The fields are filling with widows

EVERY now and then, a story emerges that seems so tragic and outrageous that the fact it comes from the other side of the world does nothing to dilute its impact.

Such is the plight of thousands of desperate farmers in India who are committing suicide at the rate of one every 30 minutes.

This is now acknowledged as the worst-ever recorded wave of suicides of its kind in human history.

As a reporter for The Hindu newspaper commented, “The fields are filling with widows.” To say nothing of the thousands of children of the rural poor who inherit little more than a mountain of debt and no father to support them.

Widows like Vandana Moorhorle have been left to bring up their children alone. Her husband killed himself by drinking pesticide. He had been persuaded to use genetically modified seeds, to enjoy a better harvest and move his family out of a subsistence existence. But he wasn’t told that the GM crops need more rain than the region he lived in provided. His wife blames large agricultural companies and the government for exploiting the rural poor.

“He had borrowed a lot of money for pesticides and fertilisers, and now I will have to pay back his debts,” she said. “Debt is the reason for all the suicides around here, and it is the people in charge who are responsible.”

Bhabani Patel, a 45-year-old farmer from the Bundwan district, hung himself from a tree in Chandur village recently, unable to face the growing mountain of debt that engulfed him. Relative Chandi Porel said that his family were now being harassed for this debt, and had even less chance of paying it than they had before.

Expenses for cultivation had gone up, he said, and farmers were not getting adequate prices for their produce As a result, Bhabani’s family had become debt-ridden, and had acquired a loan from a private company, who were coming to their house every day to recover the loan amount.

Agriculture in India is often referred to as “gambling with monsoons” because of its almost exclusive dependency on the arrival of these torrential rains. Their failure inevitably leads to a series of droughts, and exploitation by middlemen.

India woke up to the increase in suicides among its farming population as long ago as 1990. The Hindu newspaper’s rural affairs editor, P Sanaith, warned then that most of the suicides were occurring among cotton growers in the Vidarbha region. But it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t just the cotton growing areas that were in trouble. Farmers as a professional category were all suffering.

India was rapidly transforming itself into a primarily urban society, with industry as its main source of income, and the government had little time or inclination to concern itself with the condition of the countryside, or a downturn in the rural economy which added to the number of distressed non-farmers trying their hand at cultivation. Growing numbers of these would-be farmers did not know how to survive in a rapidly changing economy. Such stresses pushed many increasingly debt-ridden farmers into a corner where suicide seemed the only way out.

Traditionally, support systems in the villages of India had been provided by the government, but a combination of lack of government support and poor administration had allowed these to decline, leaving hard-farmers and their families without advice or support.

One study from the Punjab region revealed a dramatic misuse of agricultural chemicals in many rural households where there was little or no guidance on safety or how to use these potentially lethal products. . Another study from Andhra Pradesh uncovered drastic changes in seed and pesticide use, changes that have caused what they referred to as a “de-skilling” in the traditional cotton-producing sector.

Such a loss of knowledge could have long-term and catastrophic results, leaving a new generation of farmers unable to afford the new agricultural methods, and with little recollection of the older ways of surviving in an unpredictable climate.

In Ireland, the farming community has had more than its fair share of hardships over the years.

At present, by dint of good management, unrelenting hard work and the quality of its produce, Irish agriculture is more than holding its own, although not without sacrifices on the part of some.

Like everyone else, farmers and rural dwellers have to contend with escalating prices for materials, reduced availability of grant aid and benefits, and the prospect of a 2% VAT increase in ahead.

But the farming community and, indeed, rural dwellers in general are, of necessity, self-sufficient and resourceful, able to find a way of eking a living out of the most meagre of situations, with the stoicism needed to survive hard times.

They know that dealing with animals, the land and growing things requires patience and sometimes, a degree of resignation to those forces that are beyond our control.

Like India, Ireland has seen a dramatic change in the agricultural landscape over recent decades, and many small farmers have found it increasingly difficult to survive. And we have more than our fair share of isolated and ageing bachelor farmers, for whom dramatic change in their agricultural practices is neither wanted nor possible.

Unlike India, there is a level of support available for those who are in distress and unable to accept the bewildering changes that confront them. Not that it is always enough, and not that those in distress are always willing to accept help.

But, in India, a dramatically changing economy and the breakdown of village institutions have left thousands of farmers bereft of any practical support, or even the hope that they might be able to survive their present difficulties.

The banks’ unwillingness to provide loans to the thousands of Indian farmers who lease their land has led to some micro-financing agencies exacerbating the situation, by borrowing from India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development at an interest rate of 4%, then charging farmers anything from 24% to 60%.

India has a rich and ancient culture, and has made remarkable progress as a major player in world markets.

But, for those farmers who have been encouraged to better their marginal existence, horrendous accumulation of debt has brought unimaginable pressures.

Loss of face, loss of confidence in their entrepreneurial capabilities, and inability to meet cultural and familial demands — such as the wedding and dowry required when a daughter marries — have placed an increasingly heavy burden on the shoulders of many of India’s farmers.

It is to be hoped that the Indian government take urgent steps to tackle this scourge. Because while the numbers of farm suicides in India have risen significantly, the numbers of farmers is rapidly shrinking.

And in the final analysis, no country can manage without its farmers.

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