Cotton, the killing fields in Telangana’s hinterland

Lakshmi and her daughter Renuka with the portrait of Rajaiah who committed suicide in February this year. (DH PHOTO/ E T B Sivapriyan)

Sitting inside her modest house in Vavillala village in Jamikunta mandal in Karimnagar district of Telangana, Rajeswari cannot take her eyes off the photo of her husband G Sarangapani, a tenant farmer who cultivated cotton and maze for five years in six acres of land that he took on lease.

On November 21, the 49-year-old man committed suicide by consuming pesticide after suffering losses to the tune of Rs 5 lakh due to failed crop. His wife, and daughter, 20-year-old Manasa, stare at an uncertain future with the young girl being forced to discontinue from MBA due to lack of financial support.

Being landless, Sarangapani took six acres of farm land on lease from the landowner at Rs 10,000 per acre a year. “The cotton crop withered for the past four years and even the maze crop that he took up failed this season. Since the debts increased to Rs 5 lakh and the lenders were exerting pressure to pay back, he took the drastic step,” Rajeswari said with teary eyes.

Telangana, India’s youngest state, has stood no. 2 in farmer suicides in the past four years with nearly 4,000 peasants reportedly ending their lives. Majority of the farmers who committed suicide are tenant farmers — who are kept out of the government schemes that provide incentives and insurance covers to peasants.

Suicide is prevalent among farmers who cultivate cotton — experts attribute a slew of reasons, including lack of advice from the government for crop failure.

Even the Rs 4,000 assistance that the government provides farmers every season for buying seeds and fertilisers, go to the landowners and not to these tenant farmers.

A study by Rythu Swarajya Vedika (RSV), an organisation working with farmers, says though only 20.1% of landholdings in Telangana are being cultivated by tenant farmers, their proportion in farmer suicides is remarkably higher at 75%.

“Why can’t the government help tenant farmers by giving us incentives. Since we don’t own land, I won't even get any compensation from the government nor will I receive any insurance,” Rajeswari said.

Farmers said the increase in cost of seeds, fertiliser and actual cost in production have added to their plight.

Agrarian issues have found resonance in the election campaign, but tenant farmers feel they are being ignored by the government since they don’t own land.

Miles away from Karimnagar, at a nondescript village in Haridaspalli in Vikarabad district, the story is the same. Lakshmi (40) lost her husband Rajaiah in February this year, a day after Shivarathri, as he committed suicide due to mounting debts to the tune of Rs 3 lakh.

Lakshmi is now working as a daily wage labourer and her son washing plates and cleaning tables at a restaurant in Vikarabad.

“We want the government to do something for the tenant farmers. We are the ones who go into the fields and cultivate crops though the land belongs to someone else. How fair is it for the government to provide subsidies to the landowner and not to the tenant farmer?” Lakshmi asked and pointed out that the government’s marriage assistance fund also did not reach her daughter Renuka. Rajaiah had taken 10 acres of land on lease at Rs 6,000 per acre.

Farmers and those working with them say the major reason for suicide is the inability to pay back the money – majority of the tenant farmers don’t get farm loan, but are forced to borrow money from private lenders who use unscrupulous methods to get their money back besides charging heavy interest.

Tenant farmers are agitated with the KCR government for it has failed to recognise them and pass on the benefits like incentives and insurance scheme to them.

For instance, Santhamma, who lost her husband Gobrinayak, and Prashanth, whose mother Samakka, committed suicide due to mounting debts at Keshavapalli Thanda village in Vikarabad and Huzurabad in Karimnagar.

Both were tenant farmers and due to their death, their families have come on to the streets. Agricultural scientist G V Ramanjaneyulu told DH that the government’s schemes like assistance programme and insurance haven’t benefited tenant farmers.

“Even the loan waiver scheme hasn’t worked because majority of the tenant farmers don’t get bank loans. The government should have helped the farmers with technology and advice on the crop that they should cultivate,” he said, adding that average income of a farmer in Telangana is 20% lower than the national average.

“But the average general income is much higher than the national average,” he said, stressing the need for bridging the urban-rural divide.

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Cotton, the killing fields in Telangana’s hinterland

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