New Internationalist

Death by cotton

Issue 399

Richard Swift travels to the troubled cotton belt of eastern Maharashtra, where a tragedy has been unfolding.

Richard Swift
Suicide village: Danada Thahme’s widow tries to keep her husband’s memory alive. Richard Swift

Ravinder Kisan Piwar’s brother came back at five o’clock in the evening as usual to turn on the electric pump. This is the one time the erratic electricity supply can usually be counted on in the eastern Maharashtra village of Chalbardi. He found the 23-year-old Ravinder bent over, holding his stomach and retching. He had swallowed a lethal dose of the pesticide he had purchased to safeguard the cotton crop on his family’s four-hectare plot. It was a crop he relied on to support himself and five others – his grandparents, younger brother and two sisters.

Ravinder was by all accounts a jovial sort of guy, or at least that is how his grandfather thought of him when I talked to him outside their tumbledown house on a back street of Chalbardi. Although Ravindar was worried about the economic odds that are stacked against the survival of a small-farm family in the 11 counties that make up the Vidarbha cotton belt, he had never given any sign that he was contemplating such drastic action. As they talked to me, his family searched for clues as to what might have led him to this very final decision: the well had collapsed; exceptionally hard rain had washed away almost half of the cotton; he was worried about his marriage prospects.

But the background was also crucial. Day after day he drove past the cotton market in nearby Pandharkawada and saw the gates closed. Even when they were open, cotton was either not selling or selling below the cost of production, even below the government-set floor price. What could be made from selling his depleted yield could in no way cover the debts he’d incurred to buy agrochemicals and BT seeds.* In the end, the harvested crop lay piled in the house and no attempt had even been made to take it to market. Ravinder’s grandfather, his face etched in lines of sorrow, said simply: ‘I have lost my hands.’ The unspoken question that troubled this tall, dignified old man: ‘How will the five of us left now survive?’

Ravinder’s decision, while his alone to take, was not an isolated one. Two other farmers in that village had also taken their lives and, over the past few years, thousands of Vidarbhan cotton farmers had done the same. This made the individual act of suicide into a social phenomenon. ‘Social’ suicide is wreaking much havoc throughout rural India. Farmers, drawn more and more into competing with global commodity prices and forced to borrow to finance hi-tech inputs (seeds, agrochemicals and the like) are starting to despair.

White gold

Paradoxically, the suicides have taken place in some of the best agricultural areas – paddy farmers in eastern Vidarbha, wheat farmers in the Punjab, coffee growers in Kerala. In more marginal areas, farmers continue to lead a life of poverty – but a self-reliant, debt-free or at least debt-manageable poverty. The suicides started among cotton farmers and remain most prevalent among the producers of what was once called ‘white gold’. And it is in the dry cotton country of Vidarbha where the problem is most acute. In these dusty villages, where poor farming families try to scratch out a living, a group of committed activists maintains a kind of suicide watch, complete with a macabre map covered with labels in the form of skulls.

Nagpur is the capital of the region and it is here I meet Jaideep Hardikar. Hardikar has interviewed hundreds of farmers in his attempt to publicize their plight. He is from Vidarbha and is deeply committed to its 25 million people. ‘There is a mass depression that has crept in. Poverty has always been pervasive in this country, but no-one committed suicide. It is not the issue of poverty but the issue of indebtedness that affects all spheres of a farmer’s life.’

Jaideep’s anger and frustration show through as he talks: ‘Last year [2005] I reported that there was a suicide every 36 hours. Then it came down to 24. Then down to 12. And now it stands at 8. That is 3 suicides a day.’

Jaideep, who is writing a book on the suicides, is not much puzzled by the cause. As they say, he has ‘done the math’. ‘In Vidarbhan there are 1.8 million households engaged in cotton. In the US there are 25,000 cotton farmers. If the subsidy that they receive – that depresses the world price for cotton – were removed, prices would rise to 4,500 to 5,000 rupees a bushel. Efficient Indian cotton farmers could easily compete with a price of 3,500 a bushel. Today the farmers usually get less than 2,000 [below the cost of production] and it is impossible to make even 10,000 rupees a year from a 8-hectare plot. That is just $200 for your entire family to live on.’

As I wandered through the dusty villages of Vidarbha the reasons for the suicides started to come into focus. I was nervous to approach people at such a tragic time. But I found that people who would have every reason to tell you to leave them alone and mind your own business always received you with tea and courtesy. It seemed to give them some relief to be able to tell their story.

Certainly this was true of Bravin Vijay Bakamwar’s father. The Bakamwars live in Sunna village. The 26-year-old Bravin had been married for just six months. On 25 November 2006 he got up early and rode his new (but unpaid-for) motorbike out into the fields and hanged himself from an electrical pole. Bravin was deep in debt to both moneylenders and the co-operative bank. A loan for a well had come up dry. Cotton prices were what they were. He was responsible not only for his new wife but also for his parents and siblings. He was caught between the obligations of old rural India and the desires of shiny new consumer India, as represented by his new motorbike. He must have felt that he could satisfy neither. His father referred to Bravin as a sensitive son who felt that ‘all the responsibilities fell on him’. We sadly agreed that a parent should never outlive their child. I thought of my own son. In the end the father, left in sadness and despair, felt that his only recourse was to follow the example of his son. He shook my hand warmly as I left, and I hoped he would find different way out.

Suicide village

Sometimes when you go to a ‘suicide village’ you meet just the family and close relatives. Other times many farmers – and not a few young children – gather round. Everyone (or at least all the men) talks, eager to give you a sense of their situation.

This was the case in Waifad village, where 65-year-old Danada Nirayan Thahme had swallowed pesticides. All agreed that Danada had been a popular man in the village and had many friends. He had always been generous and willing to help others, even though he had little himself. No-one had seen it coming before his 81-year-old neighbour found him lying in the road.

But he had been tense for three months – the crop had not been good and the debts had mounted. The genetically modified BT seeds had added to the cost. There was crop-loss from flooding and from the ‘reddening disease’ that the farmers have come to associate with the new cotton strain.

Richard Swift
Death in the fields: activists in Vidarbha use a map to maintain their alarming suicide watch. Richard Swift

Soon the conversation began to stray further afield, and people began an animated running commentary on their more general fate. It went something like this: ‘BT cotton has devastated us. Our production costs have spiralled and yields have actually declined. Next year we are not going for BT… Things were much better under the British. If there were a ballot box here where we could vote for the British, they would win… Everything we used, we used to make at home. We never borrowed anything. Foreign technology has put us into debt. Now we can’t even get back to zero… How about the leaders? No-one sees them committing suicide. It is only us… It is better that the Government just comes and bombs us, that would be a more effective way to get rid of us… The agricultural extension officers used to come from the Government, and had some knowledge. Today they come from the corporates and are just dealers who only know how to count money.’

What the farmers always came back to was a question: why could the politicians and the ‘corporates’ not understand that eventually everyone, including them, had to live from the soil. Sometimes they talked over one another, but they listened too, and nodded in agreement. While hard lives were etched on their faces, there remained a sense of pride in the land and those who work it.

Gujarati difference

I travelled north to Gujarat to see how cotton growers there were faring. It is ironic that farmers considered less ‘modern’ are, in a sense, better off. Take Ranta Bhie Rathwa, who is a ‘tribal’ farmer (from one of India’s marginalized indigenous groups) in Rangpur, some three hours’ drive from Baroda, near the border with Madhya Pradesh. He is a wily old character with a devilish twinkle dancing in his eye. His young son climbed all over him as he tried to tell me about his situation. I felt a long way from the suicide villages of Vidarbha. Ranta, like most farmers in this relatively remote area, grows cotton, but only as a sideline to get cash. The other crops in the area include mangos, chillies, castor beans, eggplant, tomatoes, maize, paddy rice, pigeon peas and chickpeas. Some of these help carry the farmers through the year, while others are an alternative to cotton as a cash crop.

Ranta Bhie Rathwa is very disdainful about cotton, saying it is barely worth growing. Here, agriculture-related suicides are virtually unknown. When asked why, Sunhil Machhi, the agronomist who works with the farmers here, cuts to the chase. ‘Those farmers [in Vidarbha] are depending only on the cotton crop. If that fails there are huge amounts of stress and debt. Here farmers grow their own food crops and use only extra land for cotton, so the problem does not arise.’

Farmer suicides throughout India as a whole, according to the Government’s own figures, have amounted to 150,000 in the last 10 years. The phenomenon, although by no means restricted to cotton farmers, started with and continues to be driven by those who have hitched their fortunes to the erstwhile ‘white gold’.

The suicides are at once a source of shame, denial and expediency in India. The shame is kept alive by the media (particularly the local media), activists and NGO groups. The farmer is, at some fundamental level, still considered the backbone of the country. Cotton takes ‘pride of place’ because of a long, illustrious history and Gandhi’s use of it as a symbol in the independence struggle. The situation is considered a ‘national scandal’ – at least by some.

Richard Swift
‘You can’t depend on cotton’: Rangpur farmer Ranta Bhie Ratha has avoided putting all his eggs in the cotton basket. Richard Swift

The denial comes through official down-playing of the extent of the deaths, or unofficial fantasies about widespread farmer alcoholism and their attempts to get hold of (largely non-existent) government largesse; or in claims that the suicides are not really ‘farm-related’.

The expediency is a matter of using the suicides against your political opponents when you are out of power and then ignoring them when you make it to office.

Kavitha Kuruganti, of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad, uses the election of the Congress Party in Uttar Pradesh in 2004 to illustrate the point. ‘Congress kept a running count of the suicides, which they threw in the face of the BJP Government. It was a big factor in their election victory. When they formed the government they drew up a list of suicide households for compensation. But when the applications started flowing in they did a very stupid thing and immediately started whittling away at which were “legitimate” farm-related suicides and which were not, cutting those families eligible for compensation to only 30 per cent of what they themselves had been claiming when they were in opposition.’ Her dismay is apparent: ‘You’d think, just for the sake of political credibility, that they would at least compensate the whole list.’

For Kavitha, the suicides cut to the very core of India’s development strategy, which she sees as sacrificing agriculture for the prosperity of the hi-tech sector and industrial exports. A similar approach has been taken by China. She points to a plethora of government reports and planning documents that all indicate the inevitable destruction of traditional Indian agricultural life. She takes a caustic view of this kind of technocratic realism. ‘These people probably see suicide as a legitimate “exit strategy” from agriculture. There is no sense of the pace at which it is happening, where people can go, or the long-term fate of farming.’

As I left Vidarbha there was a confrontation at a cotton-buying site, where police fired on desperate farmers. One was killed. Then an independent Maharastran legislator, Bacchu Kadu, staged his own protest, climbing a 30-metre watertank and threatening to jump if police tried to get him off. Hundreds of farmers across the Vidarbha cotton belt followed suit, climbing on to tanks and raising the spectre of a potential mass suicide.

There was the usual official response: expressions of concern and promises of action. At least they forestalled more suicides. For now. •

    • BT cotton is genetically modified cotton containing the gene of the soil bacteria B. thuringiensis, which serves as a natural pesticide. Initially it was developed by the US-based Monsanto Corporation as their flagship GM product for sale to farmers in order to reduce chemical pesticides. It is now widely used in the US, India and China. Much to the dismay of Monsanto many hybrid copies are currently on the cottonseed market despite distinctly mixed BT results.

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