|Destitute and dying on India's farms (18/4/2006)|
Destitute and dying on India's farms
SUNNA, India Discussing the effectiveness of pesticides as a human poison is not a very cheerful topic for a wedding, but Radika Mamidwar's wedding was not an entirely cheerful occasion.
Four months ago, her father, Subhash, drank a quantity of monocrotophos - a highly toxic organophosphate used to kill insects, long since banned in the United States - and died alone in his cotton field near their home.
The cotton harvest had failed and debts to money lenders and the bank were mounting.
The impending costs of the imminent wedding made a dire financial situation impossible, and he picked the chemical he hoped would kill him fastest. He was the third farmer in the village to commit suicide this season.
In the Vidarbha cotton belt, which stretches across central India, to the eastern part of the state of Maharashtra, 451 cotton farmers have killed themselves since the beginning of this harvest; about 2,300 have committed suicide since 2000.
Of the 3.4 million cotton farmers in this region, 95 percent are believed to be struggling with heavy debt, according to the local farmers' support network, the Vidarbha Jan Aandolan Samiti.
The farmers who commit suicide represent a tiny minority who abandon the battle for survival, but thousands more are living on the brink.
The deaths are symbolic of a greater malaise in Indian agriculture. The country has 120 million farmers, and agriculture accounts for the livelihood of two-thirds of the Indian population, but as new wealth is flaunted in the cities, most small farmers are still living in conditions of profound deprivation.
This year, in addition to the problems in Maharashtra, crop failures in Punjab, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have prompted hundreds of farmers to kill themselves. Some groups of bankrupt farmers have erected signs on the highway offering up their village for sale as a way to raise money.
Supervising a small, subdued wedding party in his absence, Subhash's widow, Suverna Mamidwar, said she knew her husband had been concerned about the unexpected costs involved with planting a new genetically modified cotton seed this year. It had been heavily advertised by the state Agricultural Ministry, but it had not delivered the promised high yield.
Subhash owed 40,000 rupees, or $890, to the bank, and about 100,000 rupees more to private lenders in the village - with no way of repaying the loans.
"I could see that he was worried, but I had no idea he would commit suicide," she said.
Her house, with its carved wooden doors and tiled roofs, arranged around a generous central courtyard, is a reminder of a time when cotton was profitable.
One of the guests, Kishar Sikkalwar, the leader of a neighboring village, spoke more angrily.
"He should have told us about his problems, and not done such a foolish thing," he said.
It is not clear that Sikkalwar would have been able to offer much help. He is himself owes the bank about 100,000 rupees, which he cannot repay because of crop failure.
Plunging the wedding party into deeper desolation, he rattled off the names of seven farmers he knew who have killed themselves this season as a result of the poor harvest.
"One man drowned himself, but the others took the quickest route. If they didn't drink monocrotophos, they drank endosulfan" - also an insecticide.
Once known as white gold because it was such a profitable crop, cotton is no longer a money-making venture in India.
The growing sophistication of agricultural methods has made cotton farming more and more expensive over the decades, and the Indian government has gradually moved away from subsidizing farmers' production. Cotton is more vulnerable to pests than wheat or rice, and farmers are forced to invest heavily in pesticides and fertilizer.
Two years ago a new genetically modified seed, Bt, was introduced into India, and enthusiastically endorsed by the local government. Its manufacturer, Monsanto, said it was resistant to boll weevil - the main cotton pest - and required just two sprays of insecticide for every crop, instead of the usual eight.
The modified seed sold for about four and a half times the cost of normal seed, but many farmers opted to buy it because they believed it was indestructible and would give a higher yield.
They were devastated when many of the Bt cotton plants were afflicted in November with a reddening that destroyed much of the crop. Rain at the wrong time was considered part of the probl