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Harvest of suicides

One Indian farmer kills himself every 37 minutes. Fernando Molina Cortés records the plight of these farmers in Wardha and Yavatmal districts of Maharashtra, driven to end their lives.

india Updated: Apr 17, 2013 09:59 IST
farmers suicides in maharashtra,farmer suicides in india,Fernando Molina Cortés

Rahul Udebham's wife talks to me about the morning before it happened; when the loan shark came to claim payment of all the debts, walked about like a madman among the cotton plants screaming: "If you don't pay, this land will be mine!"

Rahul disappeared and returned drunk. That night, he left home. That was the last time she saw him alive. Next morning, she found Rahul writhing in agony amid the plants, where he died.

She says Rahul, 35, was a devoted father, respected by all in Kelzar, a hamlet in the Vidarbha region. The drought had killed all his crops.

This meant no income and he could not stand the prospect of losing his land to the loan sharks. A small bottle of pesticide was enough to finish his agony.

One Indian farmer kills himself every 37 minutes. More than 2,70,000 farmers, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, have taken their lives between 1995 and 2011. About 14,000 did so only in 2011.

Toil away: A worker at the cotton ginning factory in Yavatmal, Maharashtra. Photo by Fernando Molina Cortés.

Many reports explain that the farming sector's decline in India began in the 1970s. Before that, the farmers didn't use chemicals on their crops.

But ever since, the Indian government began the Green Revolution, fostering the use of hybrid seeds and chemicals (fertilisers, pesticides etc) with the aim of increasing the country's crop yield.

In the short term this resulted in a higher yield, especially in the regions with regular rainfall.

Burdened: A woman carries a bundle of freshly collected cotton in Tiwasa, Yavatmal district of Maharashtra. Photo by Fernando Molina Cortés.

"After some time it was impossible to avoid salination, the depletion or over-exploitation of aquifers, together with heavy pollution of soil and water with pesticides," explained Brahmachari Eknath of the Mata Amritananda Math foundation.

By the end of the 1980s, the government sought credit from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (WB), which was granted in exchange for applying the usual "plans for structural adjustment": the privatisation of public institutions involved in farming, cutting back state funding, deregulation of prices and removal of protective laws on the sector and custom tariffs.

End game: Rahul Udebham's neighbours carry his body for cremation in Kelzar, Wardha district of Maharashtra. Photo by Fernando Molina Cortés.

This allowed for free flow of foreign farming products to India's domestic market.

From 1991 to 2011, the country's GDP grew from 274 billion euros (approx Rs. 19 lakh crore) to 1,840 billion euros (approx Rs. 130 lakh crore).

But this growth was not felt by all. The WB pointed this out in 2011: nearly 69% of the population was living on less than 1.56 euros (approx Rs. 110) a day.

The removal of tariffs and cutback of state funding spelt doom for small farmers.

Since the price of many foreign products is kept artificially low by subsidising it, many farmers cannot compete with this and resort to taking loans. Of course, this does not solve anything.

It only buys time, and the problem gets bigger as the months go on. At some point, it becomes untenable.

Driven to despair: A farmer drinks at a local bar in Yavatmal, Maharashtra. Photo by Fernando Molina Cortés.

By the time Rahul committed suicide, the loan sharks had already been leeching off rural India for years.

They offered credit at a disproportionate interest, sometimes up to 50%, to be repaid in as little as six months.

In India, where men are still deemed responsible for providing for the family, farmers who can't fulfill this role feel that their honour has been shattered and it drives many to suicide.

Fernando Molina Cortés is a freelance photographer and writer born in Madrid. He contributes regularly to Diagonal Newspaper, Últimas Noticias Magazine and The Irish Times.

First Published: Apr 17, 2013 01:31 IST