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Mounting Sucides: Urgent Need
To Save Wayanad Farmers

By P Krishnaprasad

19 July, 2004
People's Democracy

In the recent years, Wayanad, a tiny hill district in Kerala famous for its spices and coffee plantations, has been in the news for the widespread suicides by distressed farmers - a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly commonplace in rural India as a result of implementation of free market economic policies.

During the last three years, from May 2001 to June 2004, 94 farmers committed suicide in Wayanad, 24 of them in the last six months alone, trapped in a vicious cycle of mounting loan liabilities. This fact brings to the fore the magnitude of the economic collapse that prevails in the district, which is no less serious and meriting attention than that of the state of Andhra Pradesh, where, for instance, 51 people committed suicide in one of its worst affected district, Kurnool, in the last six years as compared to the 94 in Wayanad in the last three years alone.

The farmer's suicides are not limited to Wayanad alone. According to a recent study, 871 farmers have committed suicide in the entire state of Kerala from May 2001 to December 2003. The paddy cultivators of Palghat and Alleppy are facing a very miserable economic crisis.

The last few years have witnessed a steady crash in the prices of the main agricultural produces of the district. The persistent droughts in the last three years have only added to the misery of the farmers. The gravity of the situation is evident from the fact that the entire district was declared as drought affected by the central government in 2003 and two villages were brought under the Annavari Relief Project that mandates the government to make compulsory distribution of all essentials, including water and food, for the sustenance of the people.


This tiny district located in the high ranges of Kerala has a population of about 7 lakh, of which 90 per cent depend upon agriculture for sustenance. There are 40,129 farmers, 74,813 agricultural labourers, and 17,413 plantation labourers in the district. Another 37,267 people earn their livelihood from animal husbandry and forest produce. (Source: District Project - Draft Document, Wayanad, 2001, Govt. of Kerala). The district has highest tribal population - about 1.25 lakh -constituting 17 per cent of the total population. The major crops grown here are coffee, pepper, tea, cardamom, arecanut, etc. These are perennial cash crops.

Unrestrained imports and changes in tariff regimes brought in by the liberal economic reforms have led to a drastic drop in agricultural prices over the last few years. The crops grown by Wayanad farmers have been the worst hit. The peasants are finding it difficult to recover even the production expenses. The price of pepper per quintal has come down from Rs 27,000 in 1998 to Rs 6,500 in 2002 and that of coffee beans from Rs 11,000 in 1997 to Rs 2,200 in 2001. The changes in the price of raw coffee and pepper during the period 1998-2003 are as follows.

Year Raw coffee Pepper
Rs/kilo Rs/kilo

1998-99 67.00 210.00
1999-00 40.00 220.00
2000-01 21.00 110.00
2001-02 18.00 65.00
2002-03 16.00 70.00

Taking the 1999 market rate as the base, the coffee and pepper cultivators of Wayanad alone are suffering a loss of Rs 639 crore per year (Rs 224 crore loss from coffee and Rs 415 crore loss from pepper). The losses due to falling prices of tea, cardamom, and arecanut, etc. are in addition to this.

Apart from this price crash, the severe fall in production due to persisting drought conditions over the last four years and frequent disease outbreaks were other factors which led to severe loss of income for farmers of Wayanad. This has forced them into vicious debt traps and the consequent suicides. It is to be noted that being perennial crops, coffee and pepper need to be replanted once they are damaged and they may take up to 4 or 6 years to start yielding.

In such a situation the attitude of the public financial institutions towards the farming community has been inhuman. These institutions that had extracted 15.5 to 17.5 per cent interest on the loans of farmers during the 1993-2002 period are not taking any steps to help the farming community, which is currently facing severe economic crisis. Instead, the banks are proceeding to confiscate the land and homes of the farmers, thus forcing them to seek escape in death. In 1992, at an all India level, the banks have disbursed 68 per cent i.e., Rs 17,835 crore out of Rs 26,211 crore they received from farmers as deposits. But in 2002, only 44 per cent i.e., Rs 47,430 crore out of Rs 1,08,253 crore deposits has been distributed to farmers. In Wayanad district the existing overdue amount as on March 31, 2004 is Rs 133 crore. The loan disbursed in the agricultural sector in the current financial year is Rs 430 crore. This is a glaring example of the anti-farmer policy pursued by the public financial institutions in our country at the behest of the then NDA government. In comparison, the loan liabilities of big industrialists and business houses - to the tune of a whopping Rs 1,40,000 crore - have been listed as non-performing assets (NPAs) and virtually been written off by the same public financial institutions.

As the public finance institutions are hesitant to provide loans, the farmers are becoming easy prey to ruthless private financial establishments or rapacious moneylenders. The majority of those farmers who had committed suicide in Wayanad had taken loans from these sources. While these private moneylenders, who extract an interest between 50 and 550 per cent on their loans, blatantly plunder the farmers, the government just acts as a mute spectator and does not take any legal action against them. Under these oppressing circumstances, all the farmers' organisations in the district are carrying on with an agitation demanding that all debts of the farmers be written off.


All sections of the people, including agricultural labourers, traders, workers in the service sector etc., have become victims of the crisis in the agricultural sector. Families of agricultural labourers who have no work and wages are facing starvation. Thousands of people are migrating to neighbouring districts and states in search of livelihood. The welfare schemes for the poor are not being implemented properly.

The plantation sector is also facing a serious crisis. Dozens of big and medium estates are currently under either formal lockout or illegal shutdown. The government is not taking any initiative to intervene or force the management to reopen such estates.

According to the Kerala Tribal Land Distribution Act of 1999, one acre of land must be given to each landless adivasi family, but the state government is showing least interest in fulfilling this responsibility. Wayanad district has the biggest adivasi population in the state and all adivasi organisations are on agitation demanding distribution of land. About 3,000 tribal families are continuing with their agitation by occupying nearly 5,000 acres of government land for the last one and half years under the aegis of Adivasi Kshema Samithi in Wayanad.

Till not very long ago, Wayanad had plenty of water. But today the entire region is facing drought due to unchecked deforestation and large-scale conversion of paddy fields into plantations. In 1982, there were 30,000 hectares of paddy fields in Wayanad. It has shrunk by more than 76 per cent to 7,000 hectares in 1999. The ecosystem and environment of the district, which is famous for its biodiversity, is greatly endangered today. The last few years have seen severe droughts, hitherto unforeseen in the history of Wayanad, with even wild animals dying for want of drinking water. If the government does not give top priority to afforestation and protecting paddy fields, the ecosystem and environment of Wayanad will perish.


Wayanad also makes its own contribution to the economy of the nation. It is one of the few districts in the country that produces the largest quantity of coffee. Eighty per cent of coffee produced in Kerala is from Wayanad. During the last 10 years, Wayanad has earned the country foreign exchange worth Rs 4192.48 crore through the export of coffee alone: an average of Rs 381 crore per year. The foreign exchange earnings through pepper, tea, cardamom, etc. were in addition to this. It is to be highlighted here that as a district that produces mainly cash crops and earns a good share of foreign exchange to the national exchequer, the state and central governments have a special responsibility to protect the agro ecosystem and economy of Wayanad. In the absence of such assistance, the farming community will continue to suffer the unbearable burden of the present economic crisis, resulting in many more suicide deaths. That is why the CPI(M) and the All India Kisan Sabha are demanding the central government to come out with a special package for Wayanad farmers by realising the severity of the prevailing situation.

It is the state government's responsibility to give special emphasis to promote industries based on the agro produces in the district in the public and co-operative sectors in order to ensure that farmers get better price for their produce and people get consumer goods at reasonable prices. Though the prices of agro produces have fallen, the multinational companies and the big Indian companies manufacturing consumer goods using these produces have not reduced prices. For instance, the price of coffee has come down from Rs 110 to Rs 22 per kilo; yet the price of 'Nescafé' coffee has remained at Rs 900 per kilo! Obviously, neither the cultivators nor the consumers are getting any benefits from the free market policy of economic reforms. This sort of rigorous exploitation by the imperialist and domestic monopoly capitalist forces has arrested the development of productive forces in our country, especially in the vast rural areas.

The people of Waynad are on the path of struggle against the miserable conditions they are facing. They have no option but to agitate against the policy of neo liberal economic reforms that devastate the agricultural sector. But, surely, Wayanad will not be alone. The entire rural India is confronting a similar situation and the farming community will have to spearhead a vibrant and massive agitation under the leadership of progressive peasant movement to remedy the situation.