Crop loss and mounting debts drove farmer Pakira to suicide in 2012. A decade after he had taken the extreme step, nothing much has changed for his wife Koppula Alivelu and their three children — except for a meagre widow pension of ₹2,000 the four-member family gets every month.
The 44-year-old woman, a tenant farmer, cultivates Kharif crops on 10 acres of land taken on lease for ₹5,000 per acre for a season. Seasonal farming is not profitable for her, and she is under constant threat from moneylenders and landowners.
Still, during the June-October Kharif season, Alivelu takes land on lease, hoping for the best. The rest of the year she takes up several jobs, including working as a farmhand.
“I have a pending liability of ₹4 lakh for the past two years. The weather conditions have affected our profit. But the landowners want their money on time. Earlier, we used to earn around ₹50,000 to ₹60,000 per season,” she told South First.
The average debt of a tenant farmer in Telangana is ₹2.7 lakh, of which around 75 percent would have been borrowed from private moneylenders at a high-interest rate, according to a report by Rythu Swarajya Vedika (RSV), a Telangana-based farmers’ rights organisation.
The report was based on a study conducted in May and June this year, covering 7,744 farmers across 34 villages in 30 mandals in 20 districts.
The report was released at a roundtable meeting at Sundarayya Vignana Kendram in Hyderabad on 14 December. Senior leaders of farmers’ unions, representatives of political parties, academicians and social activists attended the meeting.
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How they suffer
The report claimed that Telangana has 22 lakh tenant farmers, which is more than double that of National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) estimates.
Of the total farmers surveyed, 2,753 farmers (35.6 percent) cultivated crops on leased land. The study revealed that one out of three farmers are tenants.
Of the total tenant farmers surveyed, 19 percent are landless while the remaining (81 percent) are marginal landowners.
On average, a tenant owns 2.3 acres while the leased land is 5.1 acres, the report revealed.
Another finding was that 77 percent of the farmers suffered crop damage in the past three years but only one percent of them received compensation.
Only five percent received loans under the Loan Eligibility Card (LEC) while 44 percent could not sell their crops at the minimum support price, since procurement of farm produce is tied to land ownership.
“We observed that more tenant farmers are now farming on leased lands. But they do not have the government’s support,” Kirankumar Vissa of the RSV told South First.
He added that the government schemes are only for land-owning farmers and not for tenant farmers. “The government has been saying that taking care of tenant farmers is not its responsibility,” he added.
The study also found that landowners belonging to "other castes" leased out 43 percent of the land while 44 percent of the leased land belonged to backward communities.
Of the landowners, only 26 percent cultivated the land themselves, while 55 percent are in government, private, business, contracting and other services. As much as 25 percent of the landowners are in cities and one percent, abroad. The remaining are jobless or senior citizens.
"Half of the people in cities and those abroad have nothing to do with the villages or agriculture. They buy land as an investment and rent it out to tenants," former IAS officer Murali Akunuri told South First.
Meanwhile, women comprised 9.5 percent of the surveyed tenant farmers, and 22.7 percent of them are landless. Of the total 261 women tenant farmers, 65 (25 percent) are unmarried.
No benefit from Rythu Bandhu
The report claimed that only 12 out of 2,753 tenant farmers (0.4 percent) benefited from Rythu Bandhu while the scheme helped in reducing the lease amount of 17 farmers (0.6 percent).
As many as 10 tenants (0.4 percent) said that the landowners passed on the entire Rythu Bandhu money to them.
Vissa said that the money from the Telangana government's Rythu Bandhu — a cash-transfer scheme helping farmers to meet the input and cultivation costs — goes only to the landowners (pattadars).
"Even if they are not into farming, they get the money. The real farmers seldom get the benefit," Vissa said.
Akunuri, who is also the convener of a Hyderabad-based non-profit, the Social Democratic Forum (SDF), pointed out that the Telangana government has not properly defined a tenant farmer.
"They are the poor and vulnerable, reeling under heavy debt burden and committing suicides. They are toiling everyday and are the real sons of the soil. But they are not gaining from the schemes. The chief minister is not bothered to cover them under any schemes," he said.
No support from Centre
The report added that even the Union government has not include tenant farmers in its flagship programme, the Prime Minister-KISAN cash support scheme.
"Even the Odisha and Andhra Pradesh state governments maintain lists of tenant farmers and support them through Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) and Rythu Bharosa schemes, respectively; but not the Telangana and Union governments," Vissa lamented.
Suggestions at the roundtable
Several solutions have been recommended for the welfare of tenant farmers in Telangana.
The suggestions included the strict implementation of the Licensed Cultivators Act, 2011, and Loan Eligibility Cards (LEC) to all tenant cultivators. Further, changes should be brought to the Act to augment the rights of tenant farmers and the responsibilities of government towards them.
Schemes such as Rythu Bandhu, crop loans, crop loss compensation, crop insurance and Rythu Bima (Insurance) should be extended to all tenant farmers.
"The government should coordinate with banks to provide crop loans to all the tenant farmers based on the LEC. If they do not have LEC, group loans through Rythu Mithra groups or joint liability groups should be provided," Vissa said.
"The government should establish a credit guarantee fund for them as a financial cushion," he further suggested.
He demanded the restoration of the 'cultivators' field in the government-run Dharani portal, besides registering actual cultivators via an e-crop booking system.
"A provision should be made for them to sell their crops to the government," Vissa said.
The report also called for legislation, prohibiting non-agriculturists from owning agricultural land and purchasing agricultural land. Some neighboring states already have such restrictions.
"The government should identify the tenant farmers, and provide them all entitlements," Asha Lata of the Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch, a forum for women farmers' rights, told South First.