|Hope Has Withered for India's Farmers (11/8/2006)|
EXCERPTS: "The costs have gone up immensely, like never before," said Arun Tulsiram Mahalle, 28, who lives here in Pahapal, a collection of narrow dirt lanes, mud homes and few modern amenities. "People can't take it anymore."
His and his neighbors' crops have been of uneven, often poor quality ever since agriculture officials encouraged them to switch over to more expensive, genetically modified seeds.
Hope Has Withered for India's Farmers
PAHAPAL, India - He found his father's body during his early-morning chores. Sixteen-year-old Vijay Chatale had barely adjusted his eyes to the gloom in the dirt-floor kitchen when he looked up and saw his dad hanging from one of the rafters.
Tragedy also struck the Gurnule household in the nearby village of Saikheda. Late one afternoon, Chandrakanta, 28, doused his clothes in kerosene, set himself ablaze and ran screaming into the courtyard. He died a few hours later.
An epidemic is sweeping through the Indian countryside, killing farmers by the hundreds in the nation's vast, sun-baked heartland. What afflicts them is not disease or famine but despair, so deep that it is driving men such as Chatale and Gurnule to take their lives at the rate of two a day.
Fueled by crushing debt, failing crops and government indifference, the suicides are a stark reminder of the desperate poverty that continues to engulf huge swaths of this nation of 1 billion, despite the enthusiastic portrayals of India at home and abroad as a software powerhouse, an outsourcing giant and an economic juggernaut with growth of 8% a year.
Fifteen years of market-oriented reforms have unleashed a wave of capital and entrepreneurialism across India. But though high-end sectors such as information technology have made impressive strides in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore, the benefits of reform have yet to extend to the hundreds of millions who toil on the land.
"Seventy percent of our population live in rural areas, live in hostile conditions," farming activist Kishor Tiwari said. "And they talk of 'mega-India,' 'India shining'? That's a lousy picture."
Falling commodities prices have put the squeeze on Indian farmers, the great majority of whom have only a few acres. The government also has slashed or phased out subsidies for some crops, shredding a key safety net.
The result is a growing social crisis most bleakly illustrated by the rash of suicides, in states from Punjab in the north to Kerala in the south, where 1,500 farmers are reported to have taken their lives in the last five years.
Hardest hit is this region, known as Vidarbha, an area about the size of Maine smack in the center of India. A map of the region hangs on Tiwari's office wall. Its most prominent markings are a profusion of black skulls, forming a grim diagram of death that keeps him and fellow activists busy day and night.
More than 700 farmers in Vidarbha, home to about 6 million agricultural laborers, have killed themselves in the last 14 months. Many drink pesticide; others jump down wells or hang or immolate themselves.
The real number of suicides could be much higher, as it is unlikely that every case is recorded by police or the media.
Nearly all the victims were cotton growers, generations of whom have cultivated this corner of Maharashtra state, since the time of the British Raj. It was once so profitable a crop that people called it "King Cotton." Now that tag has changed to "Killer Cotton."
The farmers have been hit by a double whammy: The cost of seeds, fertilizer and other supplies has shot up dramatically, while the state government has cut its guaranteed purchase price by 32% and bought up less of the harvest, forcing farmers to sell low to private traders.
Moreover, import duties on cotton have been reduced, leaving Indian growers at a disadvantage against cheaper American cotton, which, as critics point out, remains heavily subsidized by the U.S. government.
"The costs have gone up immensely, like never before," said Arun Tulsiram Mahalle, 28, who lives here in Pahapal, a collection of narrow dirt lanes, mud homes and few modern amenities. "People can't take it anymore."
His and his neighbors' crops have been of uneven, often poor quality ever since agriculture officials encouraged them to switch over to more expensive, genetically modified seeds. Those seeds, which produce insect-resistant plants, have turned out to be unsuitable for their small, non-irrigated plots, and the monsoons the farmers depend on to water their fields have been disappointing in recent years.
Like virtually everyone in the village, Mahalle has had to borrow money to stay afloat. But he's one of the lucky ones: He received 50,000 rupees (about $1,100) from the bank, at a reasonable 7% interest rate. Many other farmers, already in default on bank loans or rejected as high-risk, have gone down a more perilous path.
"They're mostly borrowing from private moneylenders, and the interest rate is exorbitant up to 50%, 60%, more than that in some cases," said Bibhuti Bhusan Mohanty, an expert on rural conditions at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics. "And it's not one year's borrowing, it's cumulative. Over the last two to three years they've been borrowing, and the debts are accumulating."
Kachru Chatale's family knew he had borrowed from local loan sharks, but he never said much more. In fact, he spoke less and less as time passed, worn with worry and at times not eating.
Last year, Chatale sold eight of his 12 acres to pay for his daughter's wedding, one of the biggest expenses for rural families. Then his crops failed.