All hope died for Santhosh, 37, on 2 January of the new year. Weighed down by a whopping debt of Rs 25 lakh, Santhosh, a banana farmer, was found hanging from a tree near his house. The floods of August 2018 had destroyed half his land in this hilly region and rendered the other half unproductive. The state hadn’t provided any flood relief to farmers like Santhosh, who had been cultivating banana plantations for over 15 years. And when the bank threatened to foreclose not just his mortgaged land but also that of his sister, Santhosh decided to end his life.
His wife Usha, struggling to control her emotions, wonders how she is to keep her family afloat. “I was aware that the debt burden was enormous, but I didn't expect him to leave us so tragically,” she said, fighting back her tears. “He was already stressed about my mother-in-law’s hospitalisation and the expenses incurred during my pregnancy. His morale was low." The family had written to the chief minister for assistance, and even met him once, but it evoked no response. A friend of the local MLA had helped them out with one lakh rupees. “We were using it for maintenance of the house,” said Usha.
Santhosh was not an exception. Six other farmers have committed suicide in Idukki since January, unable to manage their debts. While floods remain the major cause of farmer distress, the falling market prices for their products, mainly cash crops and spices, ineffective relief measures by the state government, non-availability of flood relief funds and non-cooperation of public sector banks have all contributed to the crisis.
New cropping patterns, especially a shift from food crops to cash crops and high yields had enabled farms in Idukki to maintain high growth rates until 2017, according to various studies. The floods were just the final blow to farmers who were already reeling under crashing prices. Cultivators of food crops like banana, paddy and tapioca suffered the most losses. Pepper prices, for instance, fell to Rs 300 per kilogram from the highs of Rs 800 per kilogram. This had forced spice farmers to take bank loans, often at high interests, to cover their expenses.
Observers note that the Centre is negotiating many multilateral agreements, especially with the ASEAN countries, that are turning out to be “pro-traders and anti-farmers”. For instance, due to the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISLFTA) signed in 2016-17, prices of various cash crops like tea and pepper came down, leading to market price depression. The domestic market crashed with the import of pepper from Vietnam, routed illegally through Sri Lanka. “The problem on the ground is that the farmers cannot wait for the price to rise. They have to look after their family and buy fertilisers and other important agricultural inputs. So, they are compelled to sell their products at whatever the price they get. Middlemen or traders enter the market at the time of harvest and depress the price, making sure that the real producers have no market power over their produce,” said Kurian Mathew, an economist from MG University, Kottayam. He further highlights how market equilibrium is disturbed due to these free trade agreements. “Usually, when supply decreases, prices go up. But in the case of rubber and other cash crops, you will see the production is decreasing, but the price is not increasing, due to imports which are a result of multilateral agreements.”
After the floods
The floods of August last year occurred in this backdrop. Idukki was one of the worst-affected districts during the floods. About 11,530 hectares of agricultural land were destroyed by landslides. Farmers have not been able to till their land since then. Pointing to the vast acres of barren land, Shajan, a middle-aged farmer from Anavartti said, “The landslides covered all the land with sludge.”
Despite the Kerala government and State Level Bankers Committee announcing a moratorium on farm loans in the flood-hit areas, banks are still sending loan recovery notices to farmers. “Harassment from bank officials further demoralises farmers, who feel a loss of self-respect among their family and social circles as they are treated as beggars. This can lead to suicides,” said PT John, a farmer activist. “This was the 26th suicide since the floods in Kerala, which means on an average, there are four suicides a month. The situation is appalling. The widows and their children left behind have to endure prolonged suffering."
The family of Raju KS (62) of Anavaratti faces such a situation. On 9 February, Raju committed suicide by hanging himself from a cocoa tree in his farm. He had a debt of around Rs 10 lakh and took this drastic step after he was served a notice from his bank, leaving behind a wife and two sons. Deburaj, Raju’s eldest son, explained how banks were not willing to give agriculture loans because of low interest rates for such loans. Raju’s family had to avail of an overdraft facility instead.
Besides, loans taken by farmers like Raju and Santhosh are not classified as agricultural loans, for which a moratorium was announced. “But it is agriculture on which repayment of the loans depends,” argued Kohuthressiya Paulose, president of Idukki district panchayat. “The moratorium must be extended to cover all other categories of loans,” he said.
It is no wonder that the moratorium didn’t quite assuage the worries of the farmers. Shajan said, “The moratorium will only reduce the interest rate, not the capital value of our loans. So, it is not that beneficial for us. If the government really wants to help the farmers, it needs to adjust the total loan amount.”
As we visit remote villages like Vazhathoppu under a blazing sun and over dusty and rugged terrain, the narrow road takes us to the home of another deceased farmer, NM Johny. The two-room, dingy and dark house offers little hope to his 68-year-old wife Merry, who badly needs financial help to survive. “All our tapioca, ginger and banana cultivation was lost due to the deluge, and what remained was destroyed by wild boars,” she said. “We do farming by taking land on lease but this year, we did not make any profit. Earlier, we always paid the installments, but this year, we could not because of the losses.” However, Merry did not seek any government help despite her destitute state.
Farmers like Merry and her family are left in the lurch because of faulty government policies and banks’ insensitivity to their plight. Officers of the agriculture department admit that banks are violating the government moratorium order. “Technically, they can't send recovery notices during the moratorium period," said an official on condition of anonymity. “Another problem is farmers use this money for non-agricultural purposes. So, suicides are not only because of agricultural distress.”
With elections due in a few weeks, all parties realise that farm distress will be a big issue and are busy positioning themselves as farmers' friends. They all realise that the among the first decisions announced by all three newly-elected Congress governments of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan were loan waivers. Kerala's Opposition parties, not surprisingly, are championing a similar policy for the state.
Congress Idukki district president, Ibrahimkutty Kallar challenged the LDF government to write off farmers' loans, and keep aside Rs 1,000 crores for this purpose. “There is no implementation of the moratorium on the ground,” said Kallar. Condemning acts of land seizure by banks, he demanded Rs 15 lakhs be given as compensation to the victims' families.
To give some context, the state government sanctioned a debt relief of Rs 190 crores before the floods. In the aftermath of these suicides, the LDF government in the first week of March announced the extension of all types of loans till the end of this year and Kerala State Debt Relief Commission has been asked to consider debt relief for Wayanad and Idukki farmers who had taken loans till August 2018.