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Suicide – the only way out of debt?


Some of the pesticides Borromeo encountered while in India.

Kantibai’s husband died after drinking the chemicals he used to farm with. After his death Kantibai discovered her family was in debt.

This has become a familiar story in India where nearly 300,000 farmers killed themselves to get out of debt between 1995 and 2011. In the state of Maharashtra alone, 4,453 people committed suicide in 2006. That’s around one every eight hours. As I’m writing this, I hear of seven farmers who’ve died in the past three days. It’s like a swathe of desperate people trying to push the reset button.

If you hover your finger over a map of India, somewhere near the middle you’ll find a town called Wadha in Maharashtra. This is a town of just over a million – most of them cotton farmers. I travelled there to find out more about what is driving farmers to take such desperate measures.

I met Hanuman, a father of two who had borrowed 80,000 rupees ($1,511) from the bank so that he could  grow cotton on his five acre farm. He had spent almost the entire loan on boxes of Bt (Bacillius Thuringienis) cotton seed and pesticides. The technology behind Bt is owned by Monsanto and is licensed to seed companies for use and sale across a range of crops. The seed Hanuman uses costs 950 rupees ($18) per kilo, and Monsanto receives around a quarter of this amount.

Hanuman also has to buy fertilisers to help the cotton grow and chemicals to keep the bugs away. He hires labourers at 100 rupees ($1.89) a day to spray those chemicals. In an average season, he sprays between eight and ten times.

This year, the rains failed and the wells were running dry. The monsoons came, but they came late. Hanuman won’t know how much yield he will get from his cotton crop until he goes to pick it in a few months time. He won’t know how much he will make from it until he goes to market, where buyers pay him the same price for Bt cotton – which produces higher yield and is grown with pesticides – as they would for organic cotton (lower yield, no pesticides). The only reason Hanuman might consider organic farming would be to cut back on the costs of chemicals. He fears he might lose too much money.

Bt seeds are sterile – so that means he has to buy a fresh batch of seeds each year. When we last spoke, he said he’d have to borrow money to buy more pesticides and pay for his sons’ schooling. Somewhere in that narrow margin of debt he has to find cash to keep his family together.

I also befriended Prathiba, a widow who in 2007 had found her husband dead, having hung himself inside their one-room house. Now sweeping floors for a living, she has a daughter and a son who has to live elsewhere because she can’t afford to raise him.

Prathiba wasn’t aware that her husband was in debt until she found a note on his body. Unlike many in her situation, she received compensation from the government of one lakh (around $1,888). Under the terms of compensation, the family keeps a quarter of this. The rest is put in a bank where they can only access the interest at the end of the year. The men Prathiba’s husband owed money to keep coming round for cash. Her in-laws now completely ignore her.

India is around 60 per cent agrarian, so I started my research at the bottom – with the farmers on whom the country’s economy relies. I found that they were the first to give of themselves and yet the first to be abandoned as India is thrown about in the dizzying ether of free market economics (or as free as you can get when you’re bound to the World Trade Organization and dole out corporate subsidies).

Some stories I discovered challenged my preconceived notions of poverty and need. I spent a day looking for the poorest farmer in a village only to be welcomed into his house and greeted with a brand new television with a dodgy colour tube. He’d spent a week’s wages on it.

I met economists, intellectuals, activists and scientists balancing on contradictions.  Like the man who runs an organic seed bank but farms Bt cotton to fund it. Or the entomologist developing a GM cottonseed that thrives in drought, can be farmed using organic methods and will undercut major seed companies if he is able to open source the technology. I encountered enthusiasm, apathy and hostility – sometimes within the same exchange. And I have only just started.

Leah Borromeo is making a documentary called Dirty White Gold, to spread the word about cotton farmer suicides, pesticides and fashion. To help the team get back to India and finish filming they’re running a crowdfund. Find out more and donate at their information page.
Twitter: @dirtywhitegold

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