Seeds of Despair
It might have been borrowing another $100 just to keep his family going that finally convinced Pravin Bakkamwar to end his life. Or maybe it was knowing that he needed to find a husband for his 18-year-old sister Suwarana, and then pay her dowry and arrange a suitable wedding—responsibilities that would push him further into debt. What his family knows is this: on a sunny morning in central India in late November last year, Pravin, 27, rode his motorbike to a nearby town, bought a few meters of red and yellow nylon cord, returned to his gently sloping cotton farm and hanged himself from a concrete power pole. Neighbors found him within minutes, blood trickling from his mouth.
The story of India today is one of great expectations, as soaring economic growth lifts tens of millions of people out of poverty and swells the ranks of the middle class. But India's progress has also brought sorrow to many farmers and rural workers, who still make up two-thirds of the country's workforce. The income disparity in the new India is massive: there are now 36 billionaires in India—and some 800 million people living on less than $2 a day. In the most desperate pockets of rural India, a confluence of factors, from poor rainfall to the new availability of consumer goods, has driven some farmers into crushing debt. The financial hardships are so extreme that thousands, including Pravin, commit suicide every year. Far from benefiting from the country's new prosperity, whole villages of India's rural poor are being left adrift, eager to join in the boom but unable to afford it.
The crisis is worst in Vidarbha, an orange- and cotton-growing region in central India famed for its black soil and the fact that Mahatma Gandhi built an ashram and lived there for a time in the 1930s. Now Indians know it as their nation's rural suicide capital. According to Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, or Vidarbha People's Protest Forum, an activist group that keeps track of farmer suicides in the area and lobbies the government for help, more than 1,250 farmers committed suicide in Vidarbha's six central districts alone in 2006, up from 248 in 2004.
What's causing so many rural Indians to take their lives? According to a study by the government of Maharashtra, the state in which Vidarbha sits, almost six in 10 of those who kill themselves have debts of between $110 and $550. Many farmers complain that banks don't offer them credit, forcing them to turn to rapacious moneylenders, who typically charge up to 20% interest on a four-month loan. As collateral, explains one lender in the bustling town of Pandharkawada, farmers often sign away title to their land. "If they pay back the loan, we give them back their deed," says the lender, who called himself "Ratanbhai" but refused to give his full name because of a recent government crackdown on unlicensed lenders. "If they don't, we get to take their land."
Predatory lenders are only part of the problem. Health-care and education costs have risen dramatically in the past few years, while the global price of cotton has become depressed, largely because of the billions of dollars in subsidies Washington hands out to U.S. farmers. "Expenses have increased, eating habits have increased. Health, education, all increased," says Gajanan Madhavrao Akkalawar, 70, who has farmed cotton for more than half a century. "It's difficult to run the family show." And then there's the growing obsession with the luxury goods that now consume much of Indian families' incomes. Television has given even the poorest a glimpse at the world outside. India is adding more than 6 million cell-phone subscribers every month, many of them in small villages and towns; its road network is quickly expanding, bringing increased commerce, trade and ideas. "If I say to people that materialism is upsetting the equilibrium of society, they stand up and say, 'Why should we be deprived of all these things? Why should only the people in the cities get these things?'" says Kishor Tiwari, the head of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. "The natural tendency is to adopt all these new things, whether the pocket permits it or not."
That's how it went with Pravin, who wanted the best for his family even if he couldn't afford it. Pravin's family lives near Pandharkawada town, in Sunna, a village of dirt streets and pale blue and whitewashed brick houses. The air hangs heavy with the smell of goats, cattle and chickens, and farmers use wooden bullock carts to carry their cotton and animal feed. Doors are strung with mango leaves to bring good luck, and women stretch their washing over twig fences. Pravin took over the family farm from his father four years ago when the old man tired of the task. The son proved a natural farmer, increasing yields and, initially at least, bringing in more money. His wife Smita, a distant cousin, was studying literature at university, but says she was happy to stop once it was time for them to marry. "Pravin was in the village and I had been to the city, but he didn't let me down in any way," says Smita. "He was very much a hard worker. No one in the village will deny he was the best young man."
Pravin put enormous pressure on himself to be a success. Smita came from a middle-class family far wealthier than his own. Her father had been an operator at India's National Thermal Power Corp., a job that paid well and enabled him to give all his four daughters a good education. Pravin wanted to keep Smita the way her father had. His motorbike, a black-and-gold 97-cc Hero Honda Splendor Plus, cost him just over $1,000, a fortune considering he made just a few hundred dollars a year. "I told him it was not affordable, not needed," says his father Vijay. "He said he needed it to get to the fields. The young these days—they want more luxuries with less tension." Pravin had taken a loan from a local banking cooperative for the motorbike, and further loans from moneylenders to buy seeds, fertilizer and pesticide. But like most rural Indian men, conservative and proud, he had not discussed his worries with his wife. "He was smiling all the time," says Smita. Yet Pravin owed at least $2,800 when he hanged himself.
The government says it is taking steps to assist Vidarbha's farmers. Mindful that a backlash in the countryside led to the last national government's ouster from office, the Maharashtra state administration and the Congress Party-led coalition in New Delhi have promised to pump almost a billion dollars into Vidarbha's rural sector. Authorities have arrested dozens of unlicensed moneylenders and pushed banks to offer more farmers credit at reasonable rates. The government is also trying to encourage farmers to diversify into other crops and into dairy and poultry production. A little more than half the money in the rescue packages will go to irrigation projects that could transform the region in the long term but offer little relief in the near future—a bone of contention for many farmers who say they need government help now.
No amount of help will be enough for widows like Smita, who tried to kill herself when she learned of her husband's suicide (the villagers stopped her). "Just like impossible," says Smita's sister Durga when asked if Smita, who is 23, might ever marry again. "She wants to be independent and get her own job, but in this place it's difficult." Her grieving father-in-law says that Smita was pregnant when Pravin killed himself but lost the baby after her own suicide attempt. When asked what she and Pravin had wanted for the future, Smita's eyes well up: "We wanted what every husband and wife wants. Nothing more."
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