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Hope Has Withered for India’s Farmers

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“He used to look worried and tense -- that much we could see,” said his widow, Meera Bai. “But he never shared anything with us, and he always met the needs of the family. If we needed sugar, there was sugar. He kept to himself.”

On June 22, a muggy, showery night, Chatale went to sleep on the porch with two of his boys, including 16-year-old Vijay. At some point, the 45-year-old farmer gently eased past his slumbering sons, went into the kitchen, knotted a noose around his neck and hanged himself.

The trauma of discovering his father shows in Vijay’s dark eyes. The youth has dropped out of school to find day work to support his mother and two younger siblings, who have been left with nothing -- friends and relatives scrounged up two sacks of rice so they wouldn’t starve.

Chatale’s death made no headlines. But throughout that week, the ups and downs of the Bombay Stock Exchange were, as usual, front-page news, reflecting what critics say are the government’s and the media’s skewed priorities, an obsession with a stock market in which only a tiny fraction of Indians invest while hundreds of millions of farmers struggle to survive.

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Agriculture has taken a back seat since the beginning of India’s economic liberalization. By contrast, China, Asia’s other developing behemoth, put agrarian reform at the top of the agenda when it began opening up its economy in the late 1970s. India leaped immediately into industrial reform, and now sectors such as service and high-tech command worldwide attention.

R.S. Deshpande, a scholar who has studied the epidemic of farmer suicides, said it was emblematic that the agriculture section of the government’s annual economic survey was relegated from the second chapter of the report to the ninth. Eight years ago, he said, federal officials stopped seeking input from regional agricultural research centers in formulating agrarian policy, despite evidence of a looming crisis in the countryside.

“This is intentional neglect,” said Deshpande, of the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bangalore. “It’s not that policymakers were unaware of the problems.”

Not a single high-ranking Maharashtra state leader has visited Vidarbha since the suicides began to pile up, activist Tiwari said.

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When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived for an official visit in late June, he reportedly looked stunned when distraught farmers described their plight and relatives told of the deaths of loved ones.

Singh unveiled an $830-million relief package for Vidarbha’s farmers, including measures to reschedule debt, waive interest and fund more than 500 irrigation projects.

Whether the money will be spent as intended, however, is unclear. India’s bloated bureaucracy sucks up a good portion of state funds. Corruption is rampant. The daily newspaper the Hindu reported recently that previously approved irrigation plans in Vidarbha had languished for decades, while other projects racked up cost overruns of several hundred percent.

State officials have also been slow to disburse financial assistance promised to the families of those who committed suicide. In Saikheda village, Bhapurao Gurnule has yet to receive word on his compensation request in the wake of the self-immolation of his son Chandrakanta on April 1.

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“We didn’t know he would take such a drastic step,” said Gurnule, 77. “He’d sold his gold chains and his wife’s gold earrings.... There was nowhere else to turn for money.”

The new relief package provides for easier access to credit at low rates. But activists say that won’t reverse declining yields, or halt the slide in cotton prices, or wipe away the ruinous debt farmers are already staggering under. Nor will it alleviate their intense mental anguish.

“Some kind of serious counseling is required,” scholar Mohanty said. “It’s not just providing them with credit or other schemes. That won’t reduce the problem entirely.”

Announcement of the new relief package has failed to stem the tide of despair. In fact, the suicide rate has gone up. Since the prime minister’s visit, at least 100 more farmers in Vidarbha have killed themselves -- an average of three a day.

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Chu was recently on assignment in Pahapal.


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