A frightening scenario is unfolding in Telangana's Warangal district that has been infamous as the cotton farmer suicide capital of the country. At least 21 farmers have killed themselves in the last two weeks in the district, including four farmer suicides in Parvathagiri Mandal that never used to report farmer suicides.
When NDTV travelled to Warangal, about 145 km from Hyderabad, to find out what has gone wrong here, we were informed that farmers are unable to recover even 10 per cent of their investment. They are also not getting the Minimum Support Price (MSP) promised by the government, farmers said.
At Kothapeta village in Warangal, 30-year-old Sumalata can't believe her husband Rajender, a cotton farmer, is no more. How will she take care of their two children, she worries.
Sumalata says her husband was popular among the community. Everyone would seek his advice on what pesticides to use, when to water, and other farming tips, she said.
Rajender took six acres of land on lease to grow cotton. He spent nearly Rs 3 lakh including tenancy cost of Rs 8,000 per acre. He had to pledge Sumalata's mangalsutra as well as the little gold that the family had to buy pesticide.
On Monday, the 35-year-old farmer took nine quintals of cotton to the market yard. It sold for almost 1,000 rupees less per quintal than the minimum support price of Rs 4,320. He got less than Rs 30,000 in hand, which was not enough even to pay the workers he employed to pick cotton on his farm.
He had told Sumalata that he would go straight from the market yard to the school to pay the children's school fee. He was so proud of their eight-year-old son Dhanush, who is a bright student.
However, he came home with a bottle of pesticide and consumed it the same evening.
"Dhanush and his five-year-old brother Rohit were waiting for their father to bring them new books and uniform. Now who is going to indulge them?'' Sumalata asked.
Not far away, in Banjarapally village, 38-year-old Raju grew cotton, turmeric and maize on six acres. He could hardly get one quintal of cotton per acre instead of 10. The turmeric and maize were hit by pests.
Last week, he returned from the market yard and consumed pesticide after realising that he would not be able to pay back an outstanding loan of Rs 8 lakh. Questions like, 'how would he face debtors?', 'Who would give him a fresh loan for the next crop?' troubled him.
"We could not even repay the interest on the loan. Last year, he sold some land to repay the loan. We couldn't have sold more land this year,'' said Raju's wife Bhagya.
Last week, around 14,000 quintals of cotton landed each day at the Warangal market yard. The average rate per quintal was Rs 3,900 whereas the minimum support price is Rs 4,320 and the recommended price by the Swaminathan Commission is over Rs 6,900.
"In a year, we invest about Rs 1.5 lakh to grow cotton on five acres. Should we not get the minimum profit possible? However, we have been unable to recover the money that we have invested. Mounting loans and fear of the future force the farmers to commit suicide,'' said another farmer Yerra Raju.
"Unless the government gives a minimum support price of up to Rs 2,500 for paddy, Rs 6,000 -7,000 for cotton and Rs 10,000 for turmeric and chilli, we cannot survive," he added.
Last year, the Telangana government had advised farmers to switch to pulses, maize and chilli, but these crops did not fetch good returns, farmers said. Cotton sold at upwards of Rs 5,500 and this year there was a 30 per cent increase in the area under cotton but spurious seeds, unseasonal rains and pests destroyed the crop and their hope.
The Telangana government hasn't reacted to the deaths so far, but has asked the Centre to instruct the Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) to buy all cotton at MSP. Minister Harish Rao instructed collectors to ensure that cotton farmers sell their produce at MSP.
"We asked for more cotton purchase centres to be opened so that cotton can be directly purchased by CCI,'' Mr Rao said.
With a 50 per cent increase in area under cotton, nearly 49 per cent of total crop area in Telangana is under cotton and that has exacerbated the crisis.