Adilabad: One hot summer morning in Telangana’s Adilabad district, Muthi Shivanna, 38, sat in the centre of his cotton field in a village called Landasangvi.
In his hand was a bottle of pesticide.
A farmer for 20 years, Shivanna eventually called a helpline he had found through awareness programmes run by a nonprofit and told them he had been thinking about his crop losses and his debts.
He said he called the helpline when he found himself on the verge of taking what he described as “an extreme step”.
As a field coordinator from the team running the Kisan Mitra (literally translated as friend of the farmer) helpline in Adilabad rushed to his farm, a counsellor kept Shivanna on the phone for a tense hour.
The team saved Shivanna, who had been in distress because of a confluence of factors that often hit farmers. In Shivanna’s case, these were a Rs 900,000-loan, the damage to his cotton crop by a flood during the monsoon of 2022, and the money he had not received for land he had sold.
The southern state of Telangana, with the fourth-highest number of farmer suicides in India as per the Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI) 2019 report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), witnessed a spurt in farm suicides between 2017 and 2019, coinciding with extensive loss of crops due to drought-like conditions and heat waves.
The then collector of Vikarabad district, Divya Devarajan, started the Kisan Mitra helpline in collaboration with the Center for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) and farmers’ rights organisation Rythu Swarajya Vedika on Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birthday in 2017 to respond to farmers in distress.
Kisan Mitra not only became Telangana’s first helpline for farmers struggling with thoughts of self-harm, but also went the extra mile to reach out to callers in person, to help them with alternative income-generation means.
With help from the Kisan Mitra team, Shivanna received the payment he was due and a loan from a state corporation for the welfare of backward classes.
“From the moment we are informed about a call till the time we reach the farmer it’s a tense and anxiety-filled period,” said J Narsimhulu, the field agent for Vikarabad. “We worry a lot whether we can reach on time.”
Devarajan, posted currently as commissioner for women and child development, said farmers are often apprehensive about discussing their problems in a formal setting.
“The Kisan Mitra helpline is like a bridge between the farmers and the government,” Devarajan told Article 14, “where farmers can call from the comfort of their homes and tell us their problems.”
For Distressed Farmers: Trained Counsellors, Field Agents
Since its inception, the helpline’s centres have fielded 14,381 calls from farmers, of which 10,984 calls were marked as resolved complaints and closed. Complaints from 3,397 calls are in different phases of resolution.
In Telangana, the maximum number of calls received were from Adilabad district and in Andhra Pradesh the maximum number of calls were from Sri Satya Sai district, both regions witnessing crop damage related to climate change.
Now run by the Rural Development Service Society, a nonprofit, in collaboration with field organisations and state-level networks, the helpline is supported by AID (Association for India’s Development), a non-profit that supports families of farmers affected by suicides and natural disasters, and i4Farmers, a US-based non-profit.
The helpline operates in the two Telugu-speaking states of Telangana (Vikarabad, Adilabad, Mancherial, Nalgonda and Yadadri Bhuvanagiri districts) and Andhra Pradesh (Kadapa, Visakhapatnam, Satya Sai and Anantapur districts).
At each centre, trained counsellors talk to farmers calling the helpline while field outreach and research and advocacy teams address problems until a solution is found.
The field agents and Kisan Mitra team ensure to create awareness about government schemes, crop loans and subsidies to farmers and act as a bridge between the farmer and government stakeholders to offer a solution to the problems faced by farmers.
Thandra Mallappa, a farmer from Bandamidhipalli in Vikarabad, was struggling to get a land records passbook updated to show the transfer of ownership of his 1.8 acres of land to his name following the demise of his father.
Mallappa was frustrated and tired with mounting debts while his elder daughter suffered health complications from having a single kidney. His younger daughter is disabled. Contemplating taking his life, he called the Kisan Mitra helpline as a last resort.
The Vikarabad field agent immediately visited Mallappa and, after some counselling, was able to stop the 48-year-old sugarcane farmer from taking the extreme step. “I felt helpless with mounting debts and concern for my daughter’s health,” Mallappa told Article 14.
Kisan Mitra helped him get the passbook transferred to his name, and additionally helped him secure a loan using which he procured cows.
The Kisan Mitra team said they similarly helped many callers avail crop loans.
Until this help arrived, Mallappa felt there was no end to his woes. “I saw my whole life in a flash that day in 2017,” he said.
Climate Crisis Makes Farmers More Vulnerable
Scientists predict that a countrywide average temperature rise of 2.5 to 4.9 deg C could result in a decline in wheat yields by 41%-52% and in rice yields by 32%-40%. Global maize yields are also expected to decrease by 24% by 2030, due to climate change, an overall 30% decrease in crop yield is predicted in India, which will impact the lives of over 50 million farmers in India.
The National Innovations on Climate Resilient Agricultural (NICRA) was established by the union agriculture ministry in 2011 with the goal of understanding how climate change is affecting Indian agriculture and to develop measures for mitigation.
The monsoon in India has recently become erratic, with increasing precipitation unpredictability as well as extended dry periods followed by intense downpours. These impacts of climate change are expected to affect Indian agriculture and food production, and consequently more pressure on farm incomes.
There are worries about decreased outputs of summer-sown crops including cotton, corn and rice. Crop failures and pest infestation are both on the rise.
Doma Venkataiah, a farmer from the Doma cluster of villages in Vikarabad district, suffered crop damage for three straight years. “Heavy rains for three consecutive years made us suffer huge losses,” he said. They lost their entire crop during these years. “We even lost two oxen due to lightning strikes.”
According to a 2021 Telangana high court order, farmers were to be compensated by the state for loss of crop due to natural disasters.
“Every year lakhs of farmers are facing crop loss due to climate change and natural disasters, but they are not getting any compensation despite high court orders,” said Kiran Kumar Vissa, a social activist and the coordinator of Rythu Sawarajya Vedika. “As there is no crop insurance scheme, farmers are going into deep debt and are facing distress.”
The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, a national crop-insurance programme, has not been implemented in Telangana since 2019.
The Kisan Mitra teams organise awareness programmes on farm distress-related suicides and prevention of these suicides. They also distribute flyers about the work they do.
According to them, there is a delicate period of five to 10 minutes when a farmer contemplates taking his life.
“That is the time when a person needs moral support, a helping hand and the reassurance that everything will be alright, and the helpline is that helping hand,” said Sreeharsha Thanneru, the main coordinator of Kisan Mitra for all the districts.
‘Some Families Are Left With Nothing’
One early morning in 2017, Mudiraj Padmamma’s husband went to the fields to water his land and failed to return.
He had been accidentally electrocuted. Padmamma, a farmer from Narsapur village in Vikarabad, has been fighting a lone battle since then to earn and support her five daughters.
The Kisan Mitra team organised training for her in sewing and donated a sewing machine to supplement her income from the 1.5 acres of land she farms. Three of her daughters are now married.
“For any problem I face, I immediately call the helpline, and they guide me about what to do or arrange a meeting with higher officials,” said Padmamma, sitting in her single room, colourful and modest home.
Telangana implemented its first ever direct benefit scheme for farmers in 2018, called the Rythu Bandhu scheme, which helped farmers and saw a decline in farmer suicides. This scheme only benefited land owners, however, excluding tenant farmers who comprise 75% of the farmers who committed suicide in the state.
According to the Telangana Land Licensed Cultivators Act, 2011, every tenant farmer must be given an ID card and is eligible for crop loans and compensation for crop losses, a provision that is widely ignored.
Kisan Mitra took up the issue with the district administration and was able to disburse 6,000 loan eligibility cards apart from arranging loans for 1,000 farmers.
Kota Neelima, PhD, an agricultural activist, said proper data on farmers and tenant farmers is critical.
“When a tenant farmer kills himself due to distress, the land is not in his name, and his death is not even considered a farmer suicide,” said Neelima. “This leaves his struggling family left with nothing.”
Troubled with increasing debts and crop loss, Santosh Akula, from Marlapally village, Adilabad district, tried to end his life by consuming poison in 2018, but was saved after receiving treatment at the right time.
Akula had two daughters and three sisters and a loan of Rs 380,000. The two plots of land he cultivated were not in his name, while a small dairy he ran suffered losses.
The Kisan Mitra team arranged a meeting for him with the collector and helped get the land registered to his name. “It was confusing and depressing for me, all I thought was that suicide would end all my problems,” said Santosh.
Distress Among Farmers: Floods, Debt, Birth Of A Girl
The team of Kisan Mitra organises meetings of all families within a district who were affected by farmer suicides, to assess the reasons and circumstances.
Tribal farmers were increasingly committing suicides in Adilabad, they found. The main trigger for considering suicide was loss of crop due to floods, debt, the birth of a girl child and inability to provide healthcare for family members. These surveys helped the team address the cause of distress, particularly through assistance in identifying alternative means of livelihood.
Vadde Ramulamma from Yenkepalle village in Vikarabad district called the helpline seeking help with the Rythu Bandhu payout (an incentive of Rs 5,000 per acre from the state government to support two crops in a year). Money due to her had been incorrectly transferred to another person’s account. The field coordinator intervened and coordinated with the bank, resulting in a sum of Rs 95,000 being transferred to Ramulamma’s account.
Similarly, the helpline receives calls from farmers for issues related to documentation, passbook-related queries, etc.
The Kisan Mitra team, with the help of funds sanctioned by the collector, also helps the farmers with alternative livelihood means. The team has helped families with getting ex gratia sums, widow pension, education of children and exemption of school fees in some cases.
The majority of the calls were about issues related to DBT schemes, land, crop loss, crop insurance and farmer suicides.
Apart from the Rythu Bandhu and Rythu Bhima schemes, the Telangana government also provides an interest-free crop loan to all farmers up to Rs 1 lakh, and Pavala Vaddi (a scheme with an interest rate of 25 paise) for crop loans from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 3 lakh, the Dalit Bandhu scheme, assistance with inputs and crop planning, etc.
According to Shrinivas Badiger, fellow at the Center for Environment & Development, ATREE, in India, input-intensive farming is a major contributor to climate change, while dryland agriculture is also victim to monsoon uncertainties arising out of climate change. “If we don't take action to reduce the impacts of climate change on agriculture, millions of small and marginal farmers in India who cultivate mostly rain-fed crops will face loss of livelihood due to increasing droughts and floods,” Badiger said.
During the monsoon of 2022, Adilabad district was the worst affected with an estimated 1.03 lakh acres of crop destroyed.
Enforcing Accountability Of Government Officials
Spandana, a public grievances redressal portal, is an initiative of the government of Andhra Pradesh. All grievances received through this portal are supposed to be resolved in a time-bound manner.
The Kisan Mitra team received 298 grievances that could have been addressed to Spandana in Anantapur and Satya Sai districts. As the government is not accountable for calls received on the helpline, Kisan Mitra registers all these grievances on the Spandana online system or by attending the weekly programs.
Kisan Mitra is now trying to understand the gaps in the ability of farmers to use the online grievances system and other government schemes.
The helpline plays an active role in creating awareness about different government programmes to ensure that farmers receive the benefits on time.
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(Kavitha Yarlagadda is an independent journalist based in Hyderabad.)