Debt drives farmers to suicide
Anuj Chopra, Foreign Correspondent
- January 20. 2009 12:50AM UAE
Widow Kaushalya Amit Daeshettywar lost her husband after he consumed pesticide last year. Sanjit Das / The National
BAGGI, INDIA // Trapped in a deep mire of debt and faced with a failed crop for the second successive year, Ashok Deshattiwar, a 35-year-old cotton farmer, resorted to a desperate measure to end his misery.
Last month, in the quiet of a chilly night when his family lay asleep, he swallowed a bottle of pesticide, falling dead by the door jamb of his tiny mud-and-clay home in this obscure hamlet in central India.
For his distraught wife and two sons, Mr Deshattiwar left behind an arid patch of unproductive farm land and a mounting debt owed to a sahukar, a local loan shark.
“Cotton yield has been dwindling year after year,” said his widow, Kaushaliya Deshattiwar. “My husband was consumed with hopelessness.”
Since 1997, 182,936 Indian farmers have taken their lives and the numbers continue to rise. According to a recent study by the National Crime Records Bureau, 46 Indian farmers kill themselves every day – that is roughly one suicide every 30 minutes – an alarming statistic in a country where agriculture is the economic mainstay.
An estimated 16,625 farmers across India killed themselves in 2007, nearly one fourth of them in the state of Maharashtra. Farmer suicides are particularly endemic in villages such as Baggi in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, an agrarian belt once renowned as a prosperous “white gold” or cotton-growing region, but now infamous as “suicide country”.
“Farmers across India are in distress and despair,” said Kishor Tiwari, a farmer rights activist, “but Vidarbha is the epicentre of farm suicides”.
Vidarbha cotton farmers’ yearly costs – for genetically modified seeds, pesticides, fertilisers, electricity, water and labour – continue to rise, while the price of cotton has been declining with decreased productivity and quality.
Scant rainfall last year has exacerbated the crisis, giving rise to drought-like conditions, not favourable for the genetically modified seeds, which require twice the amount of water compared to traditional seeds. A dearth of irrigation facilities has made matters worse, farmers complain.
Before Vithal Bhandarwar, a 40-year-old farmer in a village called Kelapur, killed himself in early December, he borrowed heavily from a local money lender at a whopping 50 per cent interest rate to invest in seeds and fertilisers to improve the cotton yield from his 5.75 acre farm.
But his crop was devastated after a bout of red leaf disease, a physiological plant disorder – colloquially called “laliya” – that causes an abnormal red colouration in cotton leaves, turning them dry before the plant wilts away. Cotton diseases are now increasingly common across Vidarbha’s farms, said Mr Tiwari, becoming a serious detriment to farmers’ incomes.
“Laliya is like the HIV virus in human beings,” said Vijay Bhandarwar, 20, who revealed that his father killed himself swallowing the same pesticide he had bought to subdue the red leaf disease. “My father probably realised he would never be able to pay off his debts.”
The absence of a dependable rural credit delivery system, experts said, has left farmers vulnerable to sahukars, who disburse loans easily, without the time consuming paperwork required by banking institutions, but charge exploitative interest rates.
Harashawardhan Patil, a federal minister, recently declared the state was contemplating bringing a stringent federal law to rein in unscrupulous money lenders.
He also announced a loan-waiver package worth 6.2 billion rupees (Dh468.8m) at the end of December. Farmers, according to this scheme, are entitled to get a loan waiver of up to 20,000 rupees. It would benefit four million farmers and stem the grisly spate of suicides, the government claims.
Although this is being cautiously welcomed by farmers, similar financial packages have not ameliorated their suffering in the past. Farmers’ suicides continued unabated even after the federal government announced a 1.075bn rupee package for farmers in Dec 2005. And the suicide rate continued to climb even after Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, earmarked a 3.75bn rupee relief package for Vidarbha’s farmers in July 2006.
But improving their plight requires more than merely doling out cash to farmers, experts said. Measures are needed to make farming profitable and set the rural economy on track.
In April 2007, Green Earth Social Development Consulting, a non-governmental organisation released a report after doing an audit of relief packages offered to Vidarbha’s farmers. If given an option, it found that 40 per cent of farmers said they would like to quit agriculture and take up some other profession.
That is hardly surprising given 8m farmers across India quit farming between 1991 and 2001 alone.
The country has witnessed an unprecedented economic boom since the early 2000s, but it has largely bypassed the farming sector. In the past decade, even as subsidies for corporate farmers rose in the West, said Prof K Nagraj from the Madras Institute of Development Studies, India cut subsidies to its own farmers. The collapse of investment in agriculture, he said, has made farming unprofitable, pushing farmers into a vicious trap of debt.
Agriculture employs two-thirds of India’s 1.15 billion population, but it contributes a minuscule fraction to GDP growth. India’s farm sector grew by just 2.3 per cent over the past three years and grain production remains stagnant. Prof Nagraj said an agrarian crisis is brewing.
“From the mid-90s onwards,” Prof Nagraj said, “prices and farm incomes crashed. As costs rose, so did indebtedness.”
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