Grim Reaper: Farmer suicides shake the flood-ravaged district of Idukki
Without adequate revenue, flood-ravaged Idukki farmers are struggling to repay loans.
But he usually came back in a couple of hours,” recalls Ravi, at her home at Marygiri village near Kattappana in Idukki, Kerala. She heard that a body was found near some jackfruit trees not too far away. An unsuspecting Ravi first assumed it was one of the migrant labourers who worked in the area. Then an acquaintance broke the news that it was her only son. Ravi’s eyes fill up as she takes out his passport photo from a battered purple handbag.
The 37-year-old, who died by suicide on January 2, has left behind his mother, wife, five-year-old son and a crippling debt of over Rs 25 lakh. In the two months since his death, another six indebted farmers in the same Idukki district have died by suicide. While the number of farmer suicide deaths might seem smaller than in states like Maharashtra, these numbers in two months reveal a crisis, considering Kerala saw three farmer suicide deaths in all of 2015. The last time the state had seen a similar crisis was when 371 debt-ridden farmers, mainly in Wayanad district, took their lives between 2000 and 2005, following which the government set up the Kerala State Farmers’ Debt Relief Commission.
There are a number of reasons why this is now happening in Idukki, the hilly district in Kerala famous for scenic tourist spots like Munnar. An industrially backward region where farming is the mainstay, Idukki was one of the worst affected districts in the floods of August 2018. Over 11,000 hectares of farmland is estimated to have been ruined. With the top soil being washed away and soil composition itself changing, it has not been easy for the small and marginal farmers who make up the bulk of the farming population here.
Meanwhile, global prices of crops like pepper, among the major crops in the region, have dropped by nearly half. Complicating the situation is the lack of proper title deeds for many farmers, limiting their access to bank finance and nudging them towards private moneylenders. The limits on agricultural loans — for example, Rs 1.6 lakh for a collateral-free loan — have also led to them taking a variety of loans, including gold loans, from different sources.
The tipping point for many were the repayment notices sent by banks and financial institutions, despite a moratorium declared by the state government on farm and educational loans. Santhosh, for instance, had been under pressure to repay a loan that amounted to Rs 10 lakh, which he had taken from the local branch of the Kerala State Financial Enterprises, a public-sector, non-banking financial company (NBFC). His widow, Asha, says they continue to receive text messages about the loan repayment even today.
The case of Babu Joseph Shasheriyil, a farmer at Chembakappara village in Idukki, is illustrative of many others in the district.
He and his wife, Molly, grow pepper, nutmeg, cocoa, banana and other crops on one-and-a-half acres. They peg their debt at around Rs 18 lakh, including interest accumulated over the years. In January, they received two notices from the Idukki District Cooperative Bank to repay loans of Rs 2 lakh and Rs 70,000 that they had taken.
“We had planned to repay the loans with the revenue from the land, and meet our household expenses through our cattle.
But the floods ruined our crops and now there’s no revenue,” says Molly. “We got only Rs 8,000 as flood relief. It will take us three-four years to get back to where we were.” The lending institutions are unlikely to wait that long.
Responding to the crisis, the Left Democratic Front government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Tuesday announced that banks had been told to halt recovery proceedings, that the moratorium would include all loans taken by farmers (not just farm loans), and would be extended till December 31, 2019. Agriculture Minister V Sunil Kumar told ET Magazine that instructions have also been given to provide counselling at the panchayat level to all farmers who have received recovery notices.
“This will be completed by March 15,” he says.
With the Lok Sabha elections around the corner, the Opposition Congress has been quick to seize the issue. “This moratorium is an eyewash — it will just mean more debt for the farmers. We demand that the government waive all loans of farmers up to Rs 5 lakh and convene a special session of the Assembly to discuss the issue,” Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala told ET Magazine, in the midst of his day-long fast in Idukki in support of the farmers.
Sunil Kumar dismisses this as political posturing.
“We have also decided to bring commercial loans under the purview of the Debt Relief Commission, under which farmers will be entitled to relief of up to Rs 2 lakh. We are doing the best we can.” However, MJ Jacob, an agriculture expert and former member of the debt relief commission, is among those sceptical of the benefits of a moratorium. “Since there is no waiver on the interest, farmers’ debts will pile up. It should be waived by the banks or paid by the government,” he says. Additionally, the government should look at long-term financing for farmers at very low interest rates to help them return to farming, he suggests. If the crisis is not resolved urgently, he warns, the harsh summer already under way in Kerala would ruin whatever crops are left. And with it, the hopes of a community struggling to get back on its feet.
If you have suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately. Helpline numbers: Sneha India: 044-2464 0050/044-2464 0060
Connecting India: 1800-843-4353, 9922001122