Puli Raju is a 48-year-old government school teacher from the Siddipet district of Telangana. Coming from an agricultural family, over the last 40 years, he has watched his family and friends battle the hardships of a water crisis, changing crop patterns, climate change, the struggle for minimum support price, and so on.
“My family owns 17 acres of land and has been privy to these issues for years. The situation came to a head when, after completing my postgraduation in economics around 1997, I started seeing how this situation was pushing farmers to suicide,” he tells The Better India.
So Raju, who is a native of Yetigadda Kistapur village, visited his journalist friend Ashok in 2000, who was then working with a local newspaper. “I had read the reports he had written on farmer suicides. We both discussed this concerning situation and the possibility of taking action to help farmers,” he adds.
Ashok suggested they prepare a record to identify the reasons under which farmers were taking their own lives.
Raju began work in 2002, and meticulously documented such incidents in his region. He traced the victims and visited the aggrieved families to offer them support by whatever means he could.
A ray of hope
“I started reaching out to the families to understand their condition and how the farmer came to a point that forced him to take his own life. I attempted to understand their problems, the reasons behind them, their family background, and other aspects,” he says.
“In rural areas, men and women marry between the ages of 18 and 25. Once the head of the family or a farmer dies by suicide, the dynamics change. The woman becomes a widow at a young age. The children are often forced to drop out of school. The burden of managing the family and finances together falls upon the woman. To add to their woes, moneylenders and banks often pressure the woman for repayment. The lives of each family member become miserable,” he says.
He learned that the main reason for the piling of debts was the poor quality of farm produce that had coerced the farmers into a vicious cycle. Farm losses and poor income never allowed them a fair chance to recover from the financial burden. Debts piled as high as Rs 3 lakh to Rs 6 lakh.
In 2004, he found some discrepancies in the records registered with the district administration. “The number of farmer suicide cases found in the newspapers were more as against the records kept by the government department,” he says.
Raju approached concerned officials, only to find out that many of the deceased were not considered farmers. “The reason was that land ownership was with the father or other members. And the deceased, usually the son, was not recognised as a farmer as per government records. The compensation was entitled only to the owner and not a family member. The arrangement remained despite the fact that it was the son or another member who farmed on the family land,” he explains.
Not being recognised as a farmer or having the deceased’s death registered as a farmer suicide meant that the victim was ineligible for the compensation of Rs 1.5 lakh issued by the state government, a sum that could provide small but significant relief to the families.
He adds that later in 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, an annual report issued by the Central government, mentioned 27,000 farmer deaths in the region. His Right To Information (RTI) query revealed that only 7,000 received compensation.
Upset with the revelation, Raju approached the High Court pleading for justice for the families. “In 2014-2018, the High Court issued an order to offer compensation to all the 400 families whose cases were pleaded to the judiciary,” he says.
“The government compensation scheme could not help many. Hence, I decided to approach NGOs, corporates and other private individuals to seek help for the families of the deceased,” he says.
So far, Raju has reached 2,500 households across the state to offer mental, psychological and financial support to bereaved families. “Around 40 children have been adopted by a private company that is paying for their school fees. Some individuals have offered the same support. I have registered a list of 2,281 farmers who have not received help, and I am trying to provide them with ration, financial support, education material for children and other assistance,” he adds.
Moving towards debt-free farming
Raji Reddy is one such beneficiary who belongs to the same village as Raju’s. He says the teacher was the first to help him after his father died by suicide in 2003. “Raju helped us receive compensation in 2012. He further helped me seek admission in a government college to study in Class 12. Besides education, Raju also helped me with money, clothes and other items when needed,” he adds.
The 29-year-old says, “I lost my ancestral land to a government project. Today, I work as a software engineer in Hyderabad, and the support I received from Raju in the initial days after my father’s loss helped my family morally and gave us confidence.”
Raju says that to help farmers recover from the vicious cycle of debts, he is also helping the farming community switch to natural farming methods.
“I have realised that if farmers stop using chemical fertilisers, their need for loans will reduce, and subsequently, so will the financial burden. The heavy use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides deteriorates the health of the soil, which in turn results in low productivity of crops,” he says.
So far, Raju has reached out to farmers across 15 blocks in his district and succeeded in helping 100 farmers switch to natural farming methods.
“I explain the benefits of natural farming methods, give them suggestions, and clear their doubts. I also invite experts from the field to share their knowledge that can help farmers in improving their yield,” he says.
Raju also helps farmers with using native seeds. “Commercial and hybrid seeds are unfeasible and lead to low productivity. If a farmer can grow and source his seeds naturally rather than buying, it will only help reduce production costs on the farm,” he says.
Raju says that he will continue helping farmers as much as he can. “The main solutions to help farmers get rid of debts is to address their water needs, timely disbursal of loans, and ensure steady income through the established market. I will work on all the aspects to make their lives better,” he adds.
Edited by Divya Sethu