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Debt-laden Farmers in India See No Way Out But Suicide

Reduced Subsidies, Predatory Lenders, and Monsanto, are Among Factors

by Sam Dolnick
Associated Press

"At least 160,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997"

KOCHI, India - On the last night of his life, the farmer walked into his dusty fields, choked down pesticide and waited to die.

He owed more than $1,000 to banks and moneylenders and had told his wife that if the cotton harvest was bad this year, he would kill himself.

Pandurang Chindu Surpam left the near-barren fields he worked with his sons to share a last meal with his family. Hours later, he died. He was 45.

Crushed by debts most Westerners would deem inconsequential, farmers like Surpam killed themselves at a rate of 48 a day between 2002 and 2006 - more than 17,500 a year, according to experts who have analyzed government statistics. At least 160,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997, said K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

The epidemic dates to the 1990s and is generally attributed to a toxic blend of slashed subsidies, tougher global competition, drought, predatory moneylenders and expensive genetically modified seeds.

"It's one of the largest public health disasters to hit India since independence," said professor Charles Nuckols of Brigham Young University, an anthropologist who has studied Indian village life for decades.

In northern India, authorities have gone so far as to ban a type of cheap hair dye because it was being drunk to induce death by kidney failure.

But it is India's cotton belt, a land of searing temperatures and backbreaking work, that has been hit hardest by the suicides.

In Maharashtra state, farmers say things have never been harder. Owing more than they earn, they have become gamblers of the highest stakes, betting their land and their lives on one more good crop.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has visited some of the widows, and the 2008 budget offers some debt relief.

But the farmers say their plight is largely being ignored as the country rushes to embrace the global marketplace. Few find it reassuring that India's agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, doubles as the nation's top cricket official.

A decade ago, the government began cutting farm subsidies as it liberalized the managed socialist economy. The farmers' costs rose as the tariffs that had protected their products were lowered. It was a combination, analysts say, that made small farms even harder to sustain.

Meanwhile, banking reforms forced farmers to be more dependent on private moneylenders. These generally allow the farmers only 11 months to pay back their loans at interest rates of more than 100 percent a year, or else they seize the land at a drastically reduced rate.

Farmers and analysts say another blow was the introduction of genetically modified cotton seeds, notably St. Louis-based Monsanto Co.'s "Bt" seeds, which are resistant to boll worms. The seeds can be more productive and have become standard in much of Maharashtra but can be three times more expensive to maintain than traditional seeds.

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