Sunday, May 27, 2007

Farmers commit suicide as Indian PM asks for economic equity

Farmers commit suicide as Indian PM asks for economic equity

NEW DELHI — At least 11 farmers have committed suicide in the past few days in a western Indian state after failing to repay bank loans because of crop failures, an activist group said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh challenged business leaders Thursday to ensure the poor benefit from India’s economic boom, and to shun the West’s “wasteful lifestyles” of greed and conspicuous consumption.

“Such vulgarity insults the poverty of the less privileged,” Singh said at the annual conference of the Confederation of Indian Industry, a leading business group.

He promised to continue fostering a business-friendly environment, but said businesses that have benefited from the boom must do more to improve conditions for ordinary people. Nearly 40 percent of the 1.1 billion people in India live on less than $1 a day.

In the cotton-growing districts of Maharashtra, three farmers hanged themselves and eight others swallowed pesticide, said Kishore Tiwari, president of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, or People’s Movement.

Despite the government lowering interest rates on loans and helping more farmers borrow money, many farmers have been unable to meet their commitments.

“The farmers’ deaths were due to distress at crop failure and worry that there was no money for the coming sowing season,” Tiwari said. “Many have defaulted on bank payments. When they can’t pay back bank loans, farmers are killing themselves.”

The farmers have been demanding that the government write off their loans.

Mounting debt and poverty has triggered thousands of suicides by farmers in Maharashtra and the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in recent years.

Economic growth has surged since India changed from a closed, heavily regulated socialist economy. Its gross domestic product — the total value of goods and services products in the country — has grown by more than 8 percent annually in the past four years, fueled by an outsourcing and technology boom.

A new class of incredibly wealthy Indians can now afford luxurious foreign vacations, high-end fashions and imported cars, and spend huge amounts on weddings.

Singh — who as India’s finance minister in the early 1990s was widely credited with setting off its economic transformation — criticized “ostentatious expenditures,” and said rising unchecked inequality could lead to social, environmental and economic problems if left unchecked.

“Even profit maximization should be within the bounds of decency,” he said.

“This is not an imported Western management notion,” he said. “It is part of our cultural heritage,” referring to Mohandas Gandhi’s belief that the wealthy are obliged to provide for the poor.

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