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Kadapa: The glimmer of hope that had existed in G. Neelamma, a 35-year-old Dalit widow and mother of three children, that she would receive compensation from the Andhra Pradesh government for the death of her tenant farmer husband by suicide was recently extinguished when the administration denied her application on the grounds that her husband was not legally a tenant farmer.
Neelamma’s husband, G. Narasimhulu (also known as ‘Manohar’) from Yerraballe village of Duvvuru Mandal in the YSR Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh, died by suicide in April, 2021 because he had been unable to pay back a debt of Rs 7.5 lakh, according to the police’s first information report (FIR).
At the time of his death, Narasimhulu had a land lease agreement in hand from a farmer which had given Neelamma the hope that she would be compensated by the state government under the Andhra Pradesh Crop Cultivator Rights Act, 2019. If the state approved her application under this law, she would receive Rs 7 lakhs as compensation, which would instantly clear almost all of her husband’s – and now her – debt.
However, even though a Mandal revenue officer (MRO) had accepted the assertion in the police FIR that Narasimhulu had been a tenant farmer who had taken his own life due to debt, a three-member committee led by a revenue divisional officer (RDO) denied Neelamma’s application. The committee’s reasoning: Narasimhulu had not renewed his Crop Cultivators Rights Card (CCRC), issued by the Andhra Pradesh government to tenant farmers for a period of 11 months at a time.
As far as the committee was concerned, this meant Neelamma could not claim that Narasimhulu was a tenant farmer and thus, no compensation was possible.
Neelamma now needs to pay off Narasimhulu’s debt, repay another loan of Rs 1 lakh she had taken in her own name, put her three children through school and take care of her family without the financial assistance she had hoped for.
“Our debts piled up over the last four years due to falling returns and the lack of a proper price for the paddy crop my husband cultivated,” she said. “I have to do all this on the Rs 200 per day I earn as a farm labourer, on which I can just about survive.”
Critics proved right
It has been nearly two years since the enactment of the Andhra Pradesh Crop Cultivators Rights Act, 2019. But it seems that sceptics of this law have been proved right. The law hasn’t made much material difference to the tenant farmers in the state. It fails because its success relies heavily on the goodwill of landowners and the scrupulousness of the administrative officers.
“The RDO-led three-member committee, which also consists of the district agriculture officer and the deputy superintendent of police, did not even bother to visit Neelamma’s village before deciding to deny her application. Yes, the farmer had not renewed the CCRC he had had the previous year. But he had a land lease agreement from another farmer,” said R. Siva Reddy, a YSR Kadapa district-based activist of the farmers’ organisation Rythu Swarajya Vedika, which works in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
Narasimhulu’s death by suicide is far from unusual in Andhra Pradesh. The state has the dubious distinction of having the third highest number of suicides by farmers in the country. Andhra Pradesh also has the highest indebtedness among agricultural households in the country, according to the Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holdings in Rural India, 2019 report.
An expert committee that had been set up by NITI AAYOG in 2016 to review the agricultural tenancy laws of various states and prepare a model agricultural land leasing Act had pegged the percentage of leased land in Andhra Pradesh at 33.75%. In December 2021, the Union agriculture minister in reply to a query in Parliament pegged tenant holdings in the state during the agriculture year July 2018-June 2019 at 42.4%. Even at the national level, while the NITI AAYOG said that 10.1% of agricultural land is leased, the agriculture minister put it at 17.3%.
The NITI AAYOG report, which reviewed the on-ground experience of the Andhra Pradesh Licensed Cultivators Act, 2011, pegged the number of tenant farmers in the state in 2011-12 at 1.74 million, of whom 0.68 million applied for loan eligibility cards (LEC) which allowed them to avail crop loans from banks and other facilities, and 0.51 million were issued such cards after gram sabhas were held in their villages to identify the beneficiaries. The same report said that the number of licensed cultivators had reduced to 0.41 million in 2012-13, which means just 24% of the tenant farmers were recognised as licensed cultivators.
Situation on the ground
The Cultivators Rights Act which, according to tenant farmers does not use the word ‘tenancy’ anywhere in its text to avoid the possibility of courts interpreting it as it was defined in the old Act, is progressive to the extent that it promises tenant farmers all the benefits enjoyed by landowners. But this means that administrative officials at the ground level, such as P. Subba Rao, a village revenue officer of Machanapalli revenue village in Duvvuru mandal of Kadapa district, must convince landowners to sign the tenant farmers’ CCRCs. The landowners are unwilling to do this, fearing that they will lose their rights over their land.
“We tell the landowners that their rights to their land are unalienable, but we cannot do anything if they do not sign the CCRCs. We also don’t have complete information on the number of tenant farmers,” said Rao.
The landowners remain reluctant to sign the CCRCs even though, according to deputy tahsildar V. Adilakshmi of Duvvuru mandal, the administration conducts gram sabhas in the villages every year to clear the doubts on the new law. A visit to the Machanapalli revenue village’s grama sachivalayam in the same mandal (the village secretariat, which houses all departments at the revenue village level) shows a list of beneficiaries of the nine flagship schemes of the Andhra Pradesh government, but lacks data on the tenant farmers under its purview.
Claims and counter claims
According to P. Jamalaiah, general secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Tenant Farmers’ Association, there are about 33 lakh tenant farmers in the state, but only 5.5 lakh of these farmers have received CCRCs.
This figure is confirmed by H. Arun Kumar, the state’s commissioner of agriculture, who told The Wire, “This season we have given 5.2 lakh CCRCs. This is an increase of 10% from last year’s 4.7 lakh cards. We are conducting awareness programmes ahead of the kharif season to dispel the fears of landowners and gain acceptance for CCRCs. We are renewing these cards every year and giving them financial assistance under the YSR Rythu Bharosa scheme.”
Kumar said that those tenant farmers who lack the CCRCs should be able to get them soon. “We are ‘e-cropping’ the land in the state, as part of which we record the names of the actual cultivators as well as the landowners and other crop details,” he explained. “This kharif season, we recorded 3.8 lakh such farmers. This is enough for the farmer to avail the minimum support price (MSP) as part of government’s procurement of paddy and other produce. Payment will also be made directly into their account. We are asking tenant farmers to come to us with details so that we can record them without needing the consent of the landowners.”
However, Jamalaiah said that this claim is dubious. “For e-crop booking to be done, one should have proper documentation and the land should be registered online. But many pieces of land given to communities like the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Backward Classes and others are not registered. The government considers all those receiving the Rythu Bharosa as farmers, but a majority of the lands are being cultivated now by tenant farmers. While the government doesn’t have any authentic figures to prove or disprove this, anecdotal evidence from the field points towards this reality. Only 60,000 landless tenant farmers get the Rythu Bharosa. And there is no annual break-up of the number of CCRCs issued. They are counting all the cards that have been given since October 2019, when the new law was passed.”
Adding to the difficulties of learning the truth of the issues of the tenant farmers is the Andhra Pradesh government’s August, 2021 decision to no longer put government orders and other data in the public domain, said Jamalaiah.
“The responsibility of giving the CCRC lies with the state government,” Jamalaiah explained. “They should change bank rules and stop non-cultivating landowners from availing loans at cheap rates ahead of the kharif season. Further, there is no interest on crop loans of up to Rs 1 lakh. Landowners who avail this money lend to others at 24% interest in the market. This means the tenant farmers cultivating those lands are denied loans since banks lend money based on a survey of the land cultivated. They are also denied Rythu Bharosa, insurance in case of crop losses, seeds and other subsidised inputs from the government.”
To add insult to injury, said Jamalaiah, the ruling party has started to claim that farmers have been getting the MSP for cotton and other crops, such as chillies.
“Chillies have never sold below their MSP, even during normal times,” said the farm leader. “Why would commercial crops not fetch better prices when crops were damaged owing to excessive rain in lakhs of acres in the state[and there is a shortage in the market]?”
On the brink
Anecdotal evidence from the Gopalapuram village of Yerraballi post (administration limit) from Duvvuru mandal does not support official claims on crop prices. R. Mallikarjuna Reddy (35), a paddy farmer from the village, said that a 78 kg paddy bag which sold for Rs 1,600 more than 10 years ago now sells for Rs 1,100. Meanwhile, input costs such as fertiliser have risen from Rs 600 to Rs 1,600 and labour, from Rs 150 to Rs 600 in the same period.
“Cultivating land on tenancy over the years, apart from cultivating my own four acres of land, has left me with just one acre of land,” said Reddy. “That, too, will have to be sold soon to repay my debts. My lands were sold to a paddy trader in my village. The last four years have been especially bad, with my yield falling and paddy prices falling too. Despite this, my landowners, who own a hospital in town, insist that I pay them Rs 12,000 per acre for leased land.”
P. Nagasuri, a tenant farmer from Anakapalle mandal of Visakhapatnam district, once regularly got an LEC. But he has not been able to avail of a CCRC due to the reluctance of the landowners he leases from. Such instances are all too common.
“The landowners do not even give us a photocopy of their land documents to avail of subsidised seeds. So I have to buy 30 kg of paddy seeds and 45 kg of urea in the open market, or request other farmers to get me these inputs in their name through cooperatives,” said Nagasuri.
Kumar refuses to believe that the Cultivators’ Rights Act is not doing the good it is meant to do. When asked for his reaction on the denial of compensation to tenant farmers when a majority of them have not been given CCRCs, he said: “We have a foolproof system of two three-member committees to verify the veracity of the farmers’ suicides. Many suicides in farmers families occur due to non-agrarian reasons.”
Even when he was told that many of the FIRs filed after the suicides document the farmers’ debts from institutional and non-institutional sources, and that revenue officials make their reports without even visiting the villages, Kumar remained in favour of the Act.
“We have no reason to not rely on the recommendations of our official committees. Any individual cases of mistake can be rectified by appealing to the district collector,” he said.
Even the Union government seems uninterested in issues relating to tenant farmers. While it has started work on the Agristack initiative, the name given to a collection of technology-based interventions in agriculture, it does not appear to be taking tenant farmers into account. This can be gauged from the reply of the Union agriculture minister to a query in Parliament. He said the database will only include land-owning farmers because it will be linked to digitised land records.
G. Ram Mohan is a freelance journalist based in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh and can be contacted on twitter at @mnirm.
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers they can call to speak in confidence. Icall, a counselling service run by TISS, has maintained a crowdsourced list of therapists across the country. You could also take them to the nearest hospital.