March 14, 2017 12:42:30 am
ON MARCH 3, a physically challenged tribal farmer, Siba Bhatra of Sanamasigaon village in Odisha’s Nabarangpur, had lunch at home just after noon and walked towards his paddy field about half a kilometre away. Siba’s wife Sanadi was away attending the marriage function of her nephew in another village, while his father Banamali was at home.
Around 3 pm, two neighbours saw Siba lying unconscious near a cashew tree next to his field with a 100-ml bottle of Lethal Super pesticide lying beside him. After undergoing treatment for four days, Siba, 47, a father of two sons and two daughters, died in the Nabarangpur district headquarter hospital on March 7.
With Siba’s wife and residents of the village claiming that he was stressed over his inability to provide for his family, the death has once again highlighted concerns over farmers’ suicides in one of India’s poorest districts.
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The death comes more than a year after five farmers committed suicide within a span of 30 days between October and November 2015 in this southern Odisha district. And, it follows two more deaths of farmers in Odisha this month, including one in Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s Ganjam district.
On Saturday, T Bulu Reddy of Chikarada village in the Golanthara block of Ganjam consumed poison after untimely rains destroyed his tomato and chilli crops, said officials. Reddy, who had taken a loan of Rs 1 lakh for farming and Rs 1.5 lakh for the treatment of his ill son, consumed poison on the night of March 10, they said.
Days earlier, another farmer Khainu Bagarti, 55, consumed poison in Kendapalli of Bargarh district in the west, after his crop of chilli, cauliflower and other vegetables failed due to lack of water, said his family. The government has directed the district collector to conduct a field investigation.
Nabarangpur is the focus of an ongoing assignment by The Indian Express, titled District Zero, in a zone ranked at the bottom rung of the development ladder based on several indicators, such as literacy and healthcare.
Nabarangpur tehsildar Akshay Khemundu acknowledged that Siba had taken loans worth over Rs 48,000 for his farming needs over the last four years, but cited an inquiry report prepared by local officials to argue that this may not have been the reason for the suspected suicide. And officials said that compared with 2015, when Nabarangpur suffered a drought, 2016 was a good year for farmers.
“He had taken a loan of Rs 35,000 in 2013 from the Sanamasigaon branch of Utkal Grameen Bank, of which he paid one instalment. Similarly, he took a loan of Rs 13,150 from LAMPCS (Large Scale Adivasi Multi-purpose Cooperative Societies) in 2014, but had not paid any instalment. He was never issued any notice either by the bank or the cooperative society,” said Khemundu.
There are also murmurs in Sanamasigaon about domestic discord in Siba’s home, which Sanadi denied. “He rarely spoke and never fought with me… But he used to drink a lot,” said Sanadi.
Nilambar Satpathy, managing director, LAMPCS, Nabarangpur, said Siba had taken a loan of Rs 13,150 in July 2014 for farming, including Rs 4,650 for fertiliser, at an annual interest rate of two per cent. “The same was to be repaid in one single instalment at the end of one year, failing which the interest rate would mount to 12 per cent. Bhatra had not paid any money till the end of July 2015,” said Satpathy.
The branch manager of the Utkal Grameen Bank did not respond to The Indian Express’s request for comment.
Sanadi said she did not know the details of her husband’s financial condition, except that he got Rs 3,600 as disability allowance every year. “But it was difficult for the family to earn even Rs 100 a day,” she said.
Though struck with polio, which had affected both his legs since childhood, Siba used to till his share of land with the help of neighbours.
Sanadi has an Antyodaya card through which the family gets 35 kg of rice at Re 1 a kg every month. “But it was barely enough for the family. My husband and I used to work as agricultural labourers or household workers in other’s homes or fields,” she said.
Sanadi said poverty forced their two sons Gopal, 15, and Dhanurjay, 8, to drop out of school while one daughter Urmila works as a help in a schoolteacher’s home in Berhampur town. Kaushalya, the second daughter, is the only one in the Bhatra household still in school and now studies in Class VII.
Officials said the government has given Rs 15,000 as ex-gratia assistance to the family from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund and District Red Cross fund. They also insisted that the death could not be attributed to crop failure, as there was no standing crop in his field.
But Siba’s death continues to haunt Sanamasigaon. “No one saw him buy the pesticide. There is no pesticide shop in our village. He must have bought it from Nabarangpur town,” said his neighbour Banamali Bhatra. “As his wife was away, I served him lunch. He had his food quietly and left,” said Siba’s sister-in-law Kusuma Bhatra.
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