The struggling farmer who planned his own funeral

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When Mallappa, a farmer in India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, left his home in August last year, he told his family he was going to “buy groceries”. They never dreamed he had decided to take his own life and was actually buying all the things they would need for his funeral. BBC Telugu’s Hrudaya Vihari reports.

Among the things Mallappa bought that day last August were a white cloth to cover his body, bangles for his wife, incense, a garland and a laminated photograph of himself to be displayed in his house after his death.

Upon returning to his village, he placed them all on top of his father’s grave, located on his farm.

Along with the items was a note explaining that he had decided to end his life because he could not afford to repay his loans – some 285,000 rupees ($4,000; £3,100) that he had borrowed from banks and money lenders.

The note said that he had bought everything since he didn’t want to further burden his family with the cost of a funeral.

He then went to a small hut near his field, which he would use to rest during the day while tending to his crops. It was there that he took his own life.

Early the next morning, his son, Madhavayya, who was taking the cattle out to graze, saw the pile of new things on his grandfather’s grave – his father’s laminated photograph was among them.

“I sensed something wrong and I rushed towards the hut. To my shock, my father’s body was lying there,” he told the BBC, weeping.

Mallappa’s story is becoming a depressingly familiar one in India.

Indian agriculture has been blighted by falling crop prices, a depleting water table and drought in the last few years.

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Farmers struggle with debt, and crop failures trigger farm suicides with alarming frequency. At least 300,000 farmers across the country have killed themselves since 1995.

Travelling to Mallappa’s farm, his peanut crop – ruined due to drought – is easily visible from the roadside.

“We have six acres of land. We drilled four tube wells to irrigate our crops, but three of them never supplied us with any water. The drought meant that even the fourth tube well did not give us enough water. We had planted tomato and peanuts, so we took a decision to divert water to the tomato crops since we felt we had a better chance of getting a good price for them,” Madhavayya said.

But the tomato harvest fetched a rock-bottom price. And Mallappa’s hopes – of repaying his debts from his earnings – were dashed.

Good harvests across the country over the last year have led to a crop glut, leading prices to nosedive.

The low price for tomato in 2018 meant that farmers lost roughly 1,000 rupees for every acre of tomato they harvested. Many of them dumped their entire crop on the roads to protest the price they were being offered for it.

Mallappa’s family says they never had the slightest indication that he was planning to end his life.

“When he left for the town that day, he told us he was going to pay off some of the interest on his loans, and would also come back with some provisions and fertiliser,” Madhavayya said.

“It seems he had planned his suicide for about a week, but none of us had the slightest idea.”

We met Mallappa’s wife, Marekka, in the one-room house where she lives with Madhavayya. Her three daughters are married and live in nearby villages, while her younger son moved to the southern city of Bangalore in search of a job.

“He was continuously taking loans for his crops, but they always failed because of the never-ending drought. This year, he thought he could pay off his debts with the harvest, but then we couldn’t even do that,” Marekka said.

She recalled that on the day he went into the town to shop for his own funeral, Mallappa had received a visitor in the morning.

She said that at least one of the people who he owed money to had threatened him.

Officials say that the drought in the region has been unprecedented – one of them told the BBC that it was the worst on record for the last 54 years.

“Mallappa’s death is an example of the severity of drought here. Instead of standing as security, owning agricultural land has become a liability for farmers,” said SM Bhasha, a human rights activist.

“The conditions in rural areas have deteriorated. The intensity of drought in many parts of the state is increasing. Villages are emptying – only the old are staying on. There isn’t even enough drinking water.”

Part of Mallappa’s loan was waived by the state government as part of a scheme intended to give relief to indebted farmers.

After his death, the government said it would provide his family with 500,000 rupees as compensation. A local official, Gopali Sreenivasulu, told the BBC that they would also settle his bank loans, amounting to 150,000 rupees.

However, his family is yet to receive any money.

Madhavayya says that he is still pinning his hopes on the tomato crop – and the possibility that the next harvest could fetch a better price.

“We don’t know what our fate is,” he said. “I am just irrigating the tomato plants in the hope that this may fetch money. If there are no rains and the crop fails, we will have no choice but to sell our land and cattle and migrate to a town.”

As we leave the village, we stop by the studio where Mallappa had his photograph laminated.

The man inside, Govindu, who also works as a freelance photographer, remembered him. “I took an advance and asked Mallappa to come two days later to collect the laminated photograph.”

When Mallappa returned two days later, Govindu said, he hadn’t laminated it yet. But Mallappa told him he needed it done immediately since he had no time.

“So I put everything else aside and did it on priority,” Gonvindu said.

“When I came across the news of his suicide in the newspaper, I realised he was the same person. If I had known what he was planning to do, I would have at least tried to delay it.”

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