The Economy, The Environment

In 2004 I wrote that rural poverty, rather than a rejection of communalist policies, was largely responsible for throwing the BJP out of power in the last Indian national elections. So I was not surprised, on my recent trip to India, to find that rural poverty remains a huge issue. Between 1997 and 2005, twenty-five thousand farmers committed suicide — according to official reports, but it seems that the official numbers underestimate the problem. Via Dilip, I came across this post which lists six reasons why these numbers are underreported:

  1. The suicides are only recognized as a farmer suicide” if there is land in the dead person’s name.

  2. Women farmers are generally not recognized as farmers. In one locality in Andhra Pradesh, 311 women killed themselves. These suicides only became public because one doctor recorded the names and information of the dead women.

  3. Agricultural families have to bribe the police and other authorities for post mortems and death reports.

  4. Many families want to avoid the stigma of reporting a suicide.

  5. Some of the policemen are sympathetic to the families and lie about the official cause of death. Sometimes they lie to avoid larger governmental inquiries.

  6. Many farmer suicides are officially listed as died of stomach ache.” This is based on a truth, as the men and women who kill themselves do so by ingesting pesticides.

But why are they committing suicide? It seems to be a combination of three things: First, the legacy of the green revolution, which greatly expanded India’s agricultural output between the 1960s and the 1980s.

In the late 1980s, however, the Green Revolution began to fall apart as the chemical fertilizers rendered soil infertile. Farmers who had once diversified risk by growing as many as 30 different crops in their fields were dependent upon just one. As the quality of the soil deteriorated, they faced zero yields and an inability to pay their debts. Three years of drought beginning in 2001 further fueled the crisis.

Secondly, deregulation and globalization has led to skyrocketing costs for both equipment and seed. As this fifteen minute PBS documentary explains, farmers are spending huge amounts on genetically modified seeds that fail to deliver the increased yields they promise.

Finally, mounting debts to local moneylenders drive farmer’s to suicide.

One of the leading experts on the subject is Palagummi Sainath, and one can find a tremendous wealth of writings about the rural agricultural crisis on this India Together web page. And this one devoted to the agricultural crisis. More notes from a recent talk he gave can be found here and here. In addition, take a look at this 2004 article from Znet.

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