Sat Apr 22, 6:46 AM ET
Despite failed crops and mounting debts, the family of Indian cotton farmer Chandrakant Gurenule never believed his suicide threats until he set himself alight and fled their home in flames.
The ambitious 34-year-old bought the latest, expensive, high-yield genetically-modified cotton seeds for his 15-acre (six-hectare) farm in this parched corner of India’s vast rural hinterland only for his crops to fail for two successive years.
He sold the pair of bullocks he used to plough the fields, and told his wife — whose wedding jewellery had already been given to unofficial moneylenders — there was no hope left.
He sat inside his home, doused himself in kerosene and lit a match.
His death on April 1 was one of the latest in a crisis that saw more than 4,100 farmers commit suicide in the western state of Maharashtra alone in 2004, according to a state government-backed report based on police figures.
Officials confirm that the deaths are increasing at a faster rate than ever before in a country that already has the second highest suicide rate in the region, according to the World Health Organisation.
Indian government officials have said more than 8,900 farmers had died in four states since 2001, putting the Maharashtra figure at only 980 as opposed to 4,100 — a number dismissed as far too low by activists.
“In such hostile conditions when there is no ray of hope, the farmer commits suicide,” says Kishor Tiwari, an activist who has documented some 450 suicide deaths in just one part of the state in the last year.
Agriculture is essential to the well-being of Indian society as it employs some 60 percent of the country’s workforce and accounts for a quarter of India’s GDP.
Immediate survival was on the minds of Gurenule’s family at their home in the village of Sayatkhada.
His young widow clutched his framed photograph and their two children while his distraught father Bapurao, 75, sat on the floor and wept.
“I hold my head and I think of him. I have lost him and don’t know what to do now,” he said. “There is nothing we can do.”
Three years ago, the Gurenules, persuaded by their local farm agent, took the first step to move into raising GM crops, and trials gave good results.
They increased the amount they bought the following year, even though the cost of one bag of seed was 1,600 rupees, compared with the 450 rupees they used to pay, but that year’s crop failed because of drought.
So they bought even more as part of a 70,000-rupee (1,500-dollar) cultivation bill. Again the crop failed when it was washed away by too much rain.
“After that, he told us the only way to get out of this was to die. But we never took it seriously,” said his brother Pralad. “He was very into his work.”
Investigators for India’s monopoly monitors earlier this month accused US biotech group Monsanto, which has a tight grip on the GM market, of overpricing its cotton seeds, charging so-called “technology fees” on seed packets.
Government reports had not linked its cotton seeds and the spike in the number of suicides, Monsanto said.
But activists claimed that 60 percent of farmers in Maharashtra had failed to recover costs from their first GM harvest and the seeds were totally unsuited to small-scale Indian farming.
“Monsanto should be held liable … it’s caused immense stress in the farming community,” said Dr Suman Sahai, founder of the Gene Campaign, a steady critic of Monsanto.
In his report for the Maharashtra government, Srijit Mishra blamed a range of problems including falling world cotton prices, low Indian import tariffs and the failure of the state’s minimum cotton price scheme.
He also said farmers, often illiterate and without proper training, were frequently dependent on seed suppliers telling them what to buy, and on unregulated moneylenders for the cash to buy it.
According to a 2003 survey, more than half of all farmers in the state were in debt and Mishra’s report said about one-third of the loans came from non-official sources.
Because of the surge in suicides in the state — from fewer than 1,100 in 1995 to more than 4,100 in 2004 — moneylenders encourage farmers to sell them their land as security for the loan in case they commit suicide. They only sell it back if the loan is paid off, said Mishra’s report.
K.S. Vatsa, rehabilitation secretary for the Maharashtra state government, said the biggest problem was the collapse of world cotton prices.
“The prices of cotton have been depressed for a long time,” he said.
In Mangi village, an hour’s drive from Sayatkhada, a group of 15 farmers gathered at the home of another family grieving a farmer, who killed himself three days after Gurenule.
“There could be more deaths in this village,” says the dead man’s father, Deorao Ragaba Shate, 75.
“If the government will not fall, then it’s us who will keep falling.”
Source: AFP via Yahoo! News