On January 1, R Panneerselvam stepped out of his home thrice to check on his wasted paddy crop on his 3-acre land. The final time, a tired Pannerselvam flopped down on a chair and asked his eldest son to fetch him tea from a nearby stall. By the time his son returned, Panneerselvam had killed himself. In home after home in Tamil Nadu, the story of the 52-year-old from Nattirippu Keezhetheruvu, hardly 3 km from the native village of DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi in Thiruvarur district, keeps repeating — with south-west and north-east monsoons failing, farmers kept visiting their fields with hope, till that too dried up.
The Coordination Committee of the All Tamilnadu Farmers’ Association puts the total number of farmer suicides in the state since October at 254. In delta districts alone, around 80,000 acres of crops are estimated to have been lost. Last week, the government distributed Rs 3 lakh per family, for the deaths it has shortlisted officially as farmer deaths in Nagapattinam and Thanjavur districts.
P R Pandian, the president of the association, says the government figure for the two districts stands at just 58, and that even this money is yet to reach all farmers. “After major protests in December and January, the government also announced several packages, but compensations are yet to come to our bank accounts. They said it is being processed. Besides, only small farmers (who have up to 5 acres land) will get these financial benefits (Rs 5,465 per acre). The government has no plan to address farmers who have more than 5 acres.”
In Tamil Nadu’s farmer belt, most farmers own one to three acres of land, and invest around Rs 15,000 to 18,000 per acre during each season. Last week, the farmer distress reached Delhi, with a group of Tamil Nadu farmers starting a sit-in at Jantar Mantar.
Among those who killed themselves was 48-year-old farmer V Murugaiyyan, in Pirinjumulai in Nagapattinam district. He left behind a 40-year-old wife, Rani, a daughter, Nithya, who is in Class 12, and a disabled 11-year-old son, Hariharan. “He hanged himself with an old sari we used as a swing for Hariharan,” says Rani, breaking down.
Rani says Murugaiyyan had taken 3 acres of paddy field on lease, for a sum of Rs 80,000. “He borrowed Rs 1 lakh from a relative and a private financier. Crops withered in just 20 days (in early November 2016),” she says, after Harichandra canal, a waterway on the Cauvery, dried up. “If excess rain spoiled our crop last year, there was no rain at all this time.”
DMK leader M K Stalin visited Rani after Murugaiyyan’s suicide and gave Rs 1 lakh, part of it as cheque. She is among those to have received the financial assistance from the state government too, but while Rs 1.25 lakh of the Rs Rs 3 lakh went to Murugaiyyan’s first wife, estranged from him for 25 years, the rest was spent on paying back the money Murugaiyyan borrowed.
While private money lenders and alcoholism are both factors adding to the farmer distress, demonetisation has further hit them hard. The family of S Rathinavel, 64, near Neivilaku in Vedaranyam, says he collapsed and died about eight days after Diwali, which fell on October 30. Before the season started in October, he had borrowed money from a private money lender for cultivation on 1.5 acres of leased land.
“We had applied for a crop loan and it was sanctioned in the first week of November. He was to get around Rs 10,000 before November 10 from the cooperative society. But with the currency ban rolled out on November 8, the society stopped disbursing loans. Crops were already withered. We lost the money and him,” says his wife Muthulakshmi, 48.
Since Rathinavel’s death wasn’t a suicide, his family isn’t even entitled to the Rs 3 lakh government compensation.
V Subramanian, a CPM leader from Nagapattinam who is part of the farmer protests, asks why the government has made no effort to carry out desilting and dredging works in water canals. “Some 26 water channels including Vellayar, Kaduvayaar, Harichandra river and Veerashoshanar are among those still awaiting massive desilting works. Situation is such that land owners have become daily wage labourers. Reluctant banks too have worsened the crisis, extending no help to farmers.”
One of the first measures announced by the new Chief Minister, Edappadi K Palaniswami, who took over after a long period of uncertainty, was a Rs 2,247-crore package for drought-hit farmers, benefiting more than 32 lakh farmers who had suffered huge losses due to crop failure. A senior government secretary with the Agriculture Department said they were also working on a demand to write off crop loans taken by farmers.
S Janakarajan, a professor of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) who is doing a study on the distress in Cauvery delta, says the situation reflects the crisis in the agriculture sector.