Monday, December 11, 2006

Dark side in India's economic boom-chicagotribune reports

Dark side in India's economic boom
Debt and poor crops contribute to a high suicide rate among farmers,
a thorny problem for politicians

By Kim Barker
Tribune foreign correspondent,1,2450042.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed

December 11, 2006

DABA, India -- Farmer Koude Parchekey had been worried for months about his $1,100 debt. And then, last month, after the monsoon flooded his fields and drowned any hope he had left, Parchekey solved his problems the way an increasing number of troubled farmers in this region have.

He killed himself.

Up to three farmers a day in the Vidarbha region in central India swallow pesticides, hang themselves from trees, drown themselves in rivers, set themselves on fire or jump down wells. Throughout India, more and more troubled farmers are killing themselves in what some characterize as the dark side of India's recent economic boom.

Many of the farmers are plagued by debt, poor crops and hopelessness. But some may be killing themselves to get money; the federal government pays about $2,200 to the families of land-owning farmers who commit suicide.

"He used to say, `I've taken loans and I don't know how I will pay them back. Our daughter has to be married,'" recalled Parchekey's wife, Sarvitrabai Koude Parchekey. "After the flooding, he talked regularly about it. But we never thought he'd do anything like this."

More than 1,100 farmers in the Vidarbha region, in Maharashtra state, have committed suicide since June 2005, according to a farmers' activist group that has collected death statistics from government offices. Some experts and government officials believe the number is too high, but they agree more farmers have been killing themselves in the last few years.

Suicide rate tripled

A report in January commissioned by the Maharashtra state government said the suicide rate for male farmers in the state had tripled between 1995 and 2004 to 53 suicides per 100,000 people, significantly higher than the rest of India. Farmers killed themselves because they owed money, had lost money or social status, or fought with neighbors or family, according to the report by the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Mumbai. Some had lost their crops. Some were addicted to alcohol or other drugs.

"There's no choice for them, so they commit suicide," said B.B. Mohanty, a scholar who worked on another study on farmer suicides for an agro-economic research center in the Maharashtra city of Pune. That study found that crop failure and indebtedness were the primary causes for farmer suicides.

Blame globalization, farmer advocates say. Since reforms opened Indian markets in 1991, the country's economy has been growing at a record rate, fueled by globalization and outsourcing. But such growth masks the fact that most of the more than 1 billion Indians are still rural and poor and that the reforms may be making things worse for many of them.

From 1995 to 2005, the country's economy grew an average of 6 percent a year, according to the National Sample Survey Organization. But poverty fell by a maximum of only 1.3 percent a year.

Almost 1 in 3 Indians still live on less than $1 a day. Most Indians have no running water, no proper toilets. About 70 percent are still farmers, most of whom plow their fields using bulls instead of tractors.

And as India has modernized, it has abandoned most of its socialist leanings. Like other developing nations abruptly adopting market reforms, the government has drastically reduced the agricultural subsidies that farmers once depended on as it reduced import duties on foreign commodities.

Farmers have been caught in the middle.

"One India is shining," said Kishor Tiwari, who runs a farmers' activist group in Vidarbha and has lobbied the federal government for farmers' rights. "But in the other India, farmers are committing suicide. Health care is poor. Education is poor. Rural employment opportunities are almost nothing."

This year farmer suicides have turned into a national crisis; the issue probably will dominate the winter session of parliament. The leftist parties that make up part of the ruling coalition have said publicly they want to debate aid for farmers, using the issue as a litmus test for how committed the government is to the poor. Their key demand is to bring down the interest rate on rural loans.

The situation is most acute in six troubled districts of the Vidarbha region, where wooden bullock carts overloaded with bags of cotton belie the fact that many farmers expect to fall further into debt this year.

Most farmers say they will lose money on their crops. They blame heavy monsoons, poor prices from the government and a genetically modified type of cotton from U.S.-based Monsanto that resists pests but yields poor crops, according to farmers, activists and even government officials.

Here, most people know a farmer who has committed suicide.

"We don't know what to do to stop the men from killing themselves," said Bebetai Malekar as she picked cotton. "And what alternative do they have? What else can we do but commit suicide? I've worked here for seven years and have nothing to show for it. How will I ever get my daughter married?"

Many farmers, already defaulting on government loans or deemed too risky for banks, have turned to loan sharks to get money. Farmer Gangaram Baburao Meshram, 35, hanged himself in October after he could not repay the $330 he borrowed from a loan shark three years ago, his brother said.

"I don't know why my brother did it," Parshuram Baburao Meshram said. "I just know he could not pay back the money."

The deaths have led to problems for the Congress Party, which leads the ruling coalition. Once seen as the political party of the downtrodden masses, Congress has lately been accused of appealing more to the rich and influential and ignoring its traditional power base. In October, perhaps to win back any alienated rural voters, the Congress Party even resurrected a political slogan from its heyday of the early 1970s: "Eradicate Poverty."

No easy solutions

So far, nothing the government has tried has worked in Maharashtra. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Vidarbha in June, vowing to help. The government has introduced various programs, such as giving cows to troubled farmers, handing out seeds for crops or canceling interest payments on overdue government-bank loans.

"The government is trying its best," said S.L. Govande, the official in charge of 141 villages in the heart of Vidarbha. "It just can't be the loans. The farmers only take loans for small amounts of money. Who would kill themselves over that amount? There's more to it than meets the eye. The point is, some of them booze, and some of them blow their money on cards. How will they save their money if they do that?"

The government has even set up a program that acts as a kind of life insurance for distraught farmers. If a farmer who owns land kills himself, his family will get about $2,200, $670 in cash and the rest in bonds. Such a one-time payout is a fortune here.

Current officials refused to talk about the program. But K.S. Dixit, a retired official in the Yavatmal district of Vidarbha, acknowledged, "Perhaps because the government gives money, it is an incentive for farmers to kill themselves."

Farmer Kachu Chatale, 40, hanged himself in June, distraught over an outstanding loan of less than $900. His family used the $670 in cash to pay off most of the loan.

"He had been saying, `I have so much tension, I have this loan, I have these kids to feed, what do I do?'" recalled his sister, Thanabhai Ramrao Chaudhari. "I used to tell him, `Don't worry. You have the land. Maybe something good will come out of it.' "

The money for Parchekey's family will be delivered soon, Govande said. So far, between 2002 and now, his office has paid the families of one-third of the 93 known farmers who have committed suicide in this area.

Parchekey's family is now barely scraping by, earning less than $9 a week picking cotton and spraying pesticides. Parchekey, 45, had borrowed the $1,100 to pay for his daughter's wedding.

His fields of soybeans and wheat flooded during last summer's monsoon, family members said. He picked cotton to try to earn more money, but in late October, he stopped going to the fields, never saying why.

Late on the afternoon of Oct. 31, Parchekey swallowed a pesticide and laid down on a mat bed inside his modest two-room home. His blind mother sat outside. When his niece walked into the room, he said his last words.

"Come here, come here," he told the girl, and then patted her on the head. "Get my mother."

Parchekey died before neighbors could drive him to the closest hospital, 15 miles away. The next day, his wife went back to work, in the same fields where she once picked cotton next to her husband.

"I have to make money, I have to raise my children," said Sarvitrabai Koude Parchekey, who makes about 67 cents a day when she can find work. "I can't afford to stop."


Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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