Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Indian Cotton Meadows Turn Into Killing Fields
Malaysian National News Agency

Indian Cotton Meadows Turn Into Killing Fields
July 18, 2007 15:48 PM

NEW DELHI, July 18 (Bernama) -- One middle-aged Indian cotton farmer kills himself every eight hours -- either unable to overcome grinding poverty or repay his debts.

Over the last 48 hours at least eight farmers committed suicide in hard-pressed Vidarbha in Maharashtra, a cotton-farming village -- now turning into one of India's killing fields as more vulnerable farmers kill themselves in this remote district.

Since January this year, 506 farmers had taken their own lives despite the government's multimillion relief package to help cotton farmers, simply because aid failed to reach the target group, claim relief workers.

And, since June 2005, more than 5,000 farmers pathetically killed themselves all over India, leaving their wives and children in worse financial doldrums.

The death tolls tell a poignant story of how Indian farmers succumb to free trade competition that has destroyed their revered economic lifeline -- cotton farming -- with cotton prices dipping in the global market while highly subsidised farmers from rich nations corner cotton trade, leaving Third World widows in grim villages.

"Vidarbha was once a white gold mine. We gave the world the best soft cotton. Our cotton was liked by Europeans because it was cheap and shirts made from our cotton kept them warm," Kishore Tiwari, the president of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (Peoples' Protest Forum), a farmers lobby group, told Bernama.

With cotton prices fetching poor prices, at merely 1,700 rupees (RM154) per quintal or 100kg compared to 2,500 rupees (RM227) in 2005, farmers with paltry earnings found it impossible to cope with spiralling cost of living, even in rural areas, said Tiwari.

"Cost of healthcare, education and food has gone up but farmers' earnings continue to drop. In fact, each farmer's income, according to a government survey, is negative (-400 rupees), which means economically he is not earning anything," he added.

Citing a government national survey conducted last June, Tiwari said about 1.3 million farmers out of 1.72 million, from eight villages, lived in financial distress while 400,000 were in a critical stage.

"It's a mass genocide here," he described, adding that some two million farmers were now in dire need of financial aid because the only cash crop they relied on had failed miserably.

Since the cotton and textile quota restriction was removed in 2004, Third World cotton planters suffer to keep their livelihood fertile -- facing severe rivalry from producers like China and the highly-subsidised American farmers, who can dispose their cotton cheaply in the international market.

Moreover, the majority of Indian farmers grow BT cotton (genetically- modified cotton) that requires a large amount of investment, for irrigation and fertilisers, which are not within the reach of these poor farmers.

"Ninety five per cent of BT cotton are grown in non-irrigated land here, where there is no proper irrigation or water supply. So the yield is low and BT cotton farming requires a lot of money for fertilisers," said Tiwari.

In booming India, the agriculture sector remains an integral part of the economy though contributing a fifth of India's economic output. Some 600 million people rely on farming for direct or indirect source of income.

Yet in a largely investment-driven Indian economy, the third largest in Asia, after Japan and China, with a projected nine per cent gross domestic product growth for 2007-2008, farmers are still squeezed for a living.

There is no quick-fix to revive this ailing sector and Tiwari said only a long-term, government-backed programme could remove farmers' misery in Vidarbha, located about 1,000km from the bustling financial hub of Mumbai, capital of Maharashtra.

"We want protected economy for cotton and credit facilities for farmers. Government must restore healthcare, education and create employment opportunities for the masses, and promote organic or natural farming which is cheaper than growing BT cotton," he added.

On the horizon, the Indian monsoon may continue to drench India for at least another month, perhaps bringing some respite for Vidarbha farmers.

"But when the monsoon slips away the "mass genocide" will bound to continue," cautioned Tiwari.


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