Death is stalking the farmers of the Indian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, where more than 14,000 people have committed suicide between 2001 and 2006.
The Congress Party government in Andhra Pradesh claim that they have contained the crisis by initiating a number of ad hoc measures like debt moratoriums and cheaper credit, yet to this day farmer suicides continue in the Telangana and Rayalaseema regions of the state.
Between three and five suicides are being reported there every week, and in the two years since Congress was elected in Andhra, official figures put the number of suicides in the state at 1,261. The largest number of farmer suicides have occurred in Karnataka - the state that encompasses Bangalore, India's information technology capital.
Under the strict rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the farming community in India is exposed to the volatility of the international market. Abhijit Sen, a member of the Indian government's planning commission, explains, "The highest number of suicides are in the regions with the highest debt. Most of them are also in cotton belts in the case of Maharashtra, Andhra and even Karnataka, while in Kerala it's spices like black pepper.
These are cash crops which suffer from highly volatile prices and need superior market and technical knowledge. When the unaware farmer diversifies into a cash crop, lured by high prices in a particular year, it's like entering the stockmarket when the prices are unrealistic - you can face a crash the next year."
In the Vidarbha region, the cotton belt of Maharashtra, over 980 cotton farmers committed suicide between 2001 and 2006. Of the 3.4 million cotton farmers in this region, 95 percent are believed to be struggling with heavy debt.
Another contributing factor to the crisis has been the pressure to adopt the latest - agribusiness products. The newly introduced, genetically modified seed, Bt Cotton, was enthusiastically endorsed by the government but has wreaked havoc on cotton farmers' lives. Its manufacturer, Monsanto, said it was resistant to the boll weevil beetle - the main cotton pest - and required just two sprays of insecticide for every crop, instead of the usual eight. This seed sold for about four and a half times the cost of a normal seed, but many farmers opted to buy it because they believed it was indestructible. They were devastated when many of the plants were afflicted with a reddening that destroyed much of the crop, leaving them with unusually high debts.
The government has been promoting multi-national giants such as Monsanto, while at the same time withdrawing market controls and subsidies for agriculture under the diktats of the World Bank. Indian farmers are pushed to compete with farmers in the US and the European Union, who are protected by trade restrictions and provided with billions of dollars of subsidies. In the US alone, the 2002 Farm Bill gave $190 billion to large companies growing cotton, wheat, corn, soybean, rice, barley, oats and sorghum.
Ten years ago the international price of cotton lint was $1.10 a pound. Today it is just 52 cents. Then the retail price of ten metres of cotton was four rupees. Today it is eight rupees. So while retail prices have doubled, farmers are forced to sell their produce at half the price. As the costs of production rise above prices, most farmers are running up huge losses and have to borrow heavily. Since most of them have already defaulted on loan repayments, the only recourse is to borrow from the trader-moneylenders who charge interest at rates as high as 120 percent.
Alarmed at the phenomenal scale of farmers' suicides, and the poor publicity that they bring, the chief minister of Maharashtra started offering farm loans at 6 percent interest rates - 1 percent cheaper than the previous rate. He also announced that, "if a farmer repays the loan on time, he will get an additional subsidy of 2 percent in the interest rate, and the state will bear the cost of giving loans to farmers at a subsidised rate". The announcement of the "generous offer" was farcical. In the absence of crop prices that allow farmers to make a living, how will the farmers repay these new loans?
In addition to "financial relief", the state government is trying to do something to lift the morale of farmers. It is organising social events like prayer meetings, plays, and interesting talks by experts. Instead of addressing the root causes of poverty, our rulers are to start counselling camps for the farmers called "art of living" classes. Surely, a cruel joke is being played on India's dying farmers.
Vidya Sagar is a member of the CPI(ML) Liberation