Hope Gone, Indian Farmers See Suicide as a Way Out
MAKRAJPET, India Even when Putta Shankara was lucky enough to find back-breaking casual work as a farm laborer, his debt to the local moneylender rose four times more than his earnings.
At a daily wage of 30 rupees, it would have taken him almost 15 years without a day's rest to pay back the 150,000 rupees (US$3,240) he owed, let alone the ballooning interest.
Then the work, like Shankara's own tiny, abandoned fields, slowly dried up, and he lost all hope.
So with monsoon clouds heavy over southern India, the 28-year-old drank some toddy; walked into his gloomy, dirt-floored room in Makrajpet village; and hanged himself.
He left behind a dazed widow, Laxmi; their 6-month-old son; and 6-year-old daughter.
"We could only cry; no words could say anything," said his brother, Siddaih, 38, looking around the room a few days later. "He was very depressed. He was behaving strangely. It was the pressure of the money lenders and the burden of his debts."
Across India, thousands of farmers broken by debt, drought, and failed crops have killed themselves in recent years, mostly by hanging or drinking pesticide.
No one knows just how many. Analysts estimate that more than 1,000 farmers have killed themselves since May alone, when a new Congress-led government came to power in New Delhi on a wave of resentment among rural and urban poor who felt left out of India's economic boom.
"It's a crisis, an epidemic," said K. Nagaraj, an expert on farmer suicides and poverty at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in southern India, the worst-hit area. "The tragic farmers' suicides are ... an extreme symptom of a much deeper rural distress."
Almost 700 million Indians rely on the land for a living, often a life of wretchedness, hunger, and disease; condemned to dirt-floored huts of mud-brick, straw, and cow dung; working tiny plots that cannot support a single family.
Makrajpet is an ugly, shambolic cluster of huts barely an hour's drive from Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh state.
Hyderabad ("City of Pearls") is a gleaming metropolis built on India's high-tech dream, with more brand-name shops and modern malls than the country's capital, New Delhi.
But just as Hyderabad is a showcase for India's strong economic growth among the world's fastest at more than 8 percent in 2003/04 the state itself has come to represent for many Indians the growing rural despair.
Six years of drought have not helped. And with this monsoon, again, the dark clouds promised but did not deliver.
But Shankara's tragedy is not just due to bad luck.
Economic reform has changed the way poor and illiterate farmers work their land, encouraging them to borrow heavily to sink wells, buy new high-yielding seeds, or plant cash crops.
Banks have now largely pulled out of farm lending. Landlords, at least some of whom felt honor-bound to waive debts in the worst cases, have been replaced by new commercial lenders charging 25 to 35 percent interest a year.
Often these same lenders sell supplies and services to the farmers, only to buy goods and equipment back from defaulters at fire sale prices to recover their money.
"It's what I would call a classic case of predatory commercialization," said Nagaraj. "The rural landscape is in a shambles. Agricultural credit and finance schemes have collapsed. Prices have pushed most inputs beyond the reach of the small farmer. For many, the move from food crops to cash crops proved fatal."
While farmers in some areas have reportedly killed themselves over debts as small as 8,000 rupees ($175), most around Makrajpet owe between 50,000 and 200,000 rupees ($1,090 to $4,360).
How do so many people, unable to get enough work to feed their families, dig themselves into such debt? Sheer desperation.
Most of India's farmland is not irrigated. Millions of farmers rely on the capricious monsoons or wells sunk deep into the earth. But uncontrolled tapping of groundwater is making water ever harder to find, hitting small landowners hardest.