In Kerala, losses due to last year's floods add to woes of farmers reeling under crashing prices and growing debt

In Kerala, losses due to last year's floods add to woes of farmers reeling under crashing prices and growing debt

In Kerala, losses due to last year's floods add to woes of farmers reeling under crashing prices and growing debt

Kerala: Farmer’s distress hits Idukki

Pratyush Deep and Priyamvada Rana


All hope died for Santhosh, 37, on January 2 of the new year. Weighed
down by the whopping debt of Rs 25 lakh, Santhosh, a banana farmer,
was found hanging from a tree near his house. The floods of July 2018
had destroyed half his land in this hill region, and rendered the
other half unproductive. The state provided no flood relief to farmers
like Santosh, who had been cultivating banana for over 15 years. And
when the bank threatened to foreclose not just on his mortgaged land
but also that of his sister, Santhosh decided to end his life.

Struggling to control her emotions, his wife Usha wonders how she is
to keep her family afloat. “I was aware that the debt burden was
enormous but I didn't expect him to leave us so tragically,” Usha said
fighting back her tears. “Moreover, my mother-in- law was hospitalised
and the treatment for my delivery was expensive which added to my
husband’s mental tension.”

The family’s pleas to the chief minister for assistance evoked no
response. A friend of the local MLA helped them out with Rs one lakh.
“We were using it for maintenance of the house,” said Usha.

Santhosh was not an exception. Six other farmers have committed
suicide since January for the same reason---unable to manage their
debts.

The hills of Idukki are mute witnesses to the worst agrarian crises
the farmers here have faced. While floods remain the major cause of
farmer distress, falling market price for their products, mainly cash
crops and spices, ineffective relief measures by the state government,
non-availability of flood relief funds and non-cooperation of public
sector banks have all contributed to farmer suicides.

Idukki was the worst affected district in last year’s floods. About
11,530 hectares of agricultural land was destroyed by landslides.
Farmers have not been able to till their land since then. Pointing to
the vast acres of barren land, Shajan, a middle-aged farmer from
Anavartti said, “landslides covered all the land with sludge.”

Asked about governments’ moratorium offer, Shajan said, “moratorium
will only reduce the interest rate, not the capital value of our
loans. So, it is not that beneficial for us. If the government really
wants to help the farmers, it needs to adjust the total loan amount”.

Cropping patterns, especially a shift from food crops to cash crops
and yield affect had enabled farms in Indukki to maintain a high
growth rate till 2017, according to various studies. The floods
reversed everything. Cultivators of food crops like banana, paddy and
tapioca suffered the most losses. For spice farmers, pepper price, for
instance, is down to Rs 300 per kg this year from Rs. 800 per kg
earlier. Which forces farmers to take bank loans at high interest to
cover their expenses.

“Harassment from bank officials further demoralises the farmer who
feels loss of self-respect among his family and social circle as he is
treated as a beggar, leading to suicide,” said P T John, a farmer
activist. “This was the 26th suicide (since when? SINCE FLOOD) which means on an
average there are four suicides a month. The situation is appalling!
The widows and their children left behind have to endure prolonged
suffering".

Like those of Raju K S (62), of Anavaratti, who on February 9
committed suicide by hanging himself from a cocoa tree in his farm. He
had debt of around Rs 10 lakh and took this drastic step after he was
served a notice from his bank, leaving behind a wife and two sons.
Wailing over his father’s death, Deburaj, Raju’s eldest son explained
how banks were not willing to give agriculture loans because of low
interest rates for such loans. Raju’s family had to take overdraft
facility instead.

Despite the Kerala government and State Level Bankers Committee
announcing a moratorium on farm loans in the flood hit areas, banks
are still sending loan recovery notices to farmers. But the moratorium
is for agriculture loans only which is not how the loans taken by
farmers like Raju and Santhosh are classified.

“But it is agriculture upon which repayment of the loans depend,”
argued Kohuthressiya Paulose, president of Idukki district Panchayat.
“The moratorium must be extended to cover other all categories of
loans.”

“It is the Banks who must be punished for violating a government
order,” added activist P T John. “But the government is taking action
against farmers activists”.

While this argument goes on, suicides continue to happen, with two
more farmers’ in the area, Surendran (76) and James (52) killing
themselves, by poison and hanging, on receiving bank notices.

The amounts the bank claims these farmers owe them are mind boggling.
Surendran apparently owed the bank Rs 13 lakh while James, who used to
cultivate pepper and had taken a loan of Rs 2.5 lakh was served a
notice for Rs 4.6 lakh with interest and penalty. The debt amount was
a huge Rs 17 lakh for Sreekumar (59) of Vathikuddy, a cultivator of
coco and pepper while it was Rs 12 lakh for Sahadevan (68) who
cultivated pepper, two other suicide victims.

As one visits remote villages like Vazhathoppu under a blazing sun and
over dusty and rugged terrain, the narrow road takes us to the home of
another dead farmer N M Johny. The two room, dingy and dark house
offers little hope to his 68-year-old wife (pl give her name MERRY) who
badly needs financial help to survive. “All our tapioca, ginger and
banana cultivation was lost due to the deluge and what was left was
destroyed by wild boars,” she said. “We do farming by taking land on
lease but this year we did not make any profit. Earlier we always paid
the instalment but this year we could not because of the losses.”
Johny’s wife did not seek any government help despite her destitute
state.

Farmers like Johny and his family are left in the lurch because of
faulty government policies and the banks’ insensitivity to their
plight. Officers of the agriculture department admit that banks are
violating the government moratorium order. “Technically they can't
send recovery notices during moratorium period," said one official on
condition of anonymity. “Another problem is farmers use this money for
non-agricultural purposes. So suicides are not only because of
agricultural distress”.

With elections due in a few weeks, all parties realise that farmers
distress will be a big issue and are busy positioning themselves as
the farmers' friend and criticising the ruling left front government.
They all realise that the among the first decisions announced by all
three newly elected Congress governments of Madhya Pradesh,
Chattisgarh, and Rajasthan were loan waivers. Kerala's opposition
parties, not surprisingly, are championing a similar policy for the
state.

“This is the pathetic condition in Kerala under LDF government,” said
Sreedharan Pillai, president Kerala state BJP. “The Central government
schemes on agriculture and other sectors are not reaching the needy
people due to the indifference and ignorance of the government”.

Congress Idukki district president, Ibrahimkutty Kallar challenged the
LDF government to write off the farmer’s loan by keeping aside 1000
crores for this. “There is no implementation of the moratorium on the
ground,” said Kallar. Condemning this act of land seizure by banks, he
demanded Rs 15 lakhs be given as compensation to the victim’s
families.

Now it is up to the ruling LDF government to take appropriate measures
to address this growing agrarian distress, if they want to remain a
fighting force in the state.

TRY TO ADD THE POINT OF FREE TRADE AGREEMENT.

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