Nashik, India -- On a recent afternoon, Seetabai Atthre heard a faint cry from the edge of a vineyard that her family has cultivated for more than 40 years. Through the furrows, she found her husband, Vishal, smoldering on the ground next to an empty can of kerosene. He had lit himself on fire and died three days later in a local hospital.
Atthre attributes her husband's suicide to a $5,600 debt. The farm located on the arid plains of northern Maharashtra state near the town of Nashik had not turned a profit in more than two years, and 65-year-old Vishal could no longer secure a bank loan to pay off interest on the debt."This is wrong, and it's killing us," Sanjay Gangode said at a gathering of debt-ridden grape farmers in the region. "There is no future here."
While India's economy surges forward on the crest of globalization, thousands of farmers are taking their own lives every year to escape mounting debt and an uncertain future. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, at least 87,567 farmers committed suicide between 2002 and 2006. In Maharashtra state, there were 4,453 suicides in 2006, the last year for which statistics were made available, an increase of 527 compared with 2005. Sharp increases have also been reported in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states.
Last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged more than $930 million in relief to bail out struggling Maharashtra farmers and "relieve the misery."
Possible causes of suicides
Analysts cite several factors for the suicides, including crop failure due to agrochemicals and climate change, lower prices due to U.S. farm subsidies, state restrictions on export trade, and the dumping of surplus crops in an oversaturated domestic market.
"The phenomena of indebtedness will recur as long as policies to depress agricultural prices continue," said Sharad Joshi, founder of Shetkari Sanghatana, a leading farmers' rights organization.
Ironically, many farmers are facing a backlash of their own remarkable transformation.
In the 1960s, India underwent a green revolution in favor of high-yield farming to counter acute food shortages. Plant breeding, irrigation development and the use of synthetic fertilizers ramped up production. Today, India is a major exporter of rice, and the world's second-largest producer of fruits and vegetables after the United States.
The changes caused higher operating costs and production that created a market glut exceeding demand at home and abroad. To remain in business, many farmers were forced to take out loans at high interest rates. Once credit had been exhausted, they turned to private lenders, who charged even more exorbitant interest rates.
And that's when the suicides started, most activists say.
"Suicide has become so common that no one takes it seriously anymore," said Giridhar Patil, an agricultural activist in Nashik.
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About a four-hour drive northeast of Mumbai, formerly Bombay, the agrarian communities around Nashik boast a Napa Valley-like mild climate and rich soil. Fruit stands and onion warehouses line a highway that wends through a quiltwork of vineyards under a cloudless horizon. Despite the ideal growing conditions, 53 farmers committed suicide in Nashik district last year, according to police records. In an ironically tragic gesture, the majority drank pesticides.
In Umbarkhad, a small village located less than a mile from the Atthre farm, Parshram Athari plies the 5-acre grape farm where he grew up. At first glance, he and his family of five appear to be prosperous: A two-story concrete home with a satellite dish overlooks the property; the vineyard is hedged and well-irrigated, tended by day laborers who carefully pack export-quality grapes into stamped cardboard boxes. Athari is also paying 12 percent interest on a $17,500 loan.
About 15 years ago, his farm produced 26,000 pounds of grapes per acre. These days, an acre yields about 11,000 pounds, and production costs have quadrupled. A hefty share is spent on fertilizers, whose harsh chemicals deplete soil nutrients, making it more difficult to regroup when a crop is lost to drought. A tractor sits idle, a rusty relic from better days. Athari also worries that he won't have enough money to send his eldest daughter to a good university or pay for her dowry when she marries.
"The (laborers) we employ are better off than we are today," said Athari, who says he now has only $200 a month to cover household expenses. "Our costs are going up and market prices are going down, so we don't have enough to make ends meet."
The same grapes he sells to wholesalers for 30 cents per 2.2 pounds can fetch as high as $2.50 in a Dubai supermarket. The price imbalance is made worse if domestic prices rise, he adds, since the Indian government then bans exports, reducing potential profit and flooding the domestic market, which knocks prices down even more.
Such price volatility is a function of globalization, most critics say - and is especially unstable for cotton farmers. As the world's largest cotton producer, the United States provides massive subsidies that allow American farmers to undercut overseas competition by selling at an artificially low cost.
Moreover, many Indian farmers are now using genetically engineered Bt cotton seeds made by U.S.-based Monsanto Co., which produce higher yields. The seeds and fertilizer, however, must be bought each year, costing farmers thousands of dollars.
Debt waiver proposal
Not surprisingly, debt-ridden farmers have mobilized to support a debt waiver proposal that is floating around congress. Mohan Dharia, a former commerce minister turned social activist, threatened a nationwide protest this month if demands for fairer crop prices were not enacted by the end of the month.
"Political parties can ignore farmers at their own peril," he said.
The threat of widespread protests ended after Finance Minister P. Chidambaram announced a $15 billion aid package for "small and marginal farmers" who owe money to state banks.
Nevertheless, many critics say Indian farmers need a long-term solution, not a one-time bail out.
"The government knows we will take out more loans in the end and fall in the same trap," said Nivruti Dokhale, a Nashik onion farmer who is $8,000 in debt.
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle