Aspiration, Debt and Death: The Story of One Sugarcane Farmer is the Tale of Western UP

Some years ago, Western UP was better off than other parts of the country, but farmer suicides and stories of struggling families have been on the rise since.

Muzaffarnagar: On the afternoon of January 6, 2017, Meenu Singh (39) was at home in Matheri, a small nondescript village comprising 950 people in Muzaffarnagar district, washing utensils after having served lunch to her family of five – her husband, her two teenaged daughters and her 10-year-old son.

Like most days, they ate salt and chapatti for lunch. They could not afford to buy vegetables or pulses. As she finished with the last of the utensils, Jaiveer Singh (47), Meenu’s husband, asked her to stand up and took her to a pole in the verandah of their home. He tied her to the pole with her hands behind her back and tied her mouth with a piece of cloth. Jaiveer did not respond to Meenu’s repeated queries. Krishna, their son, was playing in the verandah and, shocked at what he saw, went up to his father to ask why he was doing what he was doing. He too did not get a response and was instead locked in a small store room outside the verandah, close to the gate.

Shweta (15) and Pammi (13), Jaiveer’s and Meenu’s daughters, were getting ready to go for their bi-weekly tuition classes to Khatauli, a town 10 kilometres away. They would have walked – like they always did –  to save the Rs 10 that the tempo to Khatuali cost. Jaiveer told them to go inside the one room on the inside of the verandah. They obeyed. Jaiveer followed them inside and locked the room. He then shot them in the head with a country-made revolver – a desi katta of .315 bore. They died instantly. Jaiveer then shot his wife through a small window in the room. The bullet hit her thigh. He came outside to shoot her in the head, but neighbours had come in by that time and Jaiveer ran back inside. Soon, there was another gun shot. He had shot himself in the head.

Jaiveer was a sugarcane farmer who owned four acres of land in western Uttar Pradesh’s sugarcane belt. Based on his land-holding, he would be categorised as a small farmer. By January 2017, he had a loan of Rs 3,15,000 on his Syndicate Bank kisan credit card (KCC) and smaller loans from local money lenders – called sahukars in local parlance – adding up to in excess of Rs 3 lakh. He also owed Rs 12,000 to the local grocery store. Sugar mills still owed him Rs 1.1 lakh for sales in the current and previous seasons.

“Life had been very difficult the last four-five years as we barely managed to put food on the table for our kids. Whatever we earned, it was never enough to cover our expenses,” Meenu said when I met her at her home in June.

Jaiveer’s brother Omkar Singh, who also grows sugarcane on his own four acre plot of land, explains that problems for his brother’s family did not stem from low output from their farm, as output had been good the last few seasons. “Almost every season, the output on Jaiveer’s farm was decent. But four acres of land is too little to be able to sustain a family, if the primary source of income is agriculture,” he said. In addition to growing sugarcane, Omkar works as a peon at a sugar mill nearby earning Rs 10,000 a month to supplement the income from the farm.

Jaiveer Singh's surviving family. Credit: Kabir Agarwal

Jaiveer Singh’s surviving family. Credit: Kabir Agarwal

Sudhir Panwar, a professor of zoology at Lucknow University, president of the farmer organisation Kisan Jagriti Manch and a former member of the State Price Fixation Committee for sugarcane, agrees with Omkar’s assessment. “Four acres is not enough land to allow the farmer to make a reasonable profit even with a cash crop such as sugarcane which has an assured price announced by the state. The problem is that with rising costs, the investments are very high and most investments – like tractors – have the same cost whatever the size of land. The utilisation of assets is much more economical on larger pieces of land,” he said.

After successive years of good output, low income, increasing expenses and increasing debt, low output during the last season was the proverbial nail in the coffin for the family, as most of the crop was destroyed by a pest, white grub, which is a frequent nemesis of the sugarcane crop. Jaiveer’s farm only produced 200 quintals of sugarcane that season. On an average, four acres of land in this region would produce 500 quintals.

He had supplied most of that produce to the local sugar mill, but payment had been delayed by the mill. “We were holding parchis (payment slips) since November, but no payment had been made by the sugar mill. Some payment came in February. Bahot der kardi unhone (the payment came too late),” Meenu said, wiping her tears with her dupatta.

Sugarcane payment from sugar mills is protected from market volatility by the state advised price (SAP) announced by the state – the minimum price above the cost of production that the sugar mills must pay cane farmers. However, sugar mills are infamous for delaying payments several months, and sometimes even years. Farmers like Jaiveer, who are in desperate need of cash, often sell some of their produce in the open market at local jaggery producing units – or kolhus.

In November 2016, post demonetisation, prices offered for sugarcane at the kolhus had fallen from Rs 270-280 per quintal to Rs. 200-Rs 220 (the SAP during the season was Rs 315 per quintal). Jaiveer had no option but to sell at the lower price – he sold 40 quintal at Rs. 200 per quintal during December – to be able to put food on the table for his family.

“That money was used up within hours to buy food, to pay the school fee for our children, and buy medicines for me,” Meenu told me.

Meenu now faces the daunting task of repaying Rs 6 lakh of debt without any significant sources of income. Credit: Kabir Agarwal

Meenu now faces the daunting task of repaying Rs 6 lakh of debt without any significant sources of income. Credit: Kabir Agarwal

Early in 2016, Meenu had developed a severe septic infection in her right hand. “As there is no government medical facility in Matheri, we had to take her to a private clinic in Khatauli. Also, because the infection was so severe, we could not take the risk of going to a government hospital,” said Omkar. Her treatment over three months cost the family Rs 65,000, and minor medication continues.

“We had to take another loan from a sahukar due to my illness. He (Jaiveer) was also unable to devote complete attention to the farm as he would take me to Khatauli for treatment almost daily, attend to me and also perform some household chores as I could not use my right hand,” said Meenu.

The sahukar charged a usurious 3% per month rate of interest, translating to 36% per annum. Over the last few years, when their loans on the KCC would hit their credit limit of Rs 1 lakh, the family would borrow from sahukars to buy food, pay for their children’s and medical expenses.

Despite financial constraints, Meenu and Jaiveer tried their best to not compromise on the education of their children. For several years, they were enrolled in a private English medium school in Khatauli and attended private tuition classes as well. It cost them about Rs 8000 per month, an amount that consumes a substantial portion of their income. “We wanted our children to study in a good English medium school. So, that at least they can get out of this life, this poverty, go to a city and become something,” said Meenu as she looked up through the broken ceiling of her home.

“We dared to dream for our children. Maybe that was a mistake,” she added.

Panwar believes that aspirations of rural folk are often not taken into account when rural distress is discussed at the policy level. “What nobody seems to want to accept is that rural folk have aspirations, and that a lot of the present agrarian distress is about aspirations. With access to internet and television, people in rural areas are now much more aware about the opportunities that the world has to offer. They like those opportunities. They aspire to those opportunities,” he said.

Panwar adds that in Jaiveer’s case one could question his wisdom in spending beyond his means on his children’s education. “But he had aspirations. He wanted something better for his children. If society is about equal opportunity, then every Jaiveer must have the opportunity to dream big for his children,” Panwar said.

In 2016, despite taking several loans, the family could no longer raise enough finances to afford the school fee. In July, after defaulting on the fee for three months, the children were expelled from the school.

Two months earlier, Shweta, the eldest of their three children, had topped her school, her village and the town of Khatuali by scoring 95% in her class 10 CBSE board exams. “We could not afford all the books that she needed. She would borrow books from other students, and study in the limited time that the books were with her. There was often no electricity in our village, and she used the torch of her father’s cell phone to study in the dark. She was a dedicated student. She wanted to be a doctor,” said Meenu.

Shweta had wanted to become a doctor and had begun studying for her pre-medical tests by borrowing books. Pammi, Shweta’s younger sister, was following in her footsteps and had scored above 90% in class 8 and 9, before being expelled from school.

“He (Jaiveer) felt guilty about not being able to provide for his children. He was also concerned about how we were to get our daughters married,” Meenu told me.

By January, Jaiveer had started losing hope. “Two days before he turned our life upside down, he wept in my arms. We had only Rs 300 left. He said to me ‘ab haar gaya main’ (I have lost now). But I could not imagine in my wildest dreams that he would do what he did,” Meenu said.

Jaiveer had locked Krishna inside this store room. Credit: Kabir Agarwal.

Jaiveer had locked Krishna inside this store room. Credit: Kabir Agarwal.

Until a few years ago, farmer suicides were a rare occurrence in Western UP. Farmers were better off than in many other parts of the country as they reaped the benefits of the green revolution, fertile soil, adequate irrigation, assured income from sugarcane and strong peasant leaders. “Western UP was considered among the most prosperous regions for farmers in the country. Slowly, the number of things that worked in favour of the farmer in Western UP have reduced and the things working against him have increased. Costs of production have increased enormously and the gap between the prices assured by the government and the cost of production has consistently narrowed. In addition, farmers are increasingly at the mercy of market volatility with little help from the government,” T. Haque, an agricultural economist said.

In the last few years, there has been an increasing number of farmer suicides reported from Western UP. “The first case that I remember was four or five years ago and then several other cases were reported. Interestingly, all the cases have been related to sugarcane, which had long been considered the golden crop,” Panwar said.

Kuldeep Tyagi, president of the Bhartiya Kisan Andolan, a farmer organisation that works in the Western UP region, claimed that in the last few years his organisation has visited 24-25 families of farmers who have committed suicide. “In the last two or three years alone, we have visited 24 or 25 such families. And now farmer suicides in this region are happening with increasing frequency,” said Tyagi.

Meanwhile, Meenu faces the daunting task of repaying the Rs 6 lakhs owed to banks and sahukars. “I receive calls from the banks, where I am told that a penalty will be charged if I don’t pay by such and such date. You tell me, where do I get the money from? What do I do?” she asked.

Dealing with sahukars is a different challenge as there is a sense of humiliation associated with the creditor also being a neighbour. “They come to our house almost daily asking about the money. They ask my son if he is outside playing with his friends. It is humiliating,” said Meenu.

Meenu’s four acre land is now being cultivated by one of Jaiveer’s cousins, Parvinder, who also has his own five acre land to cultivate. The terms of the arrangement dictate that Parvinder will get an assured sum equal to earnings of 55 quintals per acre, translating to Rs 17,325 at the present SAP of sugarcane. If the output is less than 55 quintals per acre – like it was in the previous season – Meenu will have to pay Parvinder out of her own pocket. She will probably have to take another loan.

Ab aane wali zindagi pahad jaisi lagti hai. Kaise samna karungi? (Life ahead of me looks like an ominous mountain. How will I face it?)”, said Meenu as I was leaving.

She continued, “He should have spoken to me. Together, we could have worked things out.”

Kabir Agarwal is an independent journalist whose writings have appeared in The Kashmir Walla, The Times of India, Mint, Al Jazeera English and The Caravan.

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rs 20,000 per month were spent on the education of the children. The amount has been revised.