South Asia Features
Little hope in India's 'suicide belt' ahead of election
Apr 15, 2009, 11:53 GMT
Nagpur, India - The fields surrounding the central Indian village of Vangri are bone dry. Water is only available during the summer monsoon season.
Most farm families dwell in wooden shacks. A single room houses all members who huddle together on mattresses on the dirt floor.
Vangri is situated in the so-called 'suicide belt,' a region whose nickname is derived from the phenomenon among impoverished farmers.
One of them was Narayan. The deeply indebted cotton farmer was 53 years old when he decided to put an end to his life by swallowing pesticide on November 10, 2007.
'Father couldn't cope with the debts any longer,' said his son, Vinod, who has since become the head of the family.
Narayan's widow, Parvati, looked devastated as she sat on the floor at the entrance to the family's shack with a corrugated tin roof.
During the occasions when electricity is available, the family can watch Bollywood movies on television - a world that seems incredibly far away for the inhabitants of Vangri.
Mango leaves threaded on strings hang in front of most houses in Vangri, about 150 kilometres south of the city Nagpur in Maharashtra state. People believe that the leaves would bestow wealth, but the reality in the village appears different.
'Everyone in our village is deeply in debt,' Vinod said.
His father had received a loan of the equivalent of 2,900 dollars from a bank and a similar amount from a private money lender.
While the bank charged 7-per-cent interest per year, the private lender wanted 25 per cent. Other loan sharks are said to demand as much as 50 per cent.
The money was used to maintain the fields and pay medical expenses for his sick mother, and Vinod has been unable to repay it.
According to government statistics, more than 180,000 farmers, the vast majority deeply in debt, have committed suicide since 1997.
In 2007 alone, more than 16,600 farmers chose to end their own lives. While down slightly from the 17,000 suicides the year before, the trend continues.
The development is an embarrassment for the Indian National Congress party-led government, which is seeking a return to power in monthlong staggered general elections that begin Thursday, after it took office in 2004 promising to relieve the rural population's suffering.
Half of government aid also ends up in corrupt officials' pockets, observers estimated.
'Nothing has improved in the past five years,' Vinod said. 'We feel betrayed. ... We also have no faith in any national party. They make many promises but don't fulfil them.'
Populist measures like cancelling small farmers' bank debts worth 13 billion dollars failed to get to the root of the problem because the debt with private loan sharks, which amounted to an estimated 88 per cent of the loans granted in 2008, were not affected.
Kishor Tiwari of the non-governmental organization Vidarbha Jana Andolan Samiti fights for the rights of impoverished farmers in Vangri and the surrounding region of Western Vidarbha.
About half the region's 20 million inhabitants are cotton farmers, but cotton prices in the world market have fallen sharply.
'Climbing suicide rates among farmers in the Vidarbha region are directly connected to domestic cotton subsidies in the United States,' Tiwari said.
But cotton cultivation had also increased in China, another traditional export market for Indian farmers.
And global demand for synthetic textiles has also driven down the price of cotton, which has fallen more than 50 per cent since 2004, Tiwari said.
Production costs rose faster than returns, and while produce farmers could sustain their families with what they grew, cotton farmers had to buy food.
'You cannot eat cotton,' Tiwari said.
The government guarantees a minimum price of 3,000 rupees (about 60 dollars) per 100 kilograms of cotton, about 500 rupees above the world market price and up a third from last year's guaranteed price.
'But I doubt that even 3,000 rupees will stop the suicides,' Tiwari said, adding that even 25 years ago, Indian cotton already had traded at 2,600 rupees.
In the meantime, only the government still buys cotton. Exporters haven't been seen in Western Vidarbha for a long time.
Even the government seems to have difficulties moving the crop as mountains of cotton bales lie in the open air in front of government warehouses.
Tiwari said he believes that the artificial price of 3,000 rupees won't be sustained for long after the national election.
The price would have to rise to around 5,000 rupees to enable farmers to enjoy a reasonable standard of living, said Probeshar, a security guard who earns a little more than 39 dollars per month. Since the suicide of his brother Pawan, he also has to take care of the family's cotton fields near Vangri.
Pawan swallowed pesticides in December. He was 28.
Like many others, Probeshar complained that nothing had changed under the current government although the Congress party recently boasted that its policies had improved the lives of the poor.
'The promises are always broken,' he said. 'I believe in no party. I don't believe in government.'