Drought, debt claim India's farmers

Kamla Gudde with two bulls her family bought with compensation money after her husband's suicide.

PHOTO GALLERY: Suicide among India's farmers

TESS VIGELAND: This weekend, weather forecasters are supposed to give their annual monsoon predictions. In India, millions are literally praying for rain. Two-thirds of the population are farmers. Very few of them have profited from Indian's booming economy. Without new farming technology or irrigation, monsoons provide critical moisture. But they've become less and less reliable.And that's driving some farmers to take desperate measures.Miranda Kennedy has this report.


MIRANDA KENNEDY: The Gudde family squats on mats in a small, dark room. They are cotton farmers — or at least, they were.

Kamla Gudde says their 4.5 acres of cotton and lentil didn't yield anything for years. Her husband owed the bank $4,000, and couldn't pay any of it back.

One day, he swallowed his pride and asked the bank for another loan.

KAMLA GUDDE (voice of translator): The bank manager said that you'll have to mortgage or give us the land, your farm, because we can't give it to you. You haven't even paid anything of your old loan, and we cannot think of giving you another loan.

Palasram Gudde returned home, and while his family took an afternoon nap, he drank a bottle of pesticide he'd bought for his fields. He died quickly, before his family could wake up.

It's a familiar tale. Here in Vidharba, a cotton-growing region of central India, thousands of farmers have killed themselves rather than bear the burden of their high-interest loans.

But Palasram's debt didn't go away. It just got passed on to his son, Bhaskar, who blames it on rising costs of everything — especially the genetically-modified cotton seeds made by Monsanto.

BHASKAR GUDDE (voice of translator): For the last couple of years, we have been spending extra money to buy these pesticides, high-yield seeds. But the seeds can't protect us against drought, and we have no irrigation in our fields. They also can't protect us from wild animals coming into our fields, and we have no money to put up fences. So there's no relief. Basically, farming is a death wish now.

The government does have a compensation program for farmers who commit suicide. The Gudde family received over $2,000.

Although they have to keep 70 percent of the money in the bank for five years, some worry the program is an incentive for farmers, who know they'll leave their families with something. The suicide rate among farmers here has tripled in the last decade.

DK Joshi, an economist, says small farmers are more vulnerable than ever before.

DK JOSHI: These are the ones who commit suicides. There are not enough social security programs, there are not enough subsidies. So there is a market-failure issue. And that is where the state has to step in, and state has not been able to do its job to protect these people.

In a recent national survey, 40 percent of farmers said they'd give it up if they could. In Vidharba, farmers have put several entire villages up for sale. No buyers yet, but it won them some attention. Last year, India's prime minister pledged a billion dollars to the region.

[SOUND: Drums beating]

Officials also started a grassroots campaign to try to dissuade farmers from suicide. They screen this video in village centers.

[SOUND: Woman wailing behind drum beats]

It opens with a woman mourning her husband's suicide.

[SOUND: Indian music]

But it gets more uplifting when another farmer's wife convinces her drunk and indebted husband not to kill himself.

The moral of the story is that farmers should diversify into small, rural businesses, like raising cattle.

Bhaskar Gudde bought a pair of bulls with the compensation money. They should bring in cash, because he rents them out to other farmers. But there's nothing here for the animals to graze on after four years of drought. The government has promised to build irrigation canals, but they wont be finished before this spring's planting season.

Bhaskar is far from certain that his crops will yield anything this year, so he says he needs to do daily wage labor to survive. As the sun goes down, he and his mother work together silently — harvesting chickpeas for some other farmer to sell.

In Vidharba, India, I'm Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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