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Freak hailstorms lead to surge in farmer suicides in Central India

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 20 Mar 2014 11:15 GMT
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The family of farmer Kamal Singh, who committed suicide in India's Central Madhya Pradesh state following the loss of his crops to an unusual hailstorm and rains, sits in their home. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Shuriah Niazi
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BHOPAL, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Heavy unseasonal rain and hail has caused hundreds of millions of dollars in crop damage across the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and led to a surge in suicides and other deaths of indebted farmers, state and police officials say.

State officials have suspended interest payments on loans as well as efforts to recover money from indebted farmers, and have demanded $810 million from India’s national government to help compensate farmers, as well as promising to provide relief food, they said.

“We are with farmers at this time of crisis. We are taking every possible measure to help them but it may take some time due to the magnitude of the affected area,” the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, told to reporters in Bhopal.

But families in what Madhya Pradesh officials say are 30,000 affected villages say the measures have come too late to stop at least 19 farmers in the state committing suicide or dying of heart attacks apparently due to shock since the severe weather destroyed crops across the state during the last week of February and first week of March.

Another seven farmers have attempted suicide, they said.

Kamal Vishwakarma, 48, of Kulhor village in Bhopal district, was one of those who committed suicide, on February 27, after his six acres of crops were destroyed by hail and rain, his family said.

Kamal had been carrying an agricultural debt of Rs 250,000 (around $4,000), taken out over two years, they said, noting that the family survived entirely on income from the fields.

“My father had taken a loan from local landlords and was planning to return the money after selling the produce. But unexpected hail completely destroyed our crop. He was shattered and had no option but to end his life,” Kamal’s son Haricharan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Another farmer, 21-year-old Sudesh Patel of Damoh district in central India, also tried to commit suicide by consuming poison after losing his crop. He was immediately rushed to a nearby hospital, then referred to Damoh district hospital. He was still undergoing treatment at the intensive care unit (ICU) in the district hospital, a local magistrate said.

Patel had worked on agricultural land as a sharecropper, and had taken a loan of Rs 300,000 (around $4,900) from moneylenders, said Damoh sub-divisional magistrate Manoj Singh Thakur.

In a statement to the magistrate, Patel said that the crop loss and loan repayment tension forced him to take such a step. The magistrate told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that a survey of Patel’s losses has been carried out and “we will soon start distribution of relief to the affected farmers.”

MOST OF STATE AFFECTED

The Madhya Pradesh state government says 30,000 villages in all the 51 districts have been affected by rain and hailstorms causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses among farmers. The state government has demanded an $810 million package from the national government to provide relief for loss of lives, crops, livestock and properties, and wants the hailstorms to be declared a national calamity.

The record off-season rainfall with hail, which the state received in almost all districts, left a trail of destruction. The state’s rabi-season crops, grown from mid-November to April, were affected on more than 113,320 hectares of land in the state.

In order to stop the rash of farmer suicides, the state government has announced that farm damages of over 50 percent to crops would be considered 100 percent losses when compensation is paid.

Loan recovery from farmers has been suspended and the state government said it would pay the interest on loans for the period of the suspension. The government also announced that affected farmers will be sold rice and wheat at Rs 1 (1.5 U.S. cents) per kilogram for the next eight months.

Rajesh Rajora, the state’s agricultural welfare and agriculture development secretary, said, “We have asked all the district officials to survey the condition of crops so that compensation could be handed over to the affected farmers. The hailstorm affected gram and wheat in parts of the state. This could be an impact of the El Nino effect. Last time, El Nino hit India’s monsoon in 2009 which led to drought.”

Farmers across the state, however, have been unhappy with the pace of relief efforts, and how their crop losses are being assessed. At Ramdasi village in Sehore district, angry residents tried to push a jeep of an official into a ditch, an employee of the state’s agriculture department said.

Farmers said they want officials to complete the survey work quickly so relief and compensation efforts can get underway.

“We have already suffered a lot. If we don’t get relief from the state government then we would have no choice but to end our life,” Mangesh Prasad, a farmer with nine affected acres of land, threatened. “The officials should assess crop losses at the earliest opportunity and pay the relief amount.”

The national government has sent a nine-member team to Madhya Pradesh to take stock of crop damage, the first step in deciding how much help they should extend to the state, according to the state agriculture department.

Shuriah Niazi is a journalist based in Central India with an interest in social issues. 

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