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Story Publication logo March 11, 2008

Suicides Plague Indian Farmers Struggling to Adapt to Changing Economics


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Today Maoist insurgents keen to exploit the state's enduring weaknesses stalk the Hindu heartland...

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Tribal girl directs water buffalo along forest road, near Rani Bodli, Bijapur district.

NASHIK, India -- On a recent afternoon, Seetabai Atthre heard a faint cry from the edge of a vineyard her family has cultivated for more than 40 years on the arid plains of northern Maharashtra state. Searching through the furrows, she found her husband, Vishal, smoldering on the ground next to an empty can of kerosene. He died in a local hospital three days later from severe burns.

The Atthre farm had not turned a profit in more than two years, and 65-year-old Vishal could no longer secure loans from local banks to pay off the interest on the $5,600 he already owed.

"This is wrong, and it's killing us," said Sanjay Gangode, the Atthre's neighbor at a village gathering of debt-ridden grape farmers. "There is no future here."

While India's economy surges forward on the crest of the wave of globalization, thousands of farmers are taking their own lives every year to escape the stress of mounting debt and an uncertain future. Analysts cite several driving factors: crop failure linked to the use of agrochemicals and climate change; the price-plunging effects of U.S. farm subsidies on global markets; state restrictions on trade, exports and transport; and the dumping of surplus crops in an oversaturated domestic market.

"The phenomena of indebtedness will recur," said Sharad Joshi, founder of Shetkari Sanghatana, a leading farmers' rights organization, "as long as the policies to depress agricultural prices continue."

Legacy of Green Revolution

Yet this is just part of the picture. In the 1960s, India underwent its own Green Revolution in favor of high-yield farming to cope with acute food shortages, which were plaguing the country. Plant breeding, irrigation development and the use of synthetic fertilizers financed by the government gradually succeeded in ramping up production. Rice yields, for example, jumped from two tons per 2.5 acres to six tons within 30 years, according to government figures. Today India is a major rice exporter, and the world's second-largest producer of fruits and vegetables after the United States.

But, in a perplexing twist, the same farmers that shook off poverty over the years are dealing with the backlash of their own remarkable transformation.

Standards of living have risen, but so too have the costs of operating a farm. Meanwhile, an excess of farmers growing bigger crops has created a commodities glut that exceeds demand at home and abroad, lowering net income. To stay in business, farmers are forced to take out loans at high interest, often just to service existing debt. Once credit is exhausted with state or cooperative banks, they may turn to private lenders charging even more exorbitant rates. And when they fall further behind, thousands every year see suicide as the only way out.

"Suicide has become so common that no one takes it seriously anymore," said Giridhar Patil, an agricultural activist based in Nashik. "It's a routine thing now."

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there were 4,453 reported farm suicides in Maharashtra state alone in 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available, an increase of 527 compared to 2005. This figure represents over a quarter of the national total of 17,060, and the highest total recorded "in any year for any state" since the bureau began recording farm suicides. Sharp spikes were also reported in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states. Overall, at least 87,567 farmers killed themselves between 2002 and 2006 -- or about one farmer suicide every 30 minutes, the bureau says.

The phenomenon has received some media coverage in recent years, notably in the eastern cotton-growing heartland of Vidarbha district, sometimes referred to as "suicide country." After a visit last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged millions in debt relief to bail out struggling farmers. Yet suicides continue unabated despite the trickle of aid, dispelling theories that the trend is linked to specific crops such as cotton.

Still, some government officials have downplayed the issue. Vilasrao Deshmukh, chief minister of Maharashtra, argued the day after the NCRB report was published that not every suicide is caused by debt and he said suicides are on the decline.

Nevertheless a 2006 report by Srijit Mishra, an economist at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Mumbai, found that the suicide rate among male farmers in Maharashtra has risen from 15 per 1,000 people to 57 per 1,000 in the past 10 years.

About four hours drive northeast from Mumbai, the agrarian communities around Nashik city boast a mild climate and rich soil not unlike California's Napa Valley. Fruit stands and onion depots line the highway that wends through a patchwork of vineyards under a cloudless horizon, broken by camel-colored humps of rock. Despite the ideal environment, 53 farmers committed suicide in Nashik district last year, according to police records. In a tragically symbolic gesture, the majority drank pesticides.

In the village of Umbarkhad, less than a mile from the Atthre farm, Parshram Athari plies the same 5-acre grape farm where he grew up. At first glance, it appears he and his family of five have prospered: a two-storey concrete home with a satellite dish overlooks the property; the vines are hedged and well-irrigated, tended by a staff of day-laborers who, depending on the season, carefully pack one of four export-quality varieties into stamped cardboard boxes. However, Athari is $17,500 in debt, an insurmountable sum under present circumstances.

Some 15 years ago, his farm produced 26,000 pounds of grapes an acre. These days an acre yields about 11,000 pounds, despite production costs that have quadrupled. A hefty share must be spent on fertilizers, whose harsh chemicals deplete soil nutrients, making it much harder to regroup when a crop is lost to drought. The tractor he purchased when the farm was profitable now sits idle, a rusty relic from better days. In the long run, he worries that he won't have enough to send his eldest daughter to a good university or pay for her dowry when she is ready to marry -- an event integral to a family's status in village life.

"The [laborers] we employ are better off than we are today," said Athari, explaining that the 12 percent interest he pays on his loan leaves him with less than $200 a month to cover household expenses. "Our costs are going up and market prices are going down, so we don't have enough to make ends meet."

The same grapes he sells to wholesalers for 30 cents per 2.2 pounds might fetch $2.50 in a Dubai supermarket. This imbalance is made worse, he added, because the Indian government bans exports if domestic prices rise, thereby reducing potential profits and flooding the domestic market.

U.S. Subsidies Depress Prices

Despite the apparent role of Indian laws, many blame globalization for the price volatility, which has hit Vidarbha's 3.2 million cotton growers the hardest. As the world's largest cotton producer, the United States provides massive subsidies to its farmers that allows them to sell at an artificially low cost that undercuts farmers overseas.

Over the past decade, many Indian farmers have also begun growing engineered Bt cotton seeds, made by U.S.-based Monsanto Co., since they tend to produce a higher yield. The catch is that new seeds and fertilizer must be bought each year, costing farmers thousands more dollars upfront. Because soil quality has been so degraded during the years of using fertilizers, pesticides and engineered seeds, switching back to the old methods, including the use of un-engineered seeds, is virtually impossible for most farmers.

"Alien technology has done the damage," said Devinder Sharma, a New Delhi-based expert on food and trade policy. "The accepted use of chemical fertilizers, hybrid seeds and insecticides is killing Indian farmers. We have left the farmers to themselves, and it's a miracle they have survived this long."

As a result, desperate farmers have begun to mobilize in support of a debt waiver proposal that has floated around government corridors in New Delhi. Mohan Dharia, a former commerce minister turned social activist, had announced that a nationwide protest would begin March 1 if the waiver and demands for fair prices were not accepted by the end of February, saying that "political parties can ignore farmers at their own peril."

On Feb. 29, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram responded with a new budget that includes a $15 billion loan waiver package that would apply to "small and marginal farmers" who owe money to state banks. But opposition parties complain there are too many restrictions that render the vast majority ineligible, and that a one-time waiver would do little to solve the long-term problem.

Struggling farmers welcomed the decision, though they harbor no illusions it will bring an end to state policies that overwhelmingly promote urban industry over agriculture.

"The government knows we will take out more loans in the end and fall in the same trap," said Nivruti Dokhale, an onion farmer who is $ 8,000 in debt.

Farmer activist Sharma says the real challenge ahead will be to create viable alternatives to farming, while integrating the legions of rural poor now flocking to cities in search of a better life.

Three weeks after he lit his father's funeral pyre, Balasa Atthre says he would rather leave the family farm than assume the debt and heavy responsibilities left behind.

"Sometimes I think about running off to the city, but I have no education and there is no guarantee of work. And what would my mother do?"


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