Red, red is the colour of their silk

Children of the deceased couple

One of the consequences of the liberalization of the Indian market during the post 90’s was the resulting heavy indebtedness of the Indian peasantry that has led to over 200,000 farm suicides in the last 14 years alone! While it was partying time for the rich & upper classes of the Indian society, to the vast majority of the Indian populace particularly the peasantry, it was unfolding of a nightmare of having to live through these pro market reforms where a combination of factors including lack of land reforms & redistribution, the mindless promotion of green revolution technology with focus on cash crops & high input driven (polluting) agriculture, signing of the WTO & GATT by the govt. in 1995 etc., have all led the the Indian peasantry into sort of debt trap leading many of them to take their own lives rather than be bonded to their patrons – the money lenders, banks, input suppliers, landlords etc.

And the regions that have been most affected by farm suicides is not a feudal Bihar or Jharkhand but the so called high growth states of India including Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharastra. This article written by a sympathiser of the New Socialist Alternative describes the visit by a few IT (Information Technology) employees to villages affected by farmer suicides, among those who are engaged in the traditional occupation of Sericulture. They report on the deprivation and its costs in lives.

New Socialist Alternative (CWI-India)

Red, red is the colour of their silk

You prate of wealth of nations,

as if it were brought and sold;

The wealth of nations is men,

not silk and cotton and gold.

    Richard Hovey, American Poet, 1844-1900

Silk was produced at the cost of lives – the lives of silkworms. But, with the suicides of sericulture farmers Swami Gowda and his wife Vasantha, there is now a human cost to silk.

Valagere Doddi is a small village, 2 kilometers as the crow flies from the nearest town Halaguru and 90 kilometers from Bengaluru. More than 150 families live here in this town of which 80% of the families are involved in sericulture farming, one of the oldest industries in India – a practice dating centuries.

Silk worms are finicky creatures. Too hot they tire out and do not produce optimum amounts of silk. And if it gets too cold, they just hibernate. Again no silk. In fact, Italian women in 16th century used to carry bags of small bags in direct with their skin, sometimes between their breasts, during the incubation of the silkworm eggs to facilitate hatching. In India, the sericulture the 7 lakh sericulture farmers are concentrated in the narrow tracts of villages in three states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, where the temperature and humidity is optimum for round-the-year silk worm rearing.

Rearing of silk worms involves entire family. The worms, once they come out of the larvae, needs a constant diet of mulberry leaves. Men work in the fields and tend to cultivate mulberry leaves. Women tend to work closer to home feeding the cocoon making worms. And it is where they toiled that Swami and Vasantha took their lives. Vasantha hanged herself at home – near the patched shed where the silk worms are bred. A distraught Swami, hours later, took his life by hanging himself from a tree in the mulberry fields. In early March 2011, the price of cocoons had crashed from Rs.300 per kg to Rs.170, when the excise duty for raw silk import was reduced from 30.66% to 5%. Swami and Vasantha leave behind them three children – Chandrika (aged 5), Kirtana (3 1/2) and Sharath (2).

Cocoons, like tomatoes and milk, are a perishable commodity, Srinivasa Gowda, representative of Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS, Karnataka State Farmers Association) stated to us. If not sold within eight days, the worms will turn into moths and no silk yarn is available in the cocoon. Quality, and thus price, depends on the harvest of the cocoon at the precise time when the silk worms have moulted four times. It takes two months for each silk worm harvest. An efficient farm will have 5 such harvests each year. The profit from each harvest is 10-15000 Rupees. If all went well through the year, Swami and Vasantha would have made Rs.60,000 to run their household income.

However all did not go well for some years for the 1,50,000 sericulturists in Karnataka who produce more than 60% of the silk in India. Ever since India implemented the policies of GATT and WTO in the post liberalization era, there was a threat of cheap raw silk eroding the Indian cottage industry. This threat was realized in 1999, while Ramakrishna Hegde was the Union Minister of Commerce, when India implemented the policy to remove the import tariff for raw silk. The price of cocoon hovering around Rs.260 per kg fell and even reached Rs.60 per kg in 2003. Concerted protests from the farmers resulted in imposing a 30.66% import tariff on raw silk.

The demolition of this tariff as part of the 2011 Union Budget announced by Pranab Mukherjee resulted in the fall of cocoon price. In August last year, Department of Revenue at the center decided to allow duty free import of 3A grade and above raw silk up to 2500MT (metric tonnes) through the National Handloom Development Corporation. The rational for making such a move was to enable to meet the shortage of 10000 MT of raw silk that the weavers faced. A tender was floated and raw silk from China started arriving in Indian market since January this year.

The result of cheap silk arriving in India and the decision to scrap any tariff on raw silk resulted in the dumping of raw silk in the market. This glut saw the reduction in raw silk price from Rs.2900 to Rs.1700. The fall in price and high availability of costly raw silk in the Indian market created a panic amongst the sericulture farmers like Swami Gowda and Vasantha. A fall of Rs.100 in the price of cocoon wipes out 20% of the annual income of farmers like them. The fall is even greater if there is even one poor harvest. These farmers had two poor harvests last year.

Further lack of institutional credit for sericulturists (Swami and Vasantha had a loan of Rs. 1.2 lakhs at high interest rates) and lack of protection from market is exposing the sericulturists in Karnataka to the vagaries of global market. In fact the role of Karnataka Silk Marketing Board (KSMB) set up to prevent farmers to exposures in extreme price fluctuations has initially acted adversely against the interest of farmers. According to KRRS activist Srinivasa KSMB halted trading in all the 15 markets in Karnataka creating further panic and anxiety to the farmers who had perishing commodity in their hands. Further, according to sericulture activist Krishne Gowda, KSMB did not have adequate funds (funds transferred by the current BJP government to cover other budgetary deficit) to intervene in the market and stabilize the price. Yediyurrapa governments decision announcing release of Rs. 3 crores to the KSMB is too little and too late. Krishne Gowda stated that in Ramnagara market alone Rs.9 crores worth of trade happens in a single day. An active and strong KSMB board would have prevented the deaths of Swami and Vasantha.

The most intriguing aspect of the sericulture policy is the eagerness displayed by the government to cover the 10,000 MT shortage by trade and not by expanding sericulture farming in India. The Cental Silk Board claims that sericulture farming is the best way to stabilize rural markets since it provides jobs to small and landless farmers. According to the Board, “57% of the gross value of silk fabrics flows back to the cocoon farmers”. The government’s decision to import not only allows growth, but even kills those in the sericulture industry, leading to the death of a tradition which has been practiced for more than 1000 years.

Back in Swami and Vasantha’s house a pall of gloom has set in. Bore Gowda, father of Swami Gowda, appeared hunched weighed by the twin burden he has inherited from his son – the debt and children. The only hope he says is that the receipt of some compensation for his grandchildren from the government. Chandrika, the eldest of the daughters, came from the nearby primary school. Even her being the eldest has not helped her comprehend the magnitude of the event. Chowdamma, mother of Vasantha and a widow, says they are at a loss as how to provide for the welfare of these children after their demise. The price of silk has climbed back since 5th March when Swami and Vasantha committed suicide. But it will not restore lost lives.

Hari Shankar & Nidhin