This day last year, Jamuna Lal Patel, a 46-year-old paddy farmer in Durg, Chhattisgarh, was going about overseeing the preparations for the wedding of his only daughter. That day, a mail landed at his doorstep asking him to repay a loan he had taken from the bank.
Even before he had arranged his daughter's wedding, Lal knew he had a loan to repay and had started planning accordingly. But what shocked the farmer from Kanharpuri village in Durg district was the amount. He had taken a loan of Rs 166,000. The bank notice demanded Rs 278,000.
"After the maang patra (demand) came, he became very disturbed. He tried meeting the bank authorities, but they were of no help. On April 13, when I went to farm I found my brother in the fields, dead," Jamuna Lal's brother Pila Ram Patel recalls.
The groom's family cancelled the wedding. It would be close to a year before the girl got married to another person. The banking system doesn't stop for personal tragedies though. The bank started hounding Pila Ram. "I told them if it is a matter of 166,000 I would repay it the very same day. But I would never repay the inflated amount without a review," he said.
What irked Pila Ram was the manner in which the bank kept at him. "That was when I realised. If the banks are doing this to the family of a mid-level farmer -- and my brother was also the sarpanch of the village -- imagine what the poor and the powerless must be going through," he adds.
Yashwant Devangar's father Ram was one of those poor and powerless people Pila Ram is talking about. The farmer from Bhemtara had taken a loan of Rs 5,000. It was not from a bank, but a moneylender. The interest was so high that he had to sell his two acre plot of land for Rs 17,000 to repay the loan. But the moneylender wanted more. And one day, Yashwant saw his father hanging from a tree on the farm.
His mother took ill soon after and he had to take a loan of Rs 20,000 from the bank. But the treatment couldn't save his grieving mother. But where the moneylender differed from the bank was that he did not hound the family. He had gotten back more than Rs 80,000 on a loan of Rs 5,000.
Yashwant still has the bank loan he took for his mother's treatment to pay off. And the responsibility of providing for his three younger brothers and sister has fallen on him. Also, Yashwant doesn't own any land anymore.
Local officials say Durg is the number one district in the state when it comes to agriculture. But the district saw 206 farmers killing themselves in 2007. Among the district's problems are poor rainfall and insufficient irrigation facilities. That was why Jamuna Lal took taken the bank loan. "His borewell had failed and he had to spend a lot on redoing the set-up," says his brother Pila Ram.
What angers the farming community in the region is the state government's lack of interest in solving their problems. Ironically, the Chhattisgarh government is a pioneer in cheap rice schemes. For two years now, the government has been offering rice at Rs 3 for the poor and Rs 2 for the very poor. The Bharatiya Janata Party government rode back to power last December on the back of the promise to offer rice at Rs 1. This scheme would have come into effect on April 1, but for the imposition of the Election Commission's Model Code of Conduct for the elections.
"Let them give rice for even free. But they have to do something for the farmers who are producing the rice. They have to subsidise farm equipment for them," says a government official in Durg who did not want to be named for this report. Though he agreed that the situation is bad (7 blocks in the district have been declared drought-hit) the official denied that any farmers had committed suicide in Durg.
"The rate of farmer suicides in Durg is zero," claims District Collector Thakur Ram Singh.
Ever since the state was carved out of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh has topped the farmer suicide rate charts. According to figures issued by the National Crime Record Bureau, 1,600 farmers committed suicide in Chhattisgarh in 2007. "That is four farmers every day," says Subranshu Choudhary, an activist who runs the forum CGNet.
While there is at least a semblance to accept, if not fully address, the problem in states like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh where farmers commit suicide, the Chhattisgarh government claims the NCRB figures are flawed. "The NCRB gets the figures from the state police. So someone is lying here. Let the chief minister decide whether it is his government or his police," says Choudhary.
On the government's claim that even if farmers are committing suicide it could be due to reasons unrelated to farming distress, he says, "If there are 50 teachers in a place and 5 of them commit suicide, this argument holds. But this is like 7 out of 10 teachers committing suicide. In that case, isn't something wrong with the profession? Let them take any route to solve the problem. But first let them acknowledge that there is a problem."
The government apathy has led to anger among farmers. Though right now, they do not know how to express their anger, the frustration at being ignored by successive state governments is showing.
"They are giving rice at two rupees and soon it will be one rupee. I am warning them. If they don't anything about our plight, there won't be any rice to dole out. What will they do then?" asks Yashwant Devangar. "There will only be our blood left. Will they drink that?"
Image: Yashwant Devangar outside his home in Durg. Photograph: Krishnakumar P.