THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India - Five years ago, Pulparambil Varghese began
cultivating ginger on 1.4 acres - or a half hectare - of land he owned in
Thrikkeppatta village near Kalpetta town in Wayanad district of the southern
Indian state of Kerala. Over the years, he borrowed 300,000 rupees (US$5,700)
from banks and private financial institutions.
Unable to make the holding pay, or to repay the loans, 48-year-old Varghese
committed suicide. His was one of six farmer suicides in the district Wayanad
since the beginning of this year. The return of acute agrarian distress has
claimed the lives of 13 farmers in the state in November alone due to financial
problems, according to data collected by farmersí organizations.
The high suicide rate is all the more worrying because it has
occurred in a state that tops the national human development index for
achieving the highest literacy rate, for having good quality health services,
and for the consumption expenditure of people.
Agriculture was badly affected in Kerala in the period 2000-2007. Unofficial
figures put the number of farmer suicides in the state at 11,516 between 1997
and 2005. Other figures quoted by some experts put the number of farmer
suicides around 1,800 between 2000 and 2007. The agriculture sector overall in
India is doing poorly, with several states reporting suicides by indebted
farmers in the past 15 years or so.
K Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai, in a study
report titled "Farmers' Suicide in India: Magnitudes, Trends and Spatial
Patterns", stated: "In the 10-year period between 1997 and 2006, as many as
166,304 farmers committed suicide in India. If we consider the 12-year period
from 1995 to 2006, the figure is close to 200,000."
Almost 90% of the farmer suicides in Kerala between 2000-2007 were reported
from Wayanad district, which is particularly susceptible because a large number
of people here depend on agriculture for a living. One major reason for the
high farmer suicide rate is the crash in prices of locally grown crops such as
coffee, pepper, ginger, and areca nut, and diseases that killed off the crop.
The state government has now partially admitted that the farming community in
Wayanad is in distress. A high-level official team headed by additional chief
secretary K Jayakumar, which inquired into the rising number of farmer
suicides, has said that the agrarian crisis is severe.
Analyzing the return of agrarian distress in Kerala, Dr S Mohanakumar,
associate professor at the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur,
Rajasthan, and researcher in agrarian distress, told Inter Press Service (IPS)
that there was a huge gap between income earned from agriculture and the input
costs incurred by farmers.
"Low income from products, rising price of fertilizers and high interest rates
are suffocating farmers. There is no alternative, and so they take the extreme
step," Dr Mohanakumar said.
Dubai-based accountant Ramesh Ramachandran, who recently abandoned ginger
cultivation in Pulppaly in Wayanad district, said there had been a major shift
in farm crops from coffee and pepper to ginger and banana in the past 10 years
following depreciation in the market price of the first two crops. However,
today, ginger too is not profitable because of its decreasing market value.
On November 16, the chief minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, announced in the
wake of increased farmer suicides a one-year moratorium on repayment of loans
taken by farmers from government agencies. He said the government would also
examine the role and interest structure of credit agencies lending money to
The difficulty in getting credit is one the main reasons for agrarian distress.
Banks are not willing to extend credit to farmers, and methods of loan recovery
by banking and non-banking institutions have come in for considerable
criticism. Adding to the problem is the sharp fall in the price of agriculture
produce. Government agencies that are unable to procure agriculture produce at
a remunerative price for farmers.
Satyan Mokeri, state general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha of the
Communist Party of India, has demanded that three measures be put in place:
monetary relief for the families of the farmers who had committed suicide,
extension of debt-relief measures, and grant of low-interest loans to poor
He says the agrarian crisis had intensified in Wayanad and other districts
owing to a drop in the prices of two main crops, ginger and banana.
C K Saseendran, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, said financial
institutions, including cooperative banks and scheduled commercial banks, are
unsympathetic to the needs of farmers and are not providing loans. As a result,
"farmers are forced to take loans from private financial institutions at a
higher rate of interest."
When the central government announced the "Vidharbha package" for the
development of suicide-prone districts across the country (named after the
Vidharbha region in the western state of Maharashtra, which saw record farmers
suicides), the Kerala government requested the central government to include
Idukki, Palakkadu and Wayanad districts in the relief list. It also sought
approval of a separate package for the Kuttanad region, which has been facing a
severe agricultural crisis for the last five decades and which is unique among
rice ecologies of the world.
Farmersí forums have found fault with the Kerala package. They blame the
re-emergence of agrarian distress in the state on the governmentís laxity in
implementing welfare measures.
V T Pradeep Kumar, chairman of Haritha Sena, an independent organization of
farmers in Wayanad, told media at Kalpetta that "if the project was properly
carried out, the financial problems of farmers could have been solved to a
Bureaucratic inefficiency prevents most welfare programmes, including
"packages" announced from time to time by state and central governments for
farmers, from having the desired effect. Former Kerala agricultural director R
Heli told IPS that the delay in implementing the US$330 million Kuttanad
package, approved in 2008 and prepared by the renowned agriculture scientist M
S Swaminathan, was due to unnecessary quarrels and a tug-of-war between
"Chennai-based M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, entrusted to study the
problems faced in Kuttanad, had submitted remedial measures to the central
government in 2007, identifying 15 tasks covering about 50 different activities
to mitigate agrarian distress in Kuttanad," he said. "But lack of willpower and
inefficiency of administrators delayed the package in full scale."