In March, Shantabai Tajne, wife of a Yavatmal farmer who had committed suicide, met Maharashtra’s chief minister who promised her a borewell. In June, Tajne, who was reported to be hopelessly depressed and financially squeezed was herself driven to suicide despite being assured of better days ahead by the chief minister just three months ago.
Identifying the root cause behind the unabated suicides as loss of hope like in Tajne’s case, amid a worsening agrarian crises, the Maharashtra government is now attempting a new but personal approach to curb incidences of farmers suicides in Maharashtra.
As part of a pilot effort in Vidarbha’s Yavatmal and Marathwada’s Osmanabad, local farmers who have turned their lives around, women and children of suicide-stricken families, preachers, singers and street-play artists will go from door-to-door and street-to-street. They will also talk about the spirit of life and rekindling hope.
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Simultaneously, instead of reacting to suicides, the state government will adopt a more precautionary route with a two-layered structure – committees at the village level and the district level – in both Marathwada and Osmanabad.
The village level committees under the sarpanch will identify the most distressed families suffering due to crop loss and under a heavy burden of debt. The district-level committee under the district collector will supervise village-level committees and ensure benefits of government schemes such as those for food security, health, and education are directed to the distressed families based on their eligibility.
A senior official from the chief minister’s office said, “Yavatmal accounts for a large number of suicides among farmers. The situation in Osmanabad is not as bad, but for the pilot we wanted a representative sample from Osmanabad as well. We will observe the pilot for at least a year for it to show discernible results,
then take the most beneficial features of the attempt and scale them up to be implemented across the state.”
The village-level committees will comprise two farmers, four eminent persons from the village, an anganwadi worker, the talathi and so on, while the district-level committee will include the police superintendent, the Zilla Parishad chief executive, district agriculture officer, and medical officer, among others. The official added that the government has set aside Rs 28 crore each for Yavatmal and Osmanabad to address issues arising out of suicides by farmers.
According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, 2,568 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra in 2014 though activists say the number is much higher. Since last year, the agrarian crisis in Maharashtra has deepened with bouts of drought hitting the kharif crop, unseasonal rains destroying the rabi produce and delayed rainfall this year.
Other than counselling and ensuring targeted benefits of government schemes, the committees will be mandated to tackle several other factors that impact a farmer besides crop loss and debt. The village-level and district-level committees will have to organise de-addiction and stress management programmes.
Through street-plays, music and preachings, the committees will educate villagers about the benefits of mass marriage, rather than bear the cost and responsibility of getting their daughter married by themselves. For farmers lacking resources, the committees will have to gather aid from others in the village to help them in sowing.
The state government will grant a fund of Rs 1 lakh per village-level committee, mainly for helping out farmers in distress, while the district-level committee will operate with a budget of Rs 10 crore a year. The committee will also have to make efforts to rope in local organisations, trusts, charities and cooperatives to financially contribute as part of their corporate social responsibility.
Kishore Tiwari, leader of farmers’ advocacy group Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, said, “Hostile counselling alone will not work and distressed families should be assured of health, educational benefits, food security, special long-term loans for their daughters’ wedding. An integrated approach will help, but monitoring has to be stringent. If these ideas are not implemented and corrupt people in the community hog the aid, this will too end up like any other relief package of the government for farmers.”