More than 100 cotton growers killed themselves in Maharashtra in August, marking the highest monthly number of suicides in five years by farmers whose mounting crop loans drive them to death, activists said.
The spate of suicides in the western state of Maharashtra took the toll to more than 900 this year and the wave has not abated despite highly publicised efforts by New Delhi to ease the financial burdens.
Debt-ridden farmers have been killing themselves in alarming numbers in four states and government statistics have recorded about 3,600 suicides in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala in the last five years.
Maharashtra has been severely hit this year as farmers have failed to procure loans for seed and fertilisers, and those who borrowed money to sow cotton saw their crop destroyed by heavy rains in the past month.
Activists say the "accumulated distress" of Maharashtra's farmers is now at its worst.
"The rate of suicide now is about three per day," said Sharad Joshi, chief of Shetkari Sangathan, a powerful farmers' lobby in Maharashtra.
Vidarbha Jana Andolan Samiti, a farmers' pressure group, said it had counted 110 deaths in August, making it the highest figure since 2001.
Most of India's farming community is poverty-stricken and many farmers borrow -- often amounts that would only buy a few drinks in an upmarket London or New York pub -- from the village moneylender at rates as high as 10 percent a month.
India's economic reforms launched in the early 1990s have added to the farmers' woes, with duties that protected them from subsidised European and American cotton being phased out, experts say.
Their debts soar when crops fail due to poor rains or prices tumble.
Agriculture supports 600 million of India's 1.1 billion people, but contributes only a fifth of gross domestic product and accounts for only 12 percent of bank credit.
Maharashtra officials said they did not have a monthly breakdown of farmer suicides but a government Web site said 754 had killed themselves between January and August 15 this year.
But farmers' groups said they did not believe the government numbers. They say overall suicide rates in the four states were at least five times more than the 3,600 recorded by authorities.
"The government suppresses facts for obvious reasons, but we have names of each and every farmer who committed suicide," Samiti head Kishor Tiwari told Reuters.
The crisis in Maharashtra prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit the affected region in July.
He announced over $400 million in one-time grants, interest waivers and debt restructuring besides a one-year moratorium on loan repayments for farmers at the end of the tour.
But activists said the package was yet to make an impact.
"In fact, the rate of suicide has gone up by 50 percent after the prime minister announced his package," Joshi told Reuters.
"There is no effort to get to the root of the problem. Whatever steps are announced never percolate to the grassroots," said activist Tiwari.
Reacting to reports of a spike in farmer suicides, Prime Minister Singh last week said it would take 2-3 months for his economic package to show results.
Singh's Congress swept to power in 2004 largely riding the support of the rural poor, unhappy at missing out on the benefits of India's booming economy, one of the world's fastest growing.