Between 1995 and 2007 more than 2,00,000 farmers committed suicide in India. The figure could be much higher. In the absence of Coroner’s Reports we have to rely on police records, likely to be influenced by social stigma and legal sanctions. The suicide mortality rate (suicide deaths per 100,000 persons) for male farmers increased from 10.5 to 18.2 (compared with an increase from 12.4 to 14.1 in non-farmers). In the cotton growing belt of Western Vidarbha, the epicenter of the farmer’s suicides, the per annum rate has reached 110.
The increasing incidence of farmers’ suicides in India is symptomatic of a larger socio-economic malaise. On the one hand, it is indicative of a broad crisis threatening the livelihoods of many small farmers and agricultural workers; on the other hand, it signifies over one and a half decades of state neglect.
Since the 1990s India’s agricultural sector has suffered a decline in productivity. Three fifths of India’s workers are dependent on this sector while it contributes to only one fifth of the national income. Estimates from a survey in 2003 indicate that the per capita per day return from cultivation is now less than eight Indian rupees (10 pence). The same survey revealed that nearly half of India’s farmers wish to leave the profession, deeming it unprofitable.
Farmers experience many pressures. There has been a decline in public investment in irrigation (canals, tanks, etc) and an increase in private initiatives (wells, tubewells) that have combined to deplete ground water and augment the debt burden as farmers become increasingly reliant on non-institutional sources. In 1991 changes in banking policy led to the closure of many rural branches and a decrease in the net share of credit available to agriculture. Farmers have been forced to turn to moneylenders, the vast majority of whom charge interest of more than 20 percent per annum.
Recent initiatives such as the doubling of credit, a moratorium and then a debt waiver (an election year gimmick) have had little impact as they have failed to address this non-institutional debt. The lacuna that still exists is the absence of a mechanism to deal with nonwilful default by a farmer, either through credit guarantee or insurance. The system seems to be geared to take the farmer into a vortex of debt.
With fiscal discipline impinging on the recruitment of extension workers (as well as school teachers and health care providers) farming has become costly. There is an increasing dependence on the market. The reliance on input providers has led to a supplier-induced demand, and new inputs (say, genetically modified seeds) have rendered the farmer’s knowledge redundant. Skilled professionals have become unskilled workers.
Already exposed to the volatility of international prices (distorted by huge subsidies in the US and Europe), shortages of water, debt and lack of credit, those farmers that are engaged with reform, the risk-taking, enterprising farmers are being exposed to an even greater vulnerability: spurious inputs, the inappropriate use of technology, uncertainty in the crop, the product and the market.
Left with no alternatives, many farmers end up committing suicide. In my view, this is an act of helplessness in a state of momentary despair: a call to society for help. Help not only for the farmer’s immediate family members − widowed wife, old and ailing parents, young children, but also for farming in general and for other farmers, like him.
– Srijit Mishra
Sanjay committed suicide in 2007. He came home, watched TV, and then drank pesticide. He had fallen into debt after switching to GM (genetically modified) Bt cotton. The Vidarbha region accounts for the highest growth in GM cotton in India. It also has the highest rates of farmer’s suicides. His wife, Nirmala, is still waiting to hear if she will receive compensation from the Indian government.
Vinod was an experienced farmer with a successful farm growing hybrid (non – GM) cotton. When other farmers in the area started planting Bt seeds a new disease spread to his field. He had no idea how to treat it so he borrowed money to buy more seeds. In 2003 the crop failed again and he committed suicide. His widow, Mrs. Rathod looks after their five children on an income of around 40 rupees (50p) a day.
Anil took poison at home. He had borrowed money from private moneylenders and 20,000 rupees from relatives. His wife, Sarla, struggles to feed their three children: ‘I have had no compensation from the government. At the moment there is no work in the fields, if there was work the fields I would do it. The problem is that we don’t have an irrigation system. We hardly have any water.’
Enticed by free seed trials, Santosh began growing Bt cotton in 2005. A year later he took his own life. He owed more than 50,000 rupees to the Yavatmal Corporate Bank. When prices fluctuate, Indian cotton farmers find it difficult to compete with their heavily subsidized US and European counterparts; many find themselves in debt. Santosh’s wife, Manda, and their two daughters, are all unemployed.
Monsanto Bt cotton is four times more expensive than conventional cotton seeds. It contains a gene that prevents the seeds produced from being harvested and re-sown every season. Gautum Jadhav jumped into a well because he was unable to pay back moneylenders the 4,000 rupees he borrowed for new seeds. His widow, Sangeeta, earns 30 rupees (40p) a day in a neighbouring field. She worries that their son will be unable to find work.
Govind had not grown anything in the three years preceding his death. Like many farmers he had been attracted to Bt cotton by adverts promising a higher yield with less need for pesticide. The billboard outside his village reads: ‘Spray Less, Profit More – Monsanto Seeds.’ Farmers are not warned that these plants require more water and fertilizer than ordinary cotton. The crops often fail because of a lack of irrigation.
Dhyaneshwar was engaged to marry when he took out a loan to buy new GM seeds. Small cotton farmers can be highly dependent on the monsoons. If the monsoons don’t come, the crop may be ruined. A bad harvest meant that Dhyaneshwar could not pay back the interest on his debt. He drank poison in January 2008. His fiancée’s brother, Bhaskar, now runs the farm. He hopes to install an irrigation system.
Sangeeta’s parents both killed themselves on the third of October 2006, when she was fourteen. They took poison because they were in debt. Since then she has been responsible for the farm, her three younger brothers and her elderly grandmother. She says she has not applied for compensation because she doesn’t understand the procedure. Sangeeta earns 30 rupees (40p) a day, working in the fields, and often has to borrow more from moneylenders: ‘I must pay for my brothers’ school fees, I want them to complete their studies. I cannot leave and get married, I have to care for them.’
Verena Hanschke is a graphic designer, art director and photographer from Berlin, Germany. She has studied integrated design at the University of the Arts, Bremen and gained her masters in Communication Art and Design from the Royal College of Art in London. She has worked as a full-time freelancer since 2009 and has worked for clients such as gestalten publishers, Nokia, Design Hotels™, Vice Media Group and the Fine Art Society, London. In 2010, Verena Hanschke received an Honary Mention from ID Magazine Annual Design Review, was shortlisted for the Conran Award in 2009 and won the Thames & Hudson and RCA Society Artbook Prize in 2008. Her photography project The Vidarbha Cotton Widows in collaboration with Floriana Gavriel is represented by photography agency Laif.
More information about Verena Hanschke can be found on her website: www.verenahanschke.com
- The Tasveer Journal would like to thank Floriana Gavriel and Verena Hanschke for letting us use their images and research materia. We also extend our thanks to Srijit Mishra for his introductory text. Mishra prepared this essay for the Vidarbha Cotton Widows project, drawing from his other recent writings, the most recent being D. Narasimha Reddy and Srijit Mishra [eds.] Agrarian Crisis In India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.)
- Research Verena Hanschke
Interviews Floriana Gavriel and Verena Hanschke
Photographs Floriana Gavriel and Verena Hanschke
- Production Manager Floriana Gavriel and Verena Hanschke
Production Manager India Sanjeev Mishra
Production Assistants India Amrik, Nilesh, Sachin, Yogish
- Thank you for your generous donations for building Sangeeta’s new house:
- This project would not have been possible without the ongoing creative, technical and financial support of the Royal College of Art, London Visiting Professor Nick Bell, Professor Dan Fern and Professor Jeff Willis and the University of the Arts Bremen, Germany Professor Peter Bialobrzeski and Matthias Schneege and perfectprops Berlin.