In Marathwada, 370 farmers committed suicide in the last four months with crop failure and mounting debts being cited as principal reasons, taking farmer suicides in the drought-hit region to 1,450 in 16 months. Farmers in Latur district have also been found to be cursing their fate for picking the wrong crop pattern, which has yielded them “nothing but misery”.
The hard-hit seem to be sugarcane farmers, who find themselves in the midst of acres of wrecked cane crop, an unnerving sight.
Marathwada has seen 20-25 farmer suicides every week. In Latur district, 51 farmers have committed suicide in the past four months.
When an Indian Express team visited Chincholi village, around 20 km from Latur city, 60-year-old Harishchandra Sapkal was all alone in his nearly one-and-half acre farm. Donning the traditional Maharashtrian “dhoter” and “pheta,” Sapkal was trying to feed fodder to his handful of cows and buffaloes under the shade of a couple of trees. Even as the Indian Express lensman zoomed in his camera on the sugarcane crop, which had turned pale yellow and had slumped partially, Sapkal trudged his way to the farm in the blazing sun and quickly pointed to what he said was the biggest mistake of his life. “I thought sugarcane crop will yield me better returns than what I was sowing all these years…but it was my biggest mistake. I shouldn’t have taken to sugarcane crop at all.
I have lost all my investment,” said Sapkal as he broke down, wiping tears with his “pheta.”
“At times, I feel like committing suicide…But the thought of how my family will cope after me has made me change my mind,” he said.
Sapkal said he invested nearly Rs 4 lakh in the last three years in sugarcane crop, but did not get a single paisa as profit. “Thankfully, I did not take loan from banks, but used my savings besides borrowing only from close relatives.”
Sugarcane crop, said Sapkal, needs a “lot of water” but in the last two-three years, Latur has hardly had any rain. “Before sugarcane, I was sowing crops like soyabean and tur which did not require much water. For years, I was getting handsome return on my investment but I was struck by some madness, which made me turn to sugarcane crop,” he said.
Sapkal said he doesn’t have fodder for his cattle. “Two of my cows have died, several goats too have died. When I went to the cattle camp, I was turned away…I had no option but to feed fodder which I had stored for two years,” he said in a choked voice.
But what made him take up sugarcane crop? Every other farmers in the area, said Sapkal, were convinced by “some people” to go for sugarcane crop as the nearby sugar mill was paying better.
Sapkal is not alone to be caught in the wrong lane. According to the agriculture department, nearly 5,000 cane farmers have been affected in the last two years due to less than 50 per cent average annual rainfall in the district. Of the 5.56 lakh hectare land for kharif crop in Latur, sugarcane is sowed on 45,000 hectare land. “The yield has been less than 50 per cent this year… In 2013-14, it was little better, but in past two years, it has been worse,” said Gurunath Thonte, agriculture office (technical dept).
Officials said it was wrong to blame sugarcane for the plight of farmers in Latur district. “Sugar factories have been in existence in Latur for more than 20 years. All these years, farmers turned to the crop as it gave good returns. Also, the main reason is, it requires less labour as sugar factories themselves harvest the crop,” officials said. Latur has 12 sugar factories, at least four belonging to the late Vilasrao Deshmukh family.
Irrigation experts too don’t agree with the view expressed by even likes of “water man” Rajendra Singh — that sugarcane has been responsible for plight of farmers not only Latur, but all over Marathwada. “It is wrong to say sugarcane crop has led to downfall of farmers… In fact, cane has over the years sustained farmers who got good returns on investment. It is only in the last two-three years due to failure of monsoon that farmers have been hit badly,” said P N Todkar, a retired irrigation official. Todkar said every year, Latur receives 800 mm rainfall, but in past three years, it has been an average of 400 mm hitting farms adversely.
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