Why are Indian farmers committing suicide over their debts?

Cotton farming has such narrow margins that finding cash to hold a family together can prove too much.

Every day, I Google “farmer suicides” and every day I see a new entry. I have a mantra which riffs on this: “Nearly 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide to get out of debt since 1995. In the state of Maharashtra in 2006, 4,453 people committed suicide. That’s one every eight hours.”

If you close your eyes and wiggle your finger over a map of India near the middle you’ll land on Maharashtra. You’ll probably not be far from a town called Wardha in Vidarbha. Nestled between the cities of Amravati and Nagpur it’s got a population of just over a million people – most of them farmers. Specifically, cotton farmers. This is known as the “cotton suicide state”.

Farmers being in debt isn’t new and neither is suicide. What shocked me wasn’t that people did it but how many people did it and why. It was like a swathe of indebted farmers were trying to push the reset button because they felt they couldn’t make something work properly.

There’s a tendency to appear dismissive of the real life struggles of the Indian agrarian class with two words – “go organic”. As an ideal, it’s perfect. No chemical use so no nasty cancers, working with a seed that isn’t sterile and 95 per cent controlled by Monsanto and cheaper for the farmer. Yet it’s not that simple. A farm that’s been hammered with years of chemical abuse needs some detox time in order to qualify for an organic standard certificate. That means three years of farming organically without the perks of selling at organic prices. The fear of lower yield for farmers who are oftentimes below the poverty line is enough to keep them on the smack.

I met a farmer called Hanuman who borrowed 80,000 rupees from the bank so he could farm his five to six acres of land with cotton. A father of two, he spent 70,000 rupees on boxes of bt (bacillius thuringienis) cotton seed and pesticides. The technology for bt is owned by Monsanto and it is licensed to seed companies for use and sale across a range of crops. The seed Hanuman uses costs 950 rupees per kg – Monsanto gets around 180 rupees per box. What’s more, he has to buy fertilisers to help it grow and chemicals to keep the bugs away. He hires labourers at 100 rupees a day to spray those chemicals. In an average season, he’d spray 8-10 times.

This year, the monsoons came late and the wells were running dry. Hanuman doesn’t know how much yield he’ll get from his crop. He won’t know what money it will fetch until he takes it to market. Buyers there pay the same price for bt cotton (which starts off producing higher yield but slowly declines and is grown with pesticide) as they would for organic (lower yield, no pesticides, more manual work on the farm). Hanuman says the only reason he’d resort to a bit of organic farming is to cut back on the costs of chemicals. He’s scared he’d lose too much money.

Bt seeds are sterile – so that means he has to buy a fresh batch of seeds the next time around. When we last spoke, he said he’d have to borrow more money to buy more pesticides and pay for his sons’ schooling. Somewhere in that narrow margin of debt he has to find cash to keep his family together.

I befriended Prathiba, a widow whose daughter found her husband hanging inside their one-room house in 2007. Now sweeping floors for a living, she lives with one other daughter. She sent her son away because she couldn’t afford to keep him. She didn’t know her husband was in debt until she found a note in his pocket.

We also found Kantibai. Her husband drank the poison he used to farm on 09 August 2012. Like Prathiba, she didn’t know her family was in debt until someone brought her husband – dying from poisoning himself – to the house. He told her to look after their two sons and daughter and was whisked off in a rikshaw towards hospital. He never made it. We met her a month later in a state of blank desperation that will always stick with me. She really had no idea where her life would go from there.

Ignoring journalistic pretentions at impartiality, the team and I chased down Kishore Jagtap – a man who runs a local NGO with a widows and women’s empowerment programme. Kantibai’s village was an hour away from his usual patch but we drove him to meet her anyway. He taught her what she needed to do in order to apply for compensation, what sort of help was available to her and taught her sons how to sign on to a welfare work scheme. He also gave her his direct contact details and said to call him anytime. Kishore didn’t have to come with us. But he did. And for the first time, as we were leaving, Kantibai smiled.

India is around 60 per cent agrarian so we started at the bottom – with the farmers on whom the whole economy relies. We found that they were the first to give of themselves and yet the first to be abandoned as India runs headlong into the dizzying ether of free market economics (or as free as you can get when you’re bound to the World Trade Organisation and dole out corporate subsidies).

We found stories that challenge preconceived notions of poverty and need. We spent a day looking for the poorest farmer in a village only to be welcomed into his house and greeted with a brand new television with a dodgy colour tube. He’d spent a week’s wages on it. We saw farmers who grew chickpeas and sold them at the market for 30 rupees a kilo…and then went down the road to buy chickpeas for dinner at 50 rupees a kilo.

We saw gaps in basic education and farmers who had no one to teach them how to farm apart from the men who sold them the seeds and the chemicals.

We met economists, intellectuals, activists and scientists who lived lives dancing on dualities. Like the man who runs an organic seed bank but farms bt cotton to fund it. Or the etymologist developing a GM cottonseed that thrives in drought, can be farmed using organic methods and will undercut major seed companies if he’s allowed to open-source the technology.

We were met with enthusiasm, apathy and hostility. Sometimes within the same sentence. And we’ve only just started. We need to work our way up the cotton supply chain and get to know the workers, the brokers, the manufacturers, the buyers, the dealers, the designers, the retailers and the consumers.

I struggled with my privileged Western “let’s buy organic” idealism. It’s great if everybody plays ball but in a country that’s mired in corruption and kickbacks at the top and desperate penury at the bottom you feel a bit of a dick even suggesting it. Being treated to a show of women making organic insecticide out of cow piss and leaves in the dark of the night while their neighbours whispered “I don’t know why we always do this for visitors, it doesn’t work and no one actually uses it” didn’t help either.

It’s a journey. I’m aware what I come back with at the end may be different from what I expect to find. I’m exploring science and the idea of open-sourcing technology to take power away from corporations and anyone who makes a killing out of suicides. I want to see if we can make ethics and sustainability the norm in the fashion industry because people don’t have to die for the stuff we wear. It seems we may have to ruffle some very important feathers while we do that. Bring it on.

Leah Borromeo is making a film about cotton farmers in India, entitled "The Cotton Film : Dirty White Gold". You can watch a trailer for it here.

A worker holds cotton at a cotton factory near the town of Yavatmal in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra state. Photograph: Getty Images
Olivia Acland
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The closure of small businesses in Calais is punishing entrepreneurial refugees like Wakil

We meet the Afghan refugee who purchased a plywood shelter, painted it with blue hearts and green flowers, and stocked it with basic supplies. The police have just destroyed his makeshift shop.

French police have returned to the Calais migrant camp, known as the “Jungle”, to continue dismantling the businesses there. Last Friday was the fourth consecutive day that they had been in the camp seizing stock from shops, restaurants and barbers.

They have arrested at least 13 proprietors and accused them of running illegal businesses without authorisation, sustaining an underground economy, and not having the required health and safety measures in place. The majority of the “Jungle” businesses have now been dismantled.

Many small enterprises have cropped up in the Calais camp over the last year, and a mud road lined with plywood shacks has been nicknamed “the high street”. Here you can find Afghan restaurants, Pakistani cafes, hairdressing salons and small convenience shops. 

The Mayor of Calais, Natacha Boucher, recently announced that the camp is to be demolished imminently, and closing down its micro-economy seems to be the first step in realising this plan.


The authorities enter the Calais camp. Photo: Juliette Lyons​

The makeshift town – which is home to more than 4,000 people – has been cowering under the threat of demolition since January, when attempts were made to bulldoze its southern stretch. Most of the people living here have come from war-torn Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq and Syria, and a lot of them have been on the move for years. The shops and restaurants were bringing a degree of normality back to their lives.

The businesses were mainly run by refugees who had given up trying to cross the border into Britain and were seeking some stability within the makeshift world.

Wakil, the owner of a small convenience store, was one of these people. He left Afghanistan four years ago, where he worked first as a journalist, and then as lorry driver for the US military. He tells me that he misses his old life and job greatly: “I studied at university for four years in order to become a journalist, I am passionate about that work and I dream of doing it again.”

Forced out of his hometown after writing articles that criticised the Taliban, he moved to Kabul and found work as a lorry driver for the US Army. When the US pulled out of Afghanistan, Wakil deemed it too dangerous to stay and set off on a journey to Europe.

He travelled over land through Iran, Turkey, and Greece, and then made it to Italy in a flimsy boat. With very little money, he was forced to sleep rough until he managed to find work in a restaurant where the owner was willing to overlook the fact that he did not have the right papers.

He started to establish a life in northern Italy, taking classes to learn the language and renting. Then, when the restaurant changed hands and the new owner refused to employ anyone without a work permit, he was once again jobless and without prospects. 

“After this happened, I decided to go to England,” he says. “Back home I had met some English people and they told me that life is good over there.”

Wakil then travelled by bus through France, and ended up stuck in Calais. He says: “I tried to cross the border but a policeman caught me in the back of a lorry – he beat me and sprayed me with pepper spray. After that I was frightened and I stopped trying. I decided to stay here for a while, and I set up this business to give me something to do.”


A view of tents in the camp. Photo: Olivia Acland

After just ten days in the Jungle, Wakil managed to purchase a plywood shelter off another Afghan refugee for €370. Smuggling building supplies into the camp had become very difficult, so “property prices” within the micro-economy were on the rise.

He painted the shack with blue hearts and green flowers, and stencilled the words “Jungle Shop” onto the side in mauve. When his improvised store was ready, he borrowed a bicycle and headed into Calais to buy basic supplies from cheap supermarkets.

He filled the shelves with tomatoes, fizzy drinks, milk cartons and biscuits. Each time a customer came asking for something that he didn’t have, he’d note it down and incorporate it into his next shop. In this way, his business grew and although the profits were small (around €250 a month), Wakil was relieved to be busy and working again.

Wakil’s business wasn’t raided the first day that the police came in, but after watching other shops being emptied of stock and the owners being taken to prison, he became extremely anxious. On the evening of the first raid, he invited friends to his shop to eat or take away as much of his supplies as they wanted.

“I was too worried to eat,” he says. “But I knew that the police would come for my shop in the next days and I didn’t want everything I’d bought to be wasted.”

Fearing arrest, Wakil then went to hide in Calais and returned at the end of last week to find his shop empty. 

“The police took everything,” he tells me. “When I came back and saw it all gone I felt terrible. Many more of my friends had also disappeared – I’m told they were taken to prison.”

When I express my sympathies, he replies: “Don’t worry about me; others from the Jungle are in worse situations. This has happened to many of us.”

Most of the businesses that were providing some kind of stability for displaced people like Wakil are now just empty shells. A volunteer at Care 4 Calais (a charity distributing aid in the camp) Alexandra Simmons says, “the businesses were giving independence to refugees who had lost everything. They were extremely good for people’s mental health.”

The bare shops now serve as stark reminders that it is just a matter of time before the camp is emptied of its people too.