Farmer suicides: Why have Odisha’s farms turned into killing fields for those who till them?https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/farmer-suicides-why-have-odishas-farms-turned-into-killing-fields-for-those-who-till-them/

Farmer suicides: Why have Odisha’s farms turned into killing fields for those who till them?

In a little over 2 months, nearly 50 farmers have committed suicide in the state. What lies behind their despair?

Farmer suicides, Odisha government, Naveen Patnaik, crop failure, farmer suicides relief package, Nation news, india news
Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik

When and how did the farmer suicides in Odisha begin? How many farmers have committed suicide so far?

Suicides by farmers is not new in Odisha. According to government records, between 1997 and 2008, 3,500-odd farmers killed themselves. In 2009, some 40 farmers in the western Odisha districts of Sambalpur and Bolangir committed suicide. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, five farmers killed themselves last year. This year, nearly 50 farmers have committed suicide since August-end. The most farmer suicides in a year took place in 1998, when 418 farmers killed themselves across the state.

So, why are farmers killing themselves?

The reason for farmer suicide have remained the same over the years: crop failure, indebtedness, the inability to continue farming due to illness, loss of prestige and self-esteem after being forced to work as labourers following the failure of crops, and domestic problems arising out of poverty. Farmers have been especially distressed this year after the kharif crop in at least 16 districts was severely impacted due to scanty rainfall in July and August. About 5.23 lakh hectares of cropped area has suffered damage to the extent of 33 per cent or more. As many as 123 of the state’s 314 blocks faced a drought-like situation due to poor rainfall, which was 14 per cent less than average this year. While domestic strife may be the reason for some suicides, the failure of crops due to drought, and growing indebtedness remain the main reason for farmer distress.

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Do farmers in any particular part seem extra vulnerable?

Suicides have been reported from across the state, but a large percentage has occurred in the western Odisha districts of Bargarh, Bolangir and Sambalpur. All three districts lack irrigation facilities — in Bolangir, just about 3 per cent of the land is irrigated. Most of those who have killed themselves were sharecroppers; a few were marginal farmers.

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Is the pattern of farm distress and suicides similar to that seen in Maharashtra or Andhra Pradesh?

Most farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra grew cash crops, and had huge loans to repay when they killed themselves. Odisha farmers hardly grow cash crops, and generally do not have large loan burdens on their heads. However, extortionate rates of interest charged by moneylenders is seen as one of the major reasons driving farmers to despair this year.

How has the state government reacted?

Earlier this month, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced a Rs 1,000 crore package for drought-affected farmers — at the rate of Rs 6,800 per hectare of land in rain-fed areas, and Rs 13,500 per hectare in areas under assured irrigation. But farmers won’t get this money until February next year, when crop cutting reports start coming in. Ditto for crop insurance money, which will take at least a year from the date of announcement of crop cutting reports. Agriculture Minister Pradip Maharathy has declared he understands the distress of farmers because he too is one. The opposition BJP and Congress have been quick to pounce upon the BJD; the BJP has started a helpline for distressed farmers.

As two more farmer suicides, one each in Bolangir and Nabrangpur, were reported on Wednesday, the state government asked all district superintendents of police to strictly implement the Odisha Money Lenders Act, 1939. No person in the state can carry on a moneylending business after November 22, 1975, without being registered under the Act. As per the Act, no person shall be employed by any moneylender for the purpose of demanding or recovering any loan due to him unless such person has a certificate authorising him to act as a debt collector. Home Secretary Asit Tripathy has said that the implementation of the Act would be reviewed by DIGs at the district level.

What is the current general state of agriculture in Odisha?

Of the state’s 4.2 crore people, more than 80 per cent are farmers. Of the 43.56 lakh operational landholdings, 86.15 per cent are marginal and small holdings (less than 2 acres). It is, therefore, not difficult to see why poverty continues to dominate agriculture. The state’s budgetary provisions for agriculture has grown from Rs 343.46 crore in 2005-06 to Rs 10,903.62 crore in 2015-16, with a separate agriculture Budget for the last three years, but the rate of growth of agriculture has been erratic. Farm growth was 12.3 per cent in 2012-13, followed by a negative growth rate of 18.12 per cent in 2013-14 due to cyclone Phailin and flash floods. According to National Sample Survey Organisation (70th Round), the average monthly income of a farmer family in Odisha was Rs 4,976, well below the national average of Rs 6,426. Natural calamities have been a recurrent feature — of the last 55 years of the state’s history, only 15 have been free of disasters. Regulated market cooperatives hardly work, and very few farmers get the minimum support price of paddy (Rs 1,410 per quintal), even though they spend about Rs 22,000 per acre for cultivating the crop.

What is the coverage of agri credit?

As agriculture becomes increasingly unremunerative, farmers’ access to credit is becoming more difficult. The growth of credit over the years has fallen below required levels, and credit offtake per hectare is much less than the national average. Cooperative banks have contributed a larger share of agriculture credit (around 70 per cent of the total) than commercial banks and regional rural banks. Moneylenders often charge interest at rates of up to 40 per cent. Both farmers whose suicide was reported on Wednesday had taken loans from moneylenders that they could not repay, according to the families. Because the Orissa Land Reforms Act, 1974 explicitly bans tenancy, sharecroppers don’t get any benefits announced for farmers.