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Suicide by Pesticide: India's Hidden Climate Change Catastrophe

Over the past decade, as crops have failed year after year, 200,000 farmers have killed themselves

Alex Renton

Sugali Nagamma and her daughter, Devi, 18, with the family's drought-hit crops. Sugali's husband killed himself by swallowing pesticide in front of her.(Photo/Abbie Traylor-Smith)

Naryamaswamy Naik went to the cupboard and took out
a tin of pesticide. Then he stood before his wife and children and
drank it. "I don't know how much he had borrowed. I asked him, but he
wouldn't say," Sugali Nagamma said, her tiny grandson playing at her
feet. "I'd tell him: don't worry, we can sell the salt from our table."

Ms Nagamma, 41, showed us a picture of her
husband - good-looking with an Elvis-style hairdo - on the day they
married a quarter of a century ago. "He'd been unhappy for a month, but
that day he was in a heavy depression. I tried to take the tin away from
him but I couldn't. He died in front of us. The head of the family died
in front of his wife and children - can you imagine?"

death of Mr Naik, a smallholder in the central Indian state of Andhra
Pradesh, in July 2009, is just another mark on an astonishingly long
roll. Nearly 200,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves in the past
decade. Like Mr Naik, a third of them choose pesticide to do it: an agonizing, drawn-out death with vomiting and convulsions.

The death toll is extrapolated from the Indian
authorities' figures. But the journalist Palagummi Sainath is certain
the scale of the epidemic of rural suicides is underestimated and that
it is getting worse. "Wave upon wave," he says, from his investigative
trips in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. "One farmer every
30 minutes in India
now, and sometimes three in one family." Because standards of
record-keeping vary across the nation, many suicides go unnoticed. In
some Indian states, the significant numbers of women who kill themselves
are not listed as "farmers", even if that is how they make their

Mr Sainath is an award-winning expert on
rural poverty in India, a famous figure across India through his
writing for The Hindu newspaper. I spoke to him at a screening of Nero's
Guests, a documentary film about the suicide epidemic and some of the
more eye-popping inequalities of modern India.

has assaulted rural India," he said. "Farmers who used to be able to
send their children to college now can't send them to school. For all
that India has more dollar billionaires than the UK, we have 600 million
poor. The wealth has not trickled down." Almost all the bereaved
families report that debts and land loss because of unsuccessful crops
were among their biggest problems.

The causes of
that poverty are complex. Mr Sainath points to the long-term collapse
of markets for farmers' produce. About half of all the suicides occur in
the four states of India's cotton belt; the price of cotton in real
terms, he says, is a twelfth of what it was 30 years ago. Vandana Shiva,
a scientist-turned-campaigner, also links failures of cotton farming
with the farmer suicides: she says the phenomenon was born in 1997 when
the Indian government removed subsidies from cotton farming. This was
also when genetically modified seed was widely introduced.

suicide can be linked to Monsanto," says Ms Shiva, claiming that the
biotech firm's modified Bt Cotton caused crop failure and poverty
because it needed to be used with pesticide and fertilizers. The Prince
of Wales has made the same accusation. Monsanto denies that its
activities are to blame, saying that Indian rural poverty has many

Beyond any argument - though no less
politically charged - is the role of the weather in this story. India's
climate, always complicated by the Himalayas on one side and turbulent
oceans on the two others, has been particularly unreliable in recent
years. In Rajasthan, in the north-west, a 10-year drought ended only
this summer, while across much of India the annual monsoons have failed
three times in the past decade.

India's 600 million farmers
and the nation's poor are often the same people: a single failed crop
tends to wipe out their savings and may lead to them losing their land.
After that, there are few ways back. The drought, following a failed
monsoon, that I saw in Andhra Pradesh in 2009 was the tipping point that
drove Mr Naik to suicide.

Such tragedies and
even the selling of children for marriage or as bonded labor - a common
shock-horror news story in India - are the most dramatic results. But
far more common is the story of rural families migrating, in tens of
millions, to India's cities, swelling the ranks of the urban poor and
leaving holes in the farming infrastructure that keeps India fed.

visited an idyllic village, Surah na Kheda, last month in the
limerick-worthy district of Tonk, Rajasthan. We arrived to find the rows
of whitewashed mud-walled houses gleaming in the rising sun, while
inside the courtyards women in bright saris were stirring milk to make
yogurt and butter for the day's meals. Their daughters kneaded dough for
the breakfast chapattis.

But there was an odd
thing: a distinct lack of people. There were the old and the very young -
but virtually no one of working age. Half the village, some 60 adults
and many children, had gone to Jaipur, the state capital, to look for
work. Even though the Diwali holiday fell the following week, no one
expected their neighbors and relatives back. Times were too hard.


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Devi, 50, said four of her seven children had joined the exodus. "They
had to go," she said. "Twenty years ago, we could grow all we needed,
and sell things too. Now we can't grow wheat, we can't grow pulses, we
can't even grow carrots, because there is not enough rain. So we go to
the cities, looking for money."

She looked
bereaved as she talked of the damage the 10-year drought had done. "It
crushes people," she said. "Before, we were able to deal with drought.
It would come every four years, and you could prepare. We would store
grain and people could share it. In the past, when your buffalo wasn't
giving milk, neighbors would share theirs. But now kindness is no
longer possible."

I found the other end of Surah
na Kheda's story under a flyover in Jaipur. Here, in the early morning,
hundreds of men and boys, farmers from all over northern India, gather
looking for work as laborers on the city's building sites. Many of them
sleep under the flyover, and their clothes were stiff with dirt. The
air was tense, and smelled of drugs and cheap alcohol.

Lal, one of the Surah na Kheda émigrés, was sipping tea at a stall
under the flyover with half a dozen other young men from the village,
waiting for a contractor to give them a lift. "If the rains
came back we would be farmers again. But will they?" He did not think
so: "In 10 years' time, there will be no village. Everyone will be here
in the city. Or they will be dead."

The men
were working for 150 rupees (£2.15) a day, decorating a house in one of
Jaipur's posh suburbs. This is relatively good work, and they had all
found a floor to sleep on. In another building site, we found a
seven-strong rural family who slept in the cement store. The mother and
grandmother were working for less than £1 a day, carrying cement and
bricks on their heads up precarious bamboo scaffolding. In one
half-built block of flats a baby slept in the dust next to the cement
mixer. None of these people were happy to be in the city. "If we could
survive at home we would go straight back," I was told.

of the laborers on the sites were children, some as young as 12: an
interrupted education is another part of the social fallout of rural
collapse. In Rajasthan, most older people in the villages told me they
had not gone to school, but they were proud that their children had.
However, the new poverty brought about by the "chaos in the weather" was
keeping their grandchildren out of school.

to the World Food Program, 20 million more people joined the ranks of
India's hungry in the past decade, and half of all the country's
children are underweight. Some analysts say that fast-developing India
is performing worse than some of the poorest countries, such as Liberia
and Haiti, in addressing the basic issue of hunger. With so many farmers
giving up, the question is how India will feed the entire country, not
just its poor.

It is widely agreed that there
have been radical shifts in the weather patterns in India in the past
two decades; what is less certain are the causes. Is the change in the
weather "climate change"? For many development workers, the question
needs answering, because the collapse of India's rural economy - if it
continues - will bring about a catastrophe that will affect people far
beyond India's borders: even rumors of a poor monsoon or bad harvest in
India tends to send food prices on the world commodity markets soaring,
as they did again this spring.

Alka Awasthi,
of Cecoedecon, a Rajasthani rural poverty organization part-funded by
Oxfam, asks: "When is the data going to catch up with the stories? Why
don't the scientists come and listen to people who actually work with
the rain? They don't know what a woman like Prabhati Devi is dealing

But at Rajasthan's Institute of
Development Studies, Surjit Singh believes the calamitous weather shifts
are as much to do with changing patterns of farming, growing population
and failed government policies as any greater human-induced change to
the climate. "The state has failed the rural poor, and so has the
private sector. Economic liberalization has clearly failed. How long can
the boom go on? The economy may be growing at 9 per cent but food-price
inflation is running at 16 to 18 per cent."

Singh is in no doubt, though, that the changes in weather have increased
poverty in rural India - and that there lies a huge injustice. "Climate
change puts the onus on the poor to adapt - but that's wrong. Who is
using the planes, the cars and the plastic bottles? Not the poor man
with no drinking water."

For Mrs Devi and
Sugali Nagamma, though, such debates are meaningless. I asked Mrs Devi
if she had a question to ask me. "If these industries and factories stop
burning petrol and sending poison into the atmosphere will it bring our
rains back?" I had to tell her I did not know.

For more on Oxfam's work in India visit:

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