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India’s shocking farmer suicide epidemic

Falling into a debt-trap and besieged by bad weather, thousands of farmers are taking their own lives each year.

Baba Umar  |

Bhagwan Datatery said his father was under tremendous financial pressure before killing himself [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

Umbrale, India –  After days of hushed chanting that “the sky betrayed” him, Datatery Popat Ghadwaje, 42, committed suicide by ingesting insecticides at his grape orchard.

Crushed under a $41,000 debt and a series of bank repayment notices, Ghadwaje of Umbrale village in the western state of Maharashtra finally lost hope when back-to-back hailstorms destroyed his Thompson grape plantation last month.

“He was under tremendous pressure,” Ghadwaje’s 16-year-old son, Bhagwan Datatery, told Al Jazeera.

“The harvest was his only hope. Hailstorms took everything away from us,” he said, describing how his father was found face up in the orchard, foaming at the mouth before he died.

Snaking, macadamised roads lead to this sleepy village, where pyramid-shaped hills look over the green landscape, and where vineyards and pomegranate orchards destroyed by storms stand apart.

Suicide among farmers is routine in India’s interior, yet Ghadwaje’s grim death still shocked many in the area.

Ghadwaje’s wife and mother of three Chaya (right) is now a widow with a hefty loan to repay [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

In the last 20 years, nearly 300,000 farmers have ended their lives by ingesting pesticides or by hanging themselves. Maharashtra state – with 60,000 farmer suicides – tops the list.

The suicide rate among Indian farmers was 47 percent higher than the national average, according to a 2011 census. Forty-one farmers commit suicide every day, leaving behind scores of orphans and widows.

In a country where agriculture remains the largest employment sector, it contributed only 13.7 percent to the GDP in 2012-13.

Agricultural investment in India is a big gamble. Farmers usually take out bank loans against land to buy seeds and fertiliser, pay salaries, and acquire irrigation equipment.

Local moneylenders often take the place of banks and boost interest rates year after year, creating a debt-trap for the farmers who rely on crop success – and prayers – for loan repayments.

The family of Dilip Ikaram Thackery, who killed himself [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

Long droughts, poor yields, and unseasonal rains contribute to the struggles that lead to suicides, which do not absolve the rest of the family from paying back a loan.

Ghadwaje’s wife and mother of three, Chaya, is now a widow with a hefty loan to repay. “Who will marry my daughter?” Chaya asked Al Jazeera, sobbing.

She said the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to pay $1,570 in compensation to the families of farmers who committed suicide, but that doesn’t come anywhere close to covering the bills.

“Ours is a debt-ridden family now… The banks will auction off our land … our cattle and this house,” she said. “The Modi government has not helped us. But if he [Modi] wished, he could waive our loans.”

Further up the road in Ladud village, another family mourns.

The last time Jaivant Thackery, 27, saw his father,  Dilip Ikaram Thackery, was in a 15-metre-deep well, struggling for minutes in the water below before succumbing.

“I had to hire three labourers to drag the body out of the well,” said Jaivant. “He didn’t need to end his life.”

The 55-year-old pomegranate farmer invested $23,640 in the farm, but hailstorms ruined his entire crop.

Family members said Thackery was worried he would be unable to repay the $7,880 loan he had taken out to acquire saplings and a drip irrigation system.

Jaivant Thackery shows the well where his father ended his life [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

Across rural India – where 70 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people live – farmers told Al Jazeera they face calamity after rains destroyed at least 18.98 million hectares of crops.

“Less than 20 percent of farmers in India are insured, exposing a vast majority of the farming community to the vagaries of weather, which lead them to taking desperate steps,” according to a recent report by India’s chamber of commerce.

It said about 32 million farmers had enrolled in crop insurance plans across India, however, delays in claims settlement led to farmers not being covered, “despite significant government subsidy”.

The primary reason for this was “flawed” insurance schemes, said food and trade policy analyst Devendra Sharma.

Campaigner Kishore Tiwari has monitored farmer suicides for more than a decade. He said the crisis is “not on the agenda” of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.

” BJP’s economic growth model isn’t meant for rural India,” Tiwari told Al Jazeera.

Tiwari said international prices of cotton have  dropped , which has hurt his community badly. More than 500 cotton farmers have committed suicide here since January, he said.

The family of Dilip Ikaram Thackery said he worried about not paying back his loan [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

The suicide issue reached the capital New Delhi too, after a farmer from northern Rajasthan state  hanged  himself from a tree during a rally called by the  opposition  to protest a controversial land acquisition bill.

Modi was quick to express sadness saying the nation was “deeply shattered” over the death.

“At no point must the hardworking farmer think he is alone. We are all together in creating a better tomorrow for the farmers of India,” he said.

Opposition parties say the proposed legislation will allow the forcible acquisition of farm land for corporate use – an accusation the right-wing BJP government denies.

Though Modi increased the amount of compensation paid out for devastated crops, the move didn’t help cool tempers among farmers who are suspicious of the land bill.

Many people in rural areas say agriculture is no longer profitable.

India loses 2,035  farmers  every day to other sectors, said a  study  by Indian NGO Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and about 76 percent are ready to quit agriculture for better jobs.

Ghadwaje’s 23-year-old son, Samadhan Datatre, was also interested in grape farming until his father’s death last month.

“But no more now,” he said. “What’s the benefit? What did my father get after decades of farming?”

Villagers in Dhindori told Al Jazeera indebted families also suffer social exclusion.

Young men refuse to marry into a family under debt because they know they won’t get a dowry, and a girl’s parents would never marry her off to a man whose family is unable to payoff loans, village elders said.

According to recent government data, about 52 percent of India’s agricultural households are indebted.

“We will soon have a huge population of daily-wage workers in India, and this is what the governments want,” Sharma said.


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