Maddur (Karnataka): Wednesday (May 10) is polling day in Karnataka, when 5.3 crore voters will cast their votes in a high-stakes election. For Mamatha C. and her husband Manchayah M.S., however, it is the day after the first death anniversary of their older son.
Sandesh Gowda M. took his life May 9, 2022, adding to the long list of farmers who die by suicide in Mandya district. He was just 25 but had accumulated debts worth several lakhs of rupees, trying to eke out a living off a few acres of ancestral land.
“We told him to not worry about it…we would have repaid the loans somehow. I guess he couldn’t take the pressure anymore,” said 58-year-old Manchayah.
Sandesh grew up like most other boys in Mallanayakanahalli or other villages nearby – without much – and he tried to make life better. His parents raised him and his brother Shrikanth, tilling the four acres or so that Manchayah holds along with two siblings. But farming has never been easy in this part of the Maddur taluk. A perennial shortage of water means farmers here can’t cultivate sugarcane, the cash-rich crop that Mandya is known for. Paddy is also out of question.
The primary crop here is ragi, also the staple diet, but it doesn’t fetch a decent price. Coconut is popular too, with Maddur’s tender coconuts now making their way as far as West Bengal and Punjab. But in the absence of any real cash flow, what has really caught on is cultivating mulberry and raising silkworms. Silk cocoons can remunerate handsomely – but only after a considerable investment.
Like most village children, Sandesh went to the village school first and then cleared his secondary exams from a higher primary school a few kilometres away in Mallanakuppe. He took up arts, as humanities is widely referred to here, for his pre-university course after that at a government-aided college in Maddur town, some 20 km away. Though the fees were manageable, the daily commute by bus started to pinch. Also, there was hardly any money to buy food outside, even as the classes and commute took up the better part of his day.
The lack of funds forced Sandesh to drop out in 2013 without completing the higher-secondary level. He decided to move to Bengaluru to find work, like thousands of others do every year from across the country. His incomplete education, however, meant that he did not possess too many skills. Kannada was the only language he knew, so jobs where he would have to interact with other language speakers were off the table.
So he reached the Karnataka capital only to be employed by the owner of a roadside eatery for Rs 3,000 a month and food. He kept it at for quite a few months, sharing a rented accommodation with three others, but found he was not saving enough to make any impact in the long run. So, sometime in 2014, he returned to Mallanayakanahalli in the hope of succeeding as a farmer.
The young man started with ragi. At around 10 quintals an acre, the yield would be enough for food, but soon he realised that it won’t bring in enough cash – even going by routinely contested Union government estimates, a farmer can make only around Rs 1,200 a quintal from the minimum support price (Rs 3,578 for 2022-23) after deducting the cost of production. Even adding the Rs 3,000-4,000 that the family earns from its seven coconut trees won’t make much of a difference.
Sandesh knew he would have to think different, to take up more lucrative options. He decided to venture into raising silkworms and dairy. And he stepped into the debt trap.
He had already borrowed money to buy two cows, each costing Rs 50,000-60,000. He would also have to spend Rs 2,000 a month on fodder. Selling the milk to the Karnataka Cooperative Milk Producers’ Federation Ltd (known for its Nandini brand) would fetch around Rs 4,000 a month.
The investment needed for sericulture was more daunting. Sandesh used the space within their one-room house to set up wooden beds for the silkworms where they are kept along with mulberry leaves, their food. He had to keep the beds covered with mesh to protect them from pathogens. This cost him around Rs 1 lakh.
But the big challenge was to grow enough leaves on the relatively dry land. For this Sandesh needed to sink a borewell, lay down pipelines to carry the water to different land parcels and driplines for the last leg. A borewell alone costs Rs 4-4.5 lakh, given that it has to be sunk around 1,000 feet in these areas. He also had to power the set-up, at around Rs 60,000 a connection. Then sundry costs would keep coming up from time to time.
Over the years, Sandesh’s borrowed in several tranches:
- Rs 1 lakh in agriculture loan from Kaveri Grameena Bank’s Kesthur branch in the name of his grandmother, who held the title to the land.
- Rs 1.6 lakh by mortgaging gold that belonged to his mother and sister from a nearby Bank of Baroda branch.
- Rs 70,000 from L&T Finance for an electric two-wheeler to facilitate carrying leaves, fodder, etc.
- Rs 1 lakh from a local religious clique in his mother’s name — to be repaid at Rs 1,050 every eight days for a couple of years.
- Rs 3 lakh from a few local acquaintances.
Gradually, it became a challenge to keep up with the payment schedules, even with Shrikanth joining forces with Sandesh. The family’s endeavours would just not generate enough liquidity to keep the ball rolling.
Soon, Sandesh started getting calls from the institutional lenders. The acquaintances who had lent also started to ask for their money back. “It would be humiliating for him to meet lenders in and around the village,” said Sridhar, one of the villagers.
Even his death added to the loans. The family tried to save him after he had consumed poison and took him to the district hospital. There they were advised to take him to a private hospital in Bengaluru. The family couldn’t save him even after that, but had to borrow another Rs 2 lakh in the process.
Manchayah and family continue to live in the same house and works the same farms, and hope to clear the debts off one by one. In the year that has passed, no government official or politician has visited them. A taluka-level agriculture officer, though, recently told the family that he would to try to arrange for compensation. But they are not sure how much he would be able to help them out and are more or less resigned to their fate.
The sense of resignation runs wider than Manchayah’s family. Farmer after farmer in the region face a bleak future.
Mandya is generally a well-irrigated district due to the efforts of the Wodeyars — the erstwhile Mysuru royal house. But Athaguru Hobli, of which Mallanayakanahalli is a part, and adjoining areas in Maddur taluk resemble Mandya’s water-stressed eastern neighbour Tumakuru. These areas also do not benefit from the nearby Shimshe river. A hobli is a cluster of villages.
“It used to rain well when I was younger — enough for our needs,” Manchayah told The Wire while giving a tour of his land. “Last time it rained normally was almost two decades ago,” he added.
A narrow channel, connected to the Nidasale Kere a few kilometres away, to the west of the village earlier carried some water through a small reservoir with a few lock gates. The channel — philanthropy by a trader several decades ago, whose name now nobody remembers — doesn’t carry much water now.
“The ground is damp today as it rained last night. It was bone dry before that; look at how the ground is broken,” said Prathap from the neighbouring Chatralinganadoddi village. He gave up farming and joined the Border Security Force in 2011.
Renting out water for an hour now can fetch Rs 100 in the area. The rate has almost tripled in the last decade, Prathap added.
The local elected representative recently constructed a canal along the channel. But water eludes, forcing more and more people to drill borewells deeper and deeper. The debt trap, meanwhile, is cast increasingly wider as nearly half the households are now cultivating mulberry. Some 20% are into dairy. Input costs in the primary sector of the economy have also become increasingly unfeasible.
“Suicides are not new in Athaguru hobli,” Sridhar said as the villagers recounted the recent ones:
- Six years ago, there was a case in the same village
- 10 years ago in Chikkankanahalli
- 5 years ago in Avasaradahalli
- 2 years ago in Kesthur
There could be more that they are not aware of.
Ironically, the rest of the district that has benefitted from sugarcane cultivation, see suicides at an even more alarming rate. A May 2017 study placed Mandya at the second highest rank in terms of farmer suicides in Karnataka.
“It’s not me alone; many people have left the village,” said Prathap. At least 200 people in the 150-household village now live outside. Their land lies fallow.
For those in the village, the options remain the same. “What else can I do. I will take up farming after studies,” said 17-year-old Manjunatha. “May be I will install a borewell and rent out water,” he added.
“I will continue to farm too and try to repay the debts in a few years,” said Manchayah. “If I fail, I will start selling the land.”
All images by Joyjeet Das.