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Farmer suicides reflect growing desperation in rural India

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About every 30 minutes in India, a farmer commits suicide
'Farming in India is always a gamble,' says agriculture and development writer Atul Deulgaonkar
Some Indian farmers see no way out when bad weather or other conditions ruin their crops

The day before his little sister's engagement party, Vibhishan Tapse was in a buoyant mood. He laughed with his mother and teased the bride-to-be as they prepared food and set out sweets for 200 guests who would begin arriving the next morning.

Months earlier, the 23-year-old Tapse had told his father: You paid for my two older sisters' weddings. Let me take care of this one.

That meant paying the bridal dowry, a costly but time-bound custom in their community of smallholder farmers in western India. He met with a local loan agent to secure about $800, one-third of the dowry payment, enough to satisfy the groom's family and allow the engagement party to proceed.

Although it was a princely sum, Tapse was confident of paying it back. The low green hills were studded with wheat and cotton ready for harvesting, among the best crops the family had seen in years.

But that night in March, dark clouds rolled over the village. Heavy rain, then hail, pelted the farms. Balls of ice crashed into the tin roofs and burrowed into the fresh cotton, a freak storm devouring miles and miles of crops.

Rain was still falling when Tapse walked out to a dirt ridge overlooking the family's small farm to inspect the damage. At 4:30 a.m. his brother called him. "I'm coming home," Tapse said.

A few hours later, the clouds finally clearing, a farmer noticed a figure hanging from a tree atop the ridge. Shouts rippled through the village. Tapse's brother dialed his number again, and the cellphone jingled in the trousers of the man in the tree.

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About every 30 minutes in India, a farmer commits suicide.

Since 1995, the first year the government began keeping detailed records, about 300,000 farmers have taken their lives. The 2011 census found that the suicide rate for farmers was 47% higher than the national average.

The suicides are a well-known phenomenon in India, where newspapers regularly carry stories about farmers — almost always men — taking their lives by hanging, drowning or ingesting pesticides. Yet there are few programs to provide farm families with the psychological support that experts say they need to relieve the worries of rural life.

Recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi has focused on the "new" India, but far from the country's rising cities, 600 million people still make their living from agriculture, which for most means backbreaking work on ever-shrinking family plots without the aid of irrigation.

Like Tapse here in the agricultural state of Maharashtra, they plant, tend and harvest by hand. And they pray for decent rainfall. It is a precarious existence even in good times, yet in a deeply traditional society, failure often brings a shame that is too much for farmers to bear.

"Farming in India is always a gamble," said Atul Deulgaonkar, a Maharashtran author who has written extensively about agriculture and development. "Even if everything goes well, the rains are good, the crop is excellent, still farmers cannot get a good profit."

Recent years have brought a procession of shocks: diminishing groundwater, industrial encroachment, expensive new seed varieties, falling prices of cotton and other key crops, and climatic disasters. This year's sudden hailstorm in Maharashtra laid waste to more than $150 million worth of crops spread over 3,000 square miles.

"That is the saddest story of the hailstorm," Deulgaonkar said. "At the moment it struck, the crops were fantastic."

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Tapse, a gentle young man with wide-set eyes and a wispy mustache, was the middle child of five of a family living in Chandan Savargaon, a village of about 3,000. Like many boys here, he dropped out of school after ninth grade to work full time on the family farm: 10 acres on which they grew cotton, sugar cane, wheat and gram.

His mother, Bhagriti, a somber woman with doleful brown eyes, said Tapse had worked hard to improve production. In their two-room brick home, there were signs of the family's modest success: spotless steel cooking vessels lining one wall and a satellite dish sticking out of the sheet-metal roof.

Last year a marriage was arranged between Tapse's 21-year-old sister, Sunita, and a distant relative, a young man whose family ran a fertilizer shop in a nearby town. Although they were close in age, Tapse looked after Sunita almost like a daughter, and he eagerly pitched in as his mother planned a menu for the engagement party and went into town to pick out a bridal sari.

"Vibhishan took care of everything," his mother said. "He would do anything for her."

Although dowries have been officially outlawed in India for five decades, many brides' families still contribute cash, gifts and jewelry toward the marriage.

In rural Maharashtra, dowries can reach into the thousands of dollars, well above what most farm families earn in an average year. Many resort to emergency loans from private lenders known as sawkars, who extend credit far more easily than banks but often charge usurious interest rates of as much as 120% per year.

"It is tradition," said Vijay Gheware, an activist who works with Maharashtran farmers. "These ceremonies are unnecessary, but they drive families into debt."

The pressure of the wedding weighed on Tapse. His family had agreed to pay about $2,500, buy half an ounce of gold and cover the wedding expenses even though Sunita was marrying into a more prosperous clan.

Tapse didn't let on that he was worried about finances, but others in the village knew he was stretched thin. In the days before Sunita's party, he slept in a thatched-roof shed near the farm instead of at home, to keep a closer eye on the harvest.

"He took a big loan," one neighbor said. "He was under stress."

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When the hailstorm ruined his crop, farmer Bhujang Bhosle, who had taken out a loan for his daughter's wedding, came home and gulped down a half-pint of insecticide. A cousin in their village of Gondri found him passed out and took him to a hospital, where doctors managed to pump the poison out of his body.

While he recovered, psychologists coached him not to bottle up his anxiety. The hospital waived his bills, and relatives who lent him money told him not to pay it back right away.

After barely a month, he was back working on the farm.

"Until the crop comes home, tension is there," said Bhosle, a reed-thin man with droopy eyes. "What can we do? It's not in our hands."

In most other cases, help doesn't arrive in time. Families rarely spot the warning signs. Some suicides appear to have been on impulse.

That day in March, Tapse gave no hint of what he was about to do. The rope was hastily pilfered from outside a neighbor's house. The tree he chose stood at the entrance to the village, the most prominent spot in Chandan Savargaon.

The tree has since been chopped down. His sister's party was called off — the food tossed, the sweets given to another family celebrating a wedding — but she was married two months later, dowry and all.

In the end, his mother said in a subdued voice, Tapse's anxiety was premature: A relative helped them out with the rest of the dowry, and just enough cotton survived the hailstorm that the family managed to pay off the loan.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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