, Maharashtra: Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis claimed in a speech last month that a "decrease" in the number of cows is one of the reasons behind farmer distress and suicides.

Livestock census data disprove this claim--the state has the fourth highest number of cows in India, yet accounts for the highest incidence of farmer suicide. Yavatmal and Amravati, the districts where most farmers committed suicide, have more than 30 cows per 1,000 people, higher than the state average of 28.

Source: Collected from Department of Revenue, Maharashtra

Among the 18 largest food producing states in India, Maharashtra has the lowest foodgrain productivity of 797 kg per hectare, despite having the fourth largest number of cows at 8.26 million.

FactChecker visited Amravati in the troubled Vidarbha region to hear first-hand what farmers and farming experts think of Fadnavis' claim. The overriding consensus was that the emphasis on saving cows is misplaced. Instead, farmers want stable pricing and export-import policies, and improved irrigation.

Government interventions prove inadequate while rains remain unreliable

It was a muggy July day in the predominantly soya bean-producing village of Naya Savanga in Amravati district's Chandur Railway taluka, and 59-year-old Prakashrao Belsare was worried about the rains.

Soyabean

Soya bean crop grown in Naya Savanga village in Chandur Railway taluka, Amravati district, Maharashtra. Farmers said the crop should have at least grown 2 feet tall by now. But, due to less rain, it has grown just a few inches which would severely affect its overall yield this season.

Belsare had spent Rs 32,000 on seeds for his 10-acre farm this year, twice the amount he usually does because patchy rainfall had forced him to sow twice. "After sowing and re-sowing a total of twenty 30 kg bags of seeds, it is now that seeds from the last 4-5 have sprouted," he told FactChecker.

If it did not rain well for the next eight days, the crops would dry away and die, he said.

None of the government's policies–crop loans, crop insurance and the recently-announced loan waiver–have been of much help when faced with a failing monsoon, farmers such as Belsare told FactChecker all over Vidarbha.

Located in northeastern Maharashtra, Vidarbha saw dry spells in the first two monsoon months this year and, farmers say, they got no effective state support.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, meanwhile, linked the farm crisis in the state to a "decrease" in the number of cows.

Addressing the Jain International Organisation's Mega Business Conference on July 2, 2017, in Mumbai, Fadnavis said: "Villages which have seen the most number of farmer suicides are those where cow population is low." He said a drop in the number of cows had led to decline in soil fertility and crop yields.

However, data available on cow population, annual crop yield and soil fertility indicate otherwise.

Maharashtra, Karnataka and (undivided) Andhra Pradesh are among nine states in the country which have the highest cow population of 8.26 million, 6.53 million and 5.6 million, respectively, according to the 2012 livestock census. Yet, these three states have seen the most number of suicides by farmers, collectively amounting to 77,779 from 2006 to 2015, as per data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

Source: National Crime Records Bureau

Reports from the NCRB as well as government and court-appointed committees have concluded that financial strain and the consequent cycle of loans and defaults are the primary reasons behind farmer suicide.

Experts in Vidarbha have reprehended the Maharashtra government's failure to address the real issues that afflict farmers in suicide-prone regions. Data accessed from the joint registrar of cooperative societies, Amravati division, show that banks failed to disburse 79% of the kharif (summer sowing and harvesting season) crop loan target in the five suicide-prone districts of Vidarbha this year.

Source: Data collected from office of the Joint Registrar of Cooperative Societies, Amravati division, Department of Cooperation, Maharashtra, Agricultural census, 2010-11

The Pradhan Mantri Pik Vima Yojana (Prime Minister's Crop Insurance Scheme) has reached, according to agriculture department officials, only 50,000 non-loanee farmers in Amravati, which is 40% of the 126,561 non-loanee farmers who were insured in the 2016 kharif season. Loanee farmers under the Kisan Credit Card Scheme are compulsorily insured.

Districts with most suicides have highest cow population

Vidarbha's Yavatmal and Amravati districts have seen the most number of suicides in Maharashtra in the past 10 years, according to data collated from the state revenue department.

Source: Livestock census state report, 2012

NOTE: *Includes calves & old cows; **Includes cows and bulls

These two districts are among the top 10 of 36 districts in Maharashtra in terms of cow population (including calves and old cows), according to this report of the 2012 livestock census. The census is carried out every five years and is currently underway for the year 2017.

Source: Livestock census state report, 2012

NOTE: *Includes calves & old cows

Source: Livestock census state report, 2012

Buldhana in the same region, which has witnessed the third highest number of suicides by farmers–1,865 since 2006--has the 15th highest cow population.

The three districts are also among the top 11 that have the largest number of cattle-owning households and household enterprises.

Beed, which has recorded the highest number of farmer suicides in Marathwada since 2006, is ranked sixth with 198,218 cattle-owning households and household enterprises.

In Yavatmal and Amravati, cow population has been increasing. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of cows (including calves and old cows) rose by 2% or 6,649 in Yavatmal and by 12% or 32,689 in Amravati.

Data from the rest of India also show that there is no easy correlation between the number of cattle and farm productivity and hence, farmer suicide. Rajasthan, with the second highest cow population in the country–over 10 million–has the third lowest yield of 1,393 kg per hectare, while Punjab and Haryana, which beget the highest yields–4,273 kg per hectare and 3,665 kg per hectare, respectively–are among the bottom 16 states in terms of cow population.

Amravati-based agriculture expert and farmer Subhash Palekar told FactChecker that cow ownership is a non-issue. "Almost every farm household in rural Maharashtra owns a cow," he said, adding that the well-being of the farmer is a completely separate issue from saving cows from slaughter, a major thrust of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government.

It is the burgeoning businesses of dairying, manufacture of milk products and cow-based products such as organic soaps and other cosmetics, incense sticks, herbal drinks and so on that are a bigger threat to cows, Palekar said.

"These are large groups engaged in cow-based businesses, not cow-based farming, and it is they who have a direct interest in building the current narrative of saving the cow," Palekar said. "It is this elite group that will benefit from the concept of gaushalas [cow shelters] too. Cows in gaushalas could be diverted to carry out these businesses."

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