This year, as Hyderabad braved its worst summer in over a decade, the Telangana government crowed about ensuring a blackout-free season for the city’s software industry despite towering odds. The state minister for IT and Panchayat Raj, K T Rama Rao, led the celebratory chorus, while captains of the industry followed his lead.

At several forums, Ramesh Loganathan, president of the Hyderabad Software Exporters Association, emphasised the achievement. “After the creation of Telangana, the software industry had a huge concern – power supply in summer,” he said. “The government took an integrated view and ensured that the entire summer went off without a minute of power cut.”

In other parts of the state, the story was very different: there were no exultations in order for the farmers of Telangana, just despair. Debts were mounting, cotton prices were plumbing and, above all, there wasn’t enough electricity to run the motors to tap groundwater.

“The government is celebrating the summer without a power cut instead of realising the huge agrarian crisis it points to,” said Dr GV Ramanjaneyulu, director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, on a hot May evening. “Its consequences on farmers will be felt from the monsoon. We have no power problem because farmers have been forced to boycott the season.”

The prognostication came true soon enough in Hyderabad where the government couldn’t turn a blind eye. On September 9, B Limbaiah, a 45-year-old farmer from the district of Nizamabad, hanged himself from an electric pole at the lower Tank Bund Road, abutting the Hussainsagar lake, in the heart of the booming metro.

The government tried to dismiss the suicide as “emotional” – saying the farmer’s son was ill and Limbaiah didn’t have enough money for the treatment – but that convinced no-one.

Crisis hits home

Since the state’s creation in June 2014, the government claims, there have been 430 farmer suicides in Telangana, although the figure is vehemently contested by experts like Ramanjaneyulu. “We have had over 1,200 to 1,400 suicides,” he said. “And the crisis is massive. The government uses many methods to prolong the investigations to establish the cause and uses several mechanisms to portray suicides as being caused by other reasons.” 

As per the figures of the National Crime Records Bureau, 898 farmers took their lives in Telangana in 2014 – second only to Maharashtra.

A Saye Sekhar, a political analyst and an expert on the agrarian crisis, says that while the issue of suicide is indeed complex, and the trigger emotional, the root cause remains the increasing non-viability of agriculture. “No farmer has a strategic plan to commit suicide or a long-term intent,” he explained. “Limbaiah tried to fall under a car but a traffic policeman saved his life. Half an hour later, he hung himself. The trigger was emotional, but the crisis was financial.”

Less than a fortnight after Limbaiah’s death, on September 20, Hyderabad was rocked again as a 58-year-old cotton farmer, Jaggolla Mallesham, hailing from Medak, hanged himself from a tree in Begumpet. As per news reports, he quit farming unable to repay loans and took a job as a security guard in the city. But the humiliations and threats from old creditors caught up with him.

The intense proximity of the suicides pushed Hyderabad’s citizens to take to streets.

Seetha Anand Vaidyam, founder trustee of the non-profit Ananda Foundation, which works with children with learning difficulties, organised a candlelight vigil the day after Limbaiah killed himself. “It can no longer be a rural cause or a farmer protest,” said Vaidyam. “The media played it up because the suicide happened in the city, in broad daylight, as no-one was moved to step in. It is a busy road in the heart of the city. We, who have a voice, must make it our protest.”

The government, under pressure from the media, citizens, farmers and a vociferous opposition, announced a four-fold hike in the ex gratia paid to farmers’ families to Rs 6 lakh from Rs 1.5 lakh. But far from cheer, it brought criticism. “Cartoons lampooning the move hit the social media,” said Sekhar. “Now the government is trying to backdate from when the scheme will be applicable.”

Failed election promises

Most experts say the problem has slipped beyond the will of any government to solve. Bhaskar Chalasani, an agribusiness entrepreneur, explained it this way:
“Let us imagine the productivity of a Google or Infosys techie without a computer, electricity or internet. How much can they produce? Imagine a farmer’s context of productivity. Landholdings are too small. Water depends on rainfall, which often fails. Seeds are never available on time or too expensive. Fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation – all variables. Electricity supply – unreliable. Input costs of production, including labour, have risen steeply over a decade.

“The farmers get loans at high interest from private moneylenders because often banks don’t give loans. When the crops don’t fail, perishables often get low price, and minimum support price is not sufficient. When the crops fail – which is not rare – they are bankrupt without any support. Imagine you were working in a job which might or might not pay you a salary after six months... Only in India do you have a phenomenon where business magnates who don’t repay banks loans to the tune of millions of dollars are fine, but farmers have to kill themselves for being unable to repay loans of Rs 40,000.”

Poor rainfall, depleting land fertility, dependence on chemicals and fertilisers, all these factors have taken a toll on the farmer. The media attention on farmer suicides is also creating “hysteria”, perhaps fuelling the perception that it is alright to take your own life.

Broken promise

The crisis was worsened by the promise of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi during the assembly elections to waive off farm loans in its elections manifesto, matching the promise of the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh. This prompted most farmers to not repay their loans in anticipation of a debt waiver. But after coming to power, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi government reduced the scheme to loans up to a maximum of Rs 1 lakh per farmer and restricted the scheme to bank loans only.

“How many farmers get loans from banks?” asked Ramanjaneyulu. “Despite a burden on exchequer of Rs 17,000 crore, it [the scheme] still benefited less than 10% of the farmers.”

Sekhar added: “It would have been better if the government had shifted all private loans to banks, and, instead of waving the loans, reduced the interest to zero.”

On September 29, the political opposition in Telangana assembly pushed the government to suspend question hour and hold a day-long debate on the agrarian crisis. The same day, Samaiah, a debt-trapped farmer from Warangal, climbed a cell phone tower in front of the Assembly, threatening to jump down.

“Farmers are beginning to understand that a suicide in our metro is worth a hundred deaths in their villages,” said Vaidyam. “They have sensed how our government and people are – and in their last act, they want to be heard. Each farmer hopes he will be the last to die like this. But alas, we know that the farmer who kills himself today is just the latest, not the last.”