Published on
The Toronto Star

Farmer Suicides Blight India

Widows left waiting for compensation after men kill themselves over unpaid debts and crop failures

Rick Westhead

Anjana Vidya's husband killed himself more than a year ago, after taking out a loan. She still hasn't been compensated by the government. (Rick Westhead / Toronto Star)

VIDARBHA, INDIA - One month ago, cotton farmer Nagorao Gaute rose quietly from his bed mat at 6 a.m., whispered to his wife that he was going to the latrine, and slipped out of his tin-roofed hovel. He returned 10 minutes later, vomiting as he staggered through the door before he collapsed.

The 45-year-old man had drunk a bottle of insecticide and was dead within minutes, leaving behind his wife, Ukandabai, six children, and a debt of at least 25,000 rupees ($625), as much as he could hope to make in five good years of farming.

If there was a silver lining for Ukandabai, 35, it was that the state of Maharashtra, that includes the financial capital Mumbai, had identified farmer suicides as a worrisome trend and promised in 2007 to provide widows with compensation of 100,000 rupees.

Suicide is a growing problem across India. Rising stress due to competition in classrooms is pushing more students to take their own lives. On farms across India, poor crop returns and spiralling debt have led to tens of thousands of suicides in recent years.

But nowhere is the problem worse than the cotton-growing district of Vidarbha, widely considered to be India's suicide capital. About 2,050 farmers in Vidarbha have killed themselves this year alone, says Madan Yerawar, a cotton farmer who represents Vidarbha in Maharashta's legislative assembly.

Last year, 1,240 farmers committed suicide.

The reasons are simple, says Yerawar, a member of the Hindu nationalist BJP party. "Farmers are self-respecting and don't want to go to the banks and other moneylenders and say they can't pay."

Compounding the tragedy, advocacy groups say, the claims of Ukandabai and 230 other widows this year have been refused or ignored.

"Quite simply, the government's view is if they pay claims to everyone, it will lead to more farmers committing suicide," says Ram Kalaspurkar, who operates a cotton seed bank and lobbies the government to do more to help widows.

And indeed, there may be something to the theory.

Gaute's 65-year-old father killed himself last year and Gaute's mother was compensated. She received 30,000 rupees in cash. The other 70,000 was put into a trust account. His widow was allowed to withdraw a small portion each month.

A year on, Ukandabai says, she had a hunch her husband had been contemplating doing what his father had done. Three months ago, he borrowed from moneylenders - Ukandabai isn't sure how much - to pay for two of his daughters to get married. That was on top of cash he'd borrowed for seed and fertilizer. When the monsoon rains were slow in arriving this summer, it was clear his crops wouldn't produce enough for him to repay his debt.

"He kept talking about the financial crisis and how we weren't going to escape it," Ukandabai says, wincing. She applied for compensation for Gaute's suicide but still hasn't heard from the government.

The family remains in shock. Seven-year-old Shiravan hasn't mentioned his father since his death. Nor have any of his four daughters.

"There have been no questions from the children," says Gaute's brother, Shriram. "They understand that he's gone and isn't coming back. That's enough. The only question is when the compensation will come."

Anjana Vidya has been trying to get an answer for more than a year.

On July 31, 2008, her husband, Kavadu Vidya, killed himself by drinking pesticide after taking out a 150,000-rupee loan, which he used to buy seed, bury his mother and help pay for his sister's wedding.

After paying off part of her husband's debt last fall with the 30,000 rupees she received from the year's cotton crop, Anjana says she planted cotton and soy this year. Neither crop shows signs of a good return. Anjana says she'd like to pay off her husband's debt, and doesn't understand why the government has rebuffed her inquiries. "I just wish someone would help," she says.

A change in policy should make it easier for widows to get their compensation, Yerawar says. Until recently, if doctors found alcohol in the blood of suicide victims, their widows were ruled ineligible, The requirement has been dropped.

Some widows would prefer to sell their land and leave their farms. Trouble is, India's agricultural sector has fallen on hard times. Half the country this year is said to be affected by drought and few farmers are willing to buy more property.

Farmers say one problem is that the government is obsessed with its surging manufacturing and service industries and isn't investing in agriculture. Maharashtra this year will spend about $900 million of its $4.5 billion budget on agriculture, says Yerawar.

"In the 1970s, during the time of Indira Gandhi, this country had to import pig food from America to feed people," Kalaspurkar says. "Our farmers have made us self-sufficient. But now, it's a dying business no one cares about."

Yerawar says the district is divided over what's caused so many crops here to fail. While some farmers say drought is to blame, agricultural activists argue conditions began to deteriorate when genetically modified cotton, known here as Bt cotton, became popular. Bt is a more expensive seed and puts farmers into more debt if crops fail.

The reasons don't matter so much to Ukandabai.

"What am I going to do now?" she asks. "No one will lend me more money. My situation is hopeless."

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