Global Policy Forum

Farmers in India Pay the Ultimate Price for Their Debt

It is called a "suicide epidemic." After taking out high risk loans and investing in genetically modified seeds, farmers in India sink into debt. Eventually the economic strain becomes overwhelming and so far, 200, 000 farmers have ended up committed suicide, leaving their families with an even greater burden to bear. The advertisement for the genetically modified seeds promises a better harvest and hence a higher income. What it doesn't mention is the amount of pesticides that the sowing demands, which subsequently drives up the total cost. The Indian government must support and encourage organic farming instead.

By Charissa Sparks

September 1, 2010
Media Global

An estimated 200,000 farmers in India have committed suicide in the past 13 years, or, roughly one every thirty minutes. These farmers, immersed in crippling debt, are taking their own lives, leaving their families grief-stricken and with even less resources.

"Vidarbha, known as the cotton belt of India, is more recently known as the ‘suicide belt'." Lata Sharma, director of Navdanya Mumbai, an NGO promoting organic farming and farmers rights told MediaGlobal. "The epidemic of farmers' suicides is the real measurement of the stress under which Indian agriculture and Indian farmers have been put by policies of neglect and indifference."

While India's urban regions have grown at a remarkable rate over the past decade, millions of its farmers, who make up more than half of the population, have been left to live in deplorable conditions with poverty rates equal to those of sub-Saharan Africa. This leaves little room for farmers to make mistakes when growing their crops.

Since 2002, a large number of farmers in India have invested in genetically modified seeds. Companies including Monsanto, Cargill, and Syngenta, often advertise their seeds with Bollywood stars and charge up to ten times the cost of traditional seeds. The seeds claim to bring unprecedented harvest sizes and considerably higher income. Many farmers take out high risk loans from banks or money lenders, often being charged excessively high interest rates to purchase the seeds.

It was later determined that these genetically modified seeds use up to 13 times as much pesticide as conventional seeds and require fertilizer and irrigation systems, meaning farmers are no longer able to rely solely on rainfall. In most cases the farmers are unaware of these extra expenses until after they have paid for the seeds and are suddenly forced into buying extra fertilizers and pesticides, dragging themselves deeper into debt.

In addition to the initial cost of seeds, pesticides, and irrigation, these companies engineer seeds with non-renewable traits, which require farmers to buy new seeds every year. Before genetically modified seeds were delivered, a number of traditional seeds were saved as a startup for the next season. Seeds saved for generations adapt to the environment, use less water, are more insect-resistant, and do not need strong soil. Yet, the push to invest in genetically modified seeds influences farmers to put tradition aside and, risk their livelihoods for the promise of greater yield.

When the company, Monsanto, first introduced the cotton seeds, farmers in India collectively lost one billion rupees due to crop failure.
"Seeing no other way out, debt- trapped farmers end up taking their lives," Sharma confirms.

While many blame the suicides on the seed companies, explained Dr. Jadish Bhagwati, an economics and law professor at Columbia University, the seeds are not intended for farmers who do not have the means to suffer hefty crop losses. The government should be responsible for ensuring there is truth in advertising and that farmers are informed about the acute downside of the gamble when selecting new seeds.

"The new seeds are now being peddled by salesmen who wish to maximize sales," explained Bhagwati. "They are like the salesmen of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae [quasi-government lending agencies in the US], who peddled subprime mortgages to people who could not really afford them. These were peddled to farmers, for whom the seeds represented a gamble that they thought could get them out of their often-inherited debt burdens." He said once the gamble failed, the distress level sometimes became unbearable, pushing farmers over the edge into suicide.

Thomas Helscher, executive director of Monsanto, in response to questioning, guided MediaGlobal to a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute which states, "Overall, our analysis shows that, without a doubt, Bt cotton is not a necessary or sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides."

Meaning, Monsanto maintains its innocence when questioned about the suicides of India's farmers.

For the families of farmers who commit suicide, life continues-often with more struggles. "After a farmer commits suicide, it is often the case that the family has to sell off their land to pay the debts, unless extended family raises the money to pay it off. Once the land is lost, the wife and other adult children start working as daily wage earners on their farms," Sharma said.

Dr. Govind Kelkar, senior program analyst and researcher for the United Nations Development Fund for Women, told MediaGlobal , "In households where the husband has been lost as a result of suicide, women face two difficulties: loss of labor and loss of farming skills and knowledge largely in the hands of men." Further study is needed to determine if family members take in the widow and her children, or if the opposite is true, that families try and take control of their resources.

When asked what can be done to help families of farmers who commit suicide, Kelkar explained, "It is necessary to institute women's unmediated ownership and control rights to land and to build an enabling environment for strengthening individual capabilities of rural women to manage land, agricultural produce, and assets."

Responding to the suicide crisis, working to keep farmers together with their families, Navdanya is bringing solutions through seed fairs, seed exchange programs, and initiation of new community seed banks. Distributing seeds to five villages in Vidarbha where farmers have pledged to go organic, Navdanya has organized workshops, providing guidance and assistance to farmers with the vision of completely organic farms.

Regardless of who is to blame, the problem of farmer suicides still continues. Organic farming is the sustainable option to relieving hunger and poverty, keeping families together, and is likely to reduce the number of suicides being committed among farmers overwhelmed by their debt.



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