Drought, deluge and debt: Why eight farmers committed suicide in Idukki, Kerala

Omana Ravi’s son, Santhosh, a 37-year-old farmer in Kerala’s Idukki district, committed suicide on 2 January this year. Rejimon Kuttappan
03 April, 2019

Sreekumar was a 59-year-old farmer from Kerala’s Idduki district who cultivated vegetables, pepper and nutmeg on his small farm. His entire farm—an area of 2.3 acre—was destroyed in the deluge that swept Kerala in August 2018. Idduki was one of the worst-affected areas. Sreekumar’s son, Anoop S, said that his father owed seven lakh to the Federal Bank Limited, a private bank, and Rs 17 lakh to the Idukki District Cooperative Bank, or the IDCB—amounts he had no way of repaying after the loss of his farm. “Both banks had sent a series of repayment notices,” Anoop told me. His father tried to sell their land to pay the loan but he could not find a buyer because it was “declared mudslide prone after the flood,” Anoop said. Unable to repay the loans, Sreekumar consumed poison on 15 January. He died the next day.

The 2018 flood was the most severe deluge that Kerala had seen in almost a century. The United Nations pegged the total loss caused by the flood across the state at Rs 31,000 crore, and according to the 2018 Kerala Economic Review report, it resulted in crop losses of over Rs 3,500 crore. On 20 August 2018, the State Level Bankers’ Committee in Kerala, an inter-institutional forum where the government and banks coordinate on matters pertaining to banking developments, approved relief measures for flood-affected areas. The SLBC stated that the crop loss in affected areas was above 50 percent and decided the guidelines for a moratorium on loan-recovery proceedings for loans taken for agriculture, housing and education, among other purposes.

In October last year, the state government instituted the moratorium on recovery proceedings for agricultural loans, for nearly one year. But farmers in Kerala’s Idukki district have reportedly received notices from both commercial and cooperative banks, that threatened to attach or auction their assets as a part of recovery proceedings. According to Shaji Thundathil, a 52-year-old farmer and social activist, the pressure tactics of some of these banks have led at least eight farmers in the district to commit suicide this year. For farmers in Idukki, mounting debts have exacerbated the crises of fluctuating crop prices, and the destruction caused by a drought in the state in 2016 and the 2018 floods. Farmers are usually “strong” and “optimistic,” Thundathil told me. “Now, it seems they have lost hope.”

In the wake of the suicides, the Kerala cabinet convened a special meeting on 5 March, in which it decided to extend the moratorium till 31 December this year. The next day, Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of the state, asked banks to halt the recovery proceedings in line with the moratorium order and have an “empathetic approach” towards farmers. But Tom Jose, the chief secretary of the state, did not issue the necessary order to extend the moratorium within two days, as stipulated in the Kerala Secretariat Manual, a set of rules and procedures for the state government. Meanwhile, the Election Commission’s model code of conduct for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections came into effect on 10 March, restricting the “announcement of new schemes/projects and also grant of new reliefs.”

As a result, the government then had to approach Teeka Ram Meena, the chief electoral officer of the state, for clearance of the proposal. Meena sought an explanation from the government about why it wants to pass the order when the model code of conduct is in place. Vijayan reportedly criticised Jose for failing to issue the order about extending the moratorium on time. On 30 March, Meena said that he had referred the matter to the Election Commission of India along with his recommendation favouring clearance. The order is yet to be passed. “It is not the failure of government officials, it exposes the lack of will ruling party in easing the agrarian crisis,” Roshy Augustine, a member of the Kerala Congress (M) and the Idukki constituency’s member of legislative assembly, told me.

In December 2016, the state government had imposed a similar six-month moratorium after declaring that Kerala had been hit by a drought that year. Thundathil told me that the banks are mostly recovering loans that were taken that year to recuperate from the drought. “These suicides in Idukki district are results of crops loss suffered during the drought,” he said. “Suicides due to crop loss from the flood are yet to come.”

The fluctuating prices of crops seem to compel the farmers in Idukki to take loans. Santhosh Ravi was a 37-year-old farmer and a resident of Marygiri, a hilly town in Idukki. According to his mother, Omana Ravi, he was cultivating banana and pepper in a land of around 0.7 acre. “When we planted banana trees, the price of banana per kilogramme was Rs 50. And when our bananas were ready for sale, it was Rs 8 per kg. Same was the case of pepper and other farm produce.” She added, “How can we survive with this kind of price fluctuations?”

Omana said Santhosh did not inform their family about the details of his debt. “We came to know about the loans only when people came here asking for the money back,” she said. She estimated that Santhosh owed banks and private money-lenders around Rs 30 lakh. In 2012, Santhosh sought a loan of around 13 lakh from the Kerala State Financial Enterprise, or KSFE, a public sector non-banking financial company, Omana said. According to her, Santhosh did not have the proper documents to prove ownership over his land, so he had to mortgage land owned by his sisters-in-law. He failed to pay the loan to the KSFE, following which its officials visited his sister’s house and “harassed” her family, Omana told me. “He became disturbed,” she said. On 1 January, Santhosh visited the KSFE to pay Rs 20,000, but it refused to accept such a small fraction of the total debt. The next day he left for work at around 3 am, as was his routine. “But he didn’t return,” Omana said. “He consumed poison and it was a few Hindi-speaking workers who found him dead.”

Santhosh is survived by his wife, their five-year-old son and his mother, who are struggling to make ends meet. Now, Omana told me, accessing drinking water is also a challenge for the family. “Santhosh had dug a small pond by sharing some money with a neighbour. Now, the neighbour has denied water claiming that Santhosh had to give Rs 90,000 and without that, we won’t be allowed to take water,” she said.

Siby KM, the manager of KSFE’s Thopramkudy Branch, said that Santhosh had taken a personal loan, which is not covered under the moratorium order. “If a debtor fails to pay 10 installments continuously, we have to inform the regional office,” he said, adding that Santosh was a habitual defaulter. Siby further claimed that he “went personally to inform him and help him in repaying the loan” and that he had a “good rapport” with Santhosh. He added, “On behalf of bank, I had issued notices to a few others too. None of them, other than Santhosh, have committed suicide.”

Kunnumpurathu Sahadeven, a 68-year-old farmer in Idukki, was also under pressure to pay a loan that was taken in 2016. One of Sahadeven’s sons had borrowed Rs 12 lakh from the IDCB, by mortgaging a 1.5-acre piece of land owned by the family. Shibi KS, his other son, told me that in December 2018, Sahadeven received a notice from the bank threatening to seize their land. Shibi, who cultivates banana trees, was also in debt after his trees were destroyed in the floods. “So, I was also clueless about how to help my father,” he said. On 28 January this year, Sahadeven committed suicide.

Kunnumpurathu Sahadeven, a 68-year-old farmer in Kerala’s Idukki district, committed suicide on 28 January this year. His son, Shibi KS (left), said that in December 2018, Sahadeven had received a notice from a bank threatening to seize their land. Rejimon Kuttappan

Saji Joseph, an auto driver I met in Idukki, told me he worked in the farming sector till the August 2018 floods. Joseph had invested Rs 2.5 lakh in planting 1,000 banana trees, all of which were swept away in the floods. After suffering multiple losses in the agriculture sector, Joseph is now under a debt of Rs 5 lakh. Joseph, too, has received several notices from the banks. “I can’t commit suicide because if I end my life, then my family would be stranded,” he told me.

Joseph, like Thundathil, does not think the farmers’ suicides in Idukki will end anytime soon. “The prices of produce are not improving and fertiliser price is going up,” he said. “So, I am afraid that more suicides may happen.” According to media reports, a drought may be looming over Kerala once again, as all major rivers in the state are drying up and ground water is depleting.

The accounts describing why Idukki’s farmers were led to suicide followed a similar pattern in all the cases. Kunnath Surendran and James Joseph died on 25 February. According to their families, they were both in debt, compounded by losses suffered during the floods, and then began receiving recovery notices from banks. Surendran’s wife, Sarojini, told me that their daughter had serious health issues. The family had to spend a large amount of a loan Surendran had taken from Devikulam Taluk Cooperative Agricultural and Rural Development Bank Limited, or DTCAR, on treatment for their daughter. Meanwhile, Joseph had taken a loan from the South Indian Bank, or SIB, a private-sector bank, to sponsor his daughter’s education. Sibi George, his relative, told me that shortly before his death, Joseph received a letter from the bank informing him that they were attaching his property as part of debt-recovery proceedings.

When contacted, representatives of DTCAR and the SIB tried to justify sending these notices. KM Prakashan, the secretary of the DTCAR, said that Surendran had taken a loan of Rs 4.5 lakh to buy gold for his daughters’ marriage in 2012. Prakashan said, “A loan given to buy gold for his daughters’ marriage doesn’t come under moratorium norms.” Pradeesh AV, the manager of the SIB in Adimali, a town in Idukki, said that they did not send Joseph a notice for recovery. “However, we had to inform him officially what the bank could do next. So, we sent him an intimation letter stating that if he fails in starting repayment of the loan, then we would be forced to look for further options as per bank norms,” Pradeesh said. He added that they have not sent notices that violate the moratorium order.

Vijayan had addressed the media after the 5 March meeting: “In view of the moratorium, there should be no recovery procedures or other such actions.” He added that no banks should be allowed to violate the order. Nandakumar CJ, the national president of Bank Employees Federation of India, a trade-union comprising employees of the banking industry, told me that that the government cannot force banks to comply with its orders. “We follow the RBI guidelines,” he said. He suggested that when governments make such requests, the banks write to the RBI and only change the rules regarding recovery if it agrees. “Or else, we will be acting according to existing rules.” On 7 March, the Financial Express reported that VS Sunil Kumar, the agriculture minister of the state, said that banks have decided to seek the RBI’s permission to stop loan-recovery proceedings till 31 December 2019. We reached out to Kumar, and other banks that are accused of sending recovery notices—the Federal Bank Limited and the IDCB for a comment—but they did not respond.

The activists I spoke to said that a moratorium on agricultural loans is not the solution because it merely buys the farmers some time to pay back the loans, and fails to account for the losses they suffered in the floods. “Without studying the issue in depth, just extending the moratorium is not going to ease the situation,” Mini Mohan, a social activist and psychological counsellor working with farmers, told me. Instead of finding policy solutions for farmers’ problems, Thundathil said “when farmers are in crisis, the only panacea government has is a declaration of a moratorium and then wash off their hands.” Mohan continued, “Moratorium is not going to end suicides. It’s going to be worse in the coming days.” She added that the 5 March meeting was held because the Lok Sabha polls are nearing.

Terming the moratorium an “eyewash,” the Congress, the opposition party in the state, called upon the state government to waive the farm loans. “We demand that the government waive all loans of farmers up to Rs 5 lakh and convene a special session of the assembly to discuss the issue,” Ramesh Chennithala, the leader of the opposition in the Kerala legislative assembly, told the Economic Times. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the state government, has not responded to these demands yet, even though the CPI(M)-backed All India Kisan Sabha, has held large-scale protest marches in the past one year to demand loan waivers for farmers based in Maharashtra.

Augustine, Idukki constituency’s MLA, was in favour of loan waivers, too. “​​Farmers who have suffered loss will need at least two years to recover.” He added, “They have to pay the interest and the principal amount. How will they?” The farmers I spoke to were in agreement. “Waiving of loan is need of the hour,” Thundathil said. “The big question remains—will the government be ready for it?”