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Indian farmers' suicide rate causes alarm

Debt and pressures caused more than 300,000 in past 10 years

<p>'If only I could read his mind, I would have stopped him,' says Sashikala, of her husband, an Indian farmer who killed himself six months ago. (Photo by Ritu Sharma)</p>

'If only I could read his mind, I would have stopped him,' says Sashikala, of her husband, an Indian farmer who killed himself six months ago. (Photo by Ritu Sharma)

  • Ritu Sharma, New Delhi
  • India
  • July 24, 2014
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Burdened with debts, agricultural losses and increasing pressure from moneylenders, Indian farmer Gajanan Gatkawar followed a path too many Indian farmers before him have chosen: he killed himself.

He was found six months ago hanging from a tree on his farm.

"My husband had a loan of some 300,000 rupees [US$5,000]. He mortgaged his land for cultivation but the yield was lower than what he owed. He had no money to repay the loans and support the family," his wife Sashikala Gatkawar told ucanews.com.

Sashikala now works as a farm hand and struggles to feed her three children.

"If only I could read his mind, I would have stopped him from taking this extreme step. Now I am here all alone to fend for my family," she said.

Shashikala is not alone. She is one of thousands widowed by farmer suicides.

In all, at least 300,000 farmers have taken this extreme step in India over the past 10 years; 30,000 of them in the past two years alone, according to data collected by Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmers' rights organization.

A 2011 census showed that more farmers commit suicide in Maharashtra, where Shashikala lives, than in any other state. The national rate was 16.3 per 100,000 farmers, while in Maharashtra it was 29.1 for 100,000 farmers, according to the census.

Within Maharashtra, the Vidarbha region, known for cotton cultivation, has come to be known as the epicenter of farmer suicides. In the first six months of this year more than 500 farmers killed themselves, VJAS founder Kishor Tiwari said. In 2013 the organization counted 1,000 farmer suicides in the region.

"There is a huge agrarian and economic crisis in the region. Increased farming costs, reduced yield, continues farm failures and escalating interest on bank loans have put stress on people. Moreover the government has removed subsidies on pesticides and seeds," Tiwari, said.

Unpredicted rainfall and a prolonged drought has led to low yields and failure for the region's mono crop culture and crop failure, he said.

India produces some six million tons of the world's 25 million tons of cotton each year, making it the world's second largest producer after China, which accounts for 6.5 million tons of global cotton. Maharashtra produces close to 25 percent of the nation's cotton, most of it from Vidarbha.

The region's small-scale farmers are continually facing a "business of loss", because they largely depend on monsoons for cotton, a water-dependent cash crop, Tiwari said.

Last year, heavy, continual rains damaged the cotton crop, while this year a lack of rain during June's sowing period will adversely affect the cotton yield, he said.

Farmers like Ravindra Rukmareddy of Wanjri village replanted three times this season because of a lack of water.

Each time seeds cost some US$30 a hectare and "this time it cost me three times that", Rukmareddy said.

At very best, a hectare can produce about US$670 of cotton on the open market. The cost of seeds, pesticides and fertilizers cost an average of US$415.

"In the past few years the harvest was not even enough to meet the cost of farming because of unseasonal rains. People have been taking loans to farm and interest was accumulating," he said.

Bank officials say the loan default rate is quite high among farmers. Vijay Dikshit, manager of the Bank of Maharashtra's branch in Pandharkwada in Yavatmal district said about 60 percent of the 1,500 farmers who have taken a loan from his bank have defaulted.

"The rest are paying, but even they are not regular," he said.

He said the bank has been "very liberal" with non-paying farmers. But once a farmer defaults, he is scared of returning to the bank for another loan. Instead, the farmer takes money from private money lenders, "who want to take back the money by hook or crook", Dikshit said.

Tiwari's organization, which helps widows like Sashikala find alternative income, said the government was not doing enough to help people.

The government has fixed a maximum selling price for cotton, which "is faulty and unscientific" he said. According to Tiwari, the maximum price was fixed to keep cotton prices low. Rising inflation and increased living costs are choking the farmers, he said. He wanted the government to offer financial relief for small-scale cotton farmers.

However, Dattatreya Gaekwad, district superintendent of agriculture in Yavatmal told ucanews.com that the state government this year launched "a weather-based crop insurance scheme for farmers in 12 districts, including Yavatmal".

Gaekwad said that the government is also offering about USD$1,670 to the families of those who committed suicide.

Tiwari said the government needs to implement programs that will prevent farmer suicides.

"Today’s farmers need sustainability in agriculture and regular income. It is high time that the government became serious about their problems," he said. 

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