A harvest of despair

As crops fail and loans from moneylenders come due, desperate farmers in India increasingly turn to suicide


KARIMNAGAR, India -- At midmorning, the woman named Gourakka stood watching her son wade into the waters of the Godavari River to release the ashes of her husband, another farmer who had given up. She left his favorite meal of rice and egg curry on a palm frond by the river for his soul to eat.

Her husband, Kotari Madhukar, had committed suicide, an act she could trace back to their hopes of becoming more than landless laborers. Seeing so many farmers earn money from cotton and chili, they had borrowed from moneylenders to lease 2 acres.

She could blame the suicide on the family's inability to repay the loan, which caused them to lose the land, which deprived them of a decent income. Or on the bottle of pesticide that Madhukar chose to swallow, chemicals intended for the chili crop. After Madhukar collapsed under a tree, a tractor driver saw him and the family came running, but it was too late.

The moneylenders still visit, says Gourakka, who, like many people in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, goes by one name.

The family had leased the acreage and spent about $570 a year on the land, seed, fertilizer and pesticides. Because of interest of more than 30 percent a year, Madhukar owed about $2,270 by the time he died.

"They say, `He died. That's OK, you're here. You can pay the debt,'" she says. "They come every two or three days. Before he died, they would come daily."

Across India, where millions of farmers are struggling to eke out a living, thousands of farm workers have resorted to suicide, acts of desperation that highlight a widening rift between India's cities and the countryside.

The suicides have occurred in states rich and poor, from Punjab in the north to Andhra Pradesh in the south to the central state of Maharastra.

In Maharashtra, the suicide rate among farmers more than tripled from 1995 to 2004, according to the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development in Mumbai (the city better known as Bombay).

Government officials report that in the past five years, the number of suicides in Maharashtra and three other states numbered 8,900, a figure that some researchers say is significantly understated.

India's success stories - computer research institutes, technology start-ups, call centers serving customers around the world - are in cities, not the countryside.

The cities are where a new generation of credit holders live and work. In the countryside, farmers who have no land to use as collateral or default on previous loans and are forced to borrow from unregulated local moneylenders, whose interest rates sometimes exceed 100 percent a year. For those farmers, borrowing becomes a matter of life or death.

`Strong polarization'

"There has been a very strong polarization of development," says M.S. Swaminathan, chairman of the government's National Commission on Farmers, which was created two years ago to reform the country's agricultural policies.

"The rural areas started getting relatively less attention or no attention. The Indian farmer by and large has been bypassed by economic growth."

Farming families interviewed in three Indian states trace some of their problems to the rising cost of fertilizers, seeds and pesticides, a financial hardship made worse by farmers' limited access to banks.

The fickleness of weather and the paucity of irrigated land add to the risks and increase a farmer's chance of going into debt. So do rising costs for health care, their children's education and dowries.

Finally, there is the desire to do better, which almost always comes at a price: The landless want to lease land; those who lease want to own land; the marginal farmer strives to plant a larger area; the farmer with an average-size plot of land aspires to a larger spread.

"Their aspirations have gone up, their incomes have gone down, and they don't know what to do," says K.C. Suri, a political science professor at Nagarjuna University in Andhra Pradesh, where farmer suicides began in the late 1990s.

"They're able to see people living in a much more comfortable way, so they feel this deprivation. There is the impact of all of this on the psyche of the farmer."

The result is a country driven in different directions.

About 60 percent of Indians work in agriculture, but agriculture accounts for about 20 percent of the economy. Overall, the economy is growing by nearly 8 percent a year; agriculture hovers at about 2 percent.

"There are two pictures in India," says Kishore Tiwari, an advocate for farmers in Maharashtra, the third-largest state, as he unfurls a map where skulls and crossbones mark this year's most recent suicide victims.

"One picture is the index of the Indian stock exchange rising rapidly. But farmer suicides are jumping with the same speed. So these are the two Indias. One India is in Nagpur, Delhi and Mumbai."

"The other India, it's here."

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