabhakara Reddy, the Krishna district collector. “We should be able to withstand one or two crop failures. But there is a sharp drop in the income level of farmers. I would say there have been seven or eight suicides in Krishna since the new government took over but we are probing.”
Suicides by farmers is a story old enough for powerpoint presentations to be made by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Pedireddy Chengala Reddy, who heads the Federation of Farmers’ Associations (a CII affiliate), has done just that.
“Mr (Chandrababu Naidu) had kept it (information on farmer suicides) under wraps. He had issued instructions to police officers and revenue officers not to give any news of farmers’ suicides,” he says.
The reason Rajasekhar Reddy, still in the first flush of election victory, has been pushed on the defensive is the way the media has now begun reporting on farmer suicides.
In Medak’s Gajwel mandal, where there have been cases of “hunger deaths”, reporters for local newspapers say they have been writing about the deaths all the time.
Says Virahat, who writes for Andhra Jyothi: “Earlier, we could catch only the district editions. Now stories of suicides make it to the front pages of the state editions.”
Nizamabad’s Machareddy block, where 55 suicides have taken place in five years, would not have been known about had it not been for an intrepid private medical practitioner and part-time reporter for Andhra Jyothi, Sriram.
Between September and October 2003, Sriram wrote accounts of 43 suicides.