In the 21st century, India is often portrayed as a software powerhouse, a key part of the engine that keeps our wired world running. Yet this essential cog in the global information economy does not collect data on crucial social indicators, such as the number of Indian children engaged in child labor, or how many people are displaced from large dams. There is, however, one important statistic that the Indian government is starting to track — the number of farmers who have taken their own lives.
After years of speculation, the figure is now official: Between 1997 and 2005, nearly 150,000 farmers in India committed suicide, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau. Many farmers’ organizations believe the number of suicides to be even greater. The number of farmers whose livelihoods have been devastated by debts, crop failures, government indifference, and skewed global trade policies is possibly much higher. Farmer suicides were once limited mostly to the drought- and poverty-stricken areas of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Now, farmers in productive agricultural regions such as Karnataka, Punjab, and West Bengal are also ending their lives because of growing indebtedness. The tragedy has become a national crisis.
© Ray Witlin / World Bank
“Every five hours, one farmer commits suicide somewhere in the country,” Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst based in New Delhi wrote to me in an e-mail. “Farmers are falling because of the anti-farming policies that are being propagated. The tragedy is that the hand that feeds the nation is being deliberately chopped off.”
Multiple factors — predatory lending, high input costs, comparatively low returns on harvests, crop failures, and the lack of irrigation water — are held responsible for pushing farmers to the brink. But conversations with farmers, activists, policy makers, and journalists reveal one overarching force driving Indian agriculture to ruin — the opening of agriculture to free trade under the stipulations of the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO). The free trade system has exposed Indian farmers to lopsided global trade rules under which poorer countries are forced to open their markets while richer countries are able to maintain lavish export subsidies. At the same time, the WTO and World Bank agreements have allowed multinational corporations such as Monsanto to penetrate the Indian seed market; the sophisticated marketing of genetically modified seeds and other expensive inputs has dramatically raised Indian farmers’ costs even as they try to survive amid harsh new competition.
“If I were given a choice, I would like to be born as a European cow, but certainly not as an Indian farmer, in my next birth,” says Vijay Jawandhia, a farmer leader in Wardha. “There [in the EU], a cow gets a US$2 subsidy per day and enjoys all the comforts. And in India, a farmer is a debtor all his life. Post his death, his son inherits his debts and has to borrow money for his funeral.”
Other farmer leaders across the country echo Jawandhia’s sentiments. Among the biggest source of complaints is the failure of rich nations to abide by the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (AOA), which mandates countries to reduce their agricultural subsidies and increase access to their own farm products markets. For instance, the US government doled out an average of $11.3 billion annually in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2004. More than 90 percent went to producers of commodity crops such as cotton, corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans. As a result, these five crops are dramatically overproduced, selling on global markets at below the cost of production. The overproduction depresses the prices that developing countries count on, wiping out poor farmers and enriching transnational food industry giants. Indian farmers are one of the victims.
Twenty years ago, nobody ever heard of Indian farmers taking their own lives. In 1990, India adopted a platform of neo-liberal policies called the New Economic Policy, and soon after joined the WTO, which came into being in 1995. The country’s hopes of accessing world markets to enrich its farmers were, however, soon dashed. The removal of controls on the export and import of agricultural products exposed Indian farmers to the vagaries of the free market just as commodity prices plummeted, plunging farmers into a spiral of debt and insolvency.
A vicious cycle is at work. Because free trade in agriculture prioritizes export-oriented production, farmers are under great pressure to increase crop yields. This soon makes them dependent on chemical inputs and industrial farming practices. Many have stopped rotating their crops, and instead have created monocultures of genetically modified (GM) crops that require still more chemicals to be sustained. As costs rise with use of chemical inputs and GM seeds, prices fall in markets flush with surplus.
As prices fell for Indian producers of export crops during the last decade, farmers’ access to low-cost credit was also reduced — another aspect of the New Economic Policy. This made farmers dependent on private moneylenders and interest rates ranging from 36 to 60 percent annually. The cost of other crucial inputs — including electricity, essential for pumping irrigation water in a parched land — rose as the government sought to reduce subsidies, which were already meager compared to developed countries. The government also slashed the tariffs on farm products coming into the country. Reduced tariff protection hit producers of rice, fresh fruit, cotton, and dairy products especially hard as heavily subsidized foreign goods flooded the market. The new competition encouraged heavy borrowing, resulting in an agricultural bubble economy that crashed as government support failed to keep pace with falling crop prices. Farmers went bankrupt. Faced with no option, many opted for death.
In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh alone, more than 5,000 indebted farmers, mainly cotton growers, committed suicide between 1998 and 2005 as the state government — which had entered into a Structural Adjustment Program with the World Bank — raised electricity prices five times, even as cotton price fell by half. In Wynaad in the state of Kerala, more than 1,250 farmer suicides were recorded between 2001 and 2005, as prices for coffee, tea, and spices nose-dived. In 2003, coffee growers were receiving just one-third the price they were getting for their harvests in 1999, and tea and pepper farmers were earning one-fourth of what they had been four years earlier.
Increasing production costs — combined with sliding global prices and the dumping of cheap subsidized cotton from outside the country — has prompted many Indian farmers to start planting GM seeds. Monsanto began heavily marketing GM cotton seeds in India in 2002, and many farmers bought into the company’s promises that the seeds, which had the natural pesticide Bt sown into their genes, would help control bollworm damage.
Indian farmers were soon disappointed. Throughout the country, Bt cotton crops have been attacked by “Lalya” or “reddening,” a disease unseen before, which affected the GM acreage more than the non-Bt cotton crop. Sixty percent of farmers in the western state of Maharashtra failed to recover costs from their first GM harvest. According to some studies, farmers are spending 6,813 rupees ($136.26) per acre, compared to 580 rupees ($11.60) on non-Bt cotton, since GE cotton requires more supplemental insecticide sprays.
Jaidep Hardikar, a journalist from India Together, has reported on the stories of two men — Ramesh Rathod and Chandrakant Gurenule — whose tales illustrate the debt and despair cycle, and how the introduction of costly GM seeds are partially to blame.
Rathod, a farmer from the village of Bondgavhan in Vidarbha, had purchased Bollgard brand MECH 162 cotton variety for 1,800 rupees ($36) per pound, compared with the 450 rupees ($9) that farmers pay for non-Bt seeds. Rathod’s hopes were dashed when his Bt cotton crops had a severe pest attack and the leaves of his cotton plants turned red and dried up. After having spent a lot of money on inputs, and with his crop destroyed irreparably, he was in no position to pay back the loans he had taken. He drank pesticide and died. Left behind to pay back the debt and shoulder the responsibility of a young family, Rathod’s widow, Dharmibai, used two costly pesticides, Endosulphane and Tracer, against the bollworm pest, but the three acres of land yielded barely 600 pounds of cotton.
Thirty-four-year-old cotton farmer Chandrakant Gurenule from Yavatmal also took his own life. He too had bought the GM cotton seeds for his 15-acre farm, only to watch his crops fail for two successive years. When he had no money left — despite selling off his farm equipment and pawning his wife’s wedding jewelry — he doused himself in kerosene and lit a match.
As Bt cotton continues to jostle for public acceptance, travails of Indian farmers continue. It is estimated that more than 4,100 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra in 2004. In 2003, cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, where GM technology was aggressively promoted, suffered severe agricultural and financial losses and many — including entire families — committed suicide. The situation has become so dire than in May 2005 Andhra Pradesh revoked permission to grow three varieties of Bt cotton.
Even as suicides mount, the Indian and US governments keep up efforts to promote GM technology. In 2006, the two nations launched the India-US Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Education, Research, Services, and Commercial Linkages, which is supposed to conduct joint research in transgenic crops, animals, and fisheries for three years. Some view this as a positive effort. Andy Mukherjee, a columnist for Bloomberg.com, enthusiastically writes: “If the nuclear deal promises relief for India’s power-starved industrial sector, the agricultural agreement has the potential to transform the nation’s poverty-ridden countryside. The economics are simply unbeatable.” Citing the success of GM technology, he continued: “Cotton production has been transformed since Monsanto was allowed to sell its GM cotton seeds to farmers.”
Indeed, no one would argue whether or not Bt cotton has transformed both the cotton production and lives of farmers in India.
Farmers’ organizations and social movements around the world have denounced the liberalization of farm products promoted by the WTO and other regional and bilateral free trade agreements. When the member organizations of Via Campesina, a international small farmers’ federation, gathered in Dijon, France in January 2008, they declared that “all bilateral and bi-regional free trade agreements and Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) lead to the plundering of natural resources and only serve transnational companies at the expense of all the world’s peoples and environment. These are not partnership agreements but Economic Plundering Agreements.”
In place of international trade, small farmers’ movements are prioritizing healthy, good quality, and culturally appropriate production for the domestic market and for the sub-regional or regional markets. These farmers’ priority is to produce for their families and communities, then to seek access to the domestic market before seeking to export.
Last October, thousands of farmers in India blocked national highways and held candlelight vigils to protest farmer suicides and to demand a new revolution in the Indian countryside. This revolution, however, is very different from the one envisaged by the India-US Knowledge Initiative or the WTO. Based on the principle of food sovereignty, this revolution demands the recognition of “the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture and to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives.”
India is the already the third largest producer of food in the world. It is the planet’s largest producer of milk, its second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugar, fruits, and vegetables, and the third largest producer of cotton. Given these facts, neither genetic engineering nor free markets will revolutionize India’s countryside, help increase production, or help feed more than 350 million of its people who live on less than $1 a day. A new farm economy as the centerpiece of the country’s economic development model will.
Anuradha Mittal is the executive director of the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank working to increase public participation and promote fair debate on critical social, economic and environmental issues.
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