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
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Blow-dried and supplicant, Ivanka shows the limits of the power women are allowed in Trumpworld

A new book by the US President’s daughter has surpisingly strong echoes of medieval royalty.

Exactly 500 years ago this month, the apprentices of London rose up, ­angry with Flemish immigrants and the bankers of Lombard Street. The race riot was quelled only when a couple of dukes sent in their private armies. Hundreds of looters were arrested and some were hanged, drawn and quartered. But some rioters were as young as 13 and the city’s residents felt sorry for them.

Henry VIII wanted to look magnanimous, but not weak. And so, at the trial in Westminster Hall on 7 May, ­Cardinal Wolsey first asked for mercy on the youngsters’ behalf. He was refused.

And then three women came forward: Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, and his sisters Mary and Margaret, the widowed queens of France and Scotland. Faced with three women on their knees, the king relented. “It was a scene straight from the pages of chivalry,” writes Sarah Gristwood in her history of Renaissance women and power, Game of Queens. “An intercessory function, of course, had been traditional for queens, from the biblical Esther and Bathsheba to the Virgin Mary.”

Whenever contemporary politics gets too depressing, I take refuge in history. I always hope I will gain some perspective from people whose problems are very different from my own. Yes, climate change is terrifying; but at least I don’t have scrofula! Yet modern life has a way of creeping back. Late-medieval Europe was full of resentment for “aliens”, for example, who were felt to be prospering at the expense of native populations, even if those tensions were often expressed in religious rather than nationalist terms. It was Catherine of Aragon’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, who expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492.

Nonetheless, I was surprised to find such strong echoes of medieval royalty in Ivanka Trump’s new book, Women Who Work. I won’t waste your time by attempting to review this seminal tome, especially as it’s largely constructed out of bits of other self-help books. The advice boils down to: be “multi-dimensional”; don’t be afraid to use “architect” as a verb; feel free to turn down Anna Wintour, when she offers you a job at Vogue straight out of university, because your true passion is real estate. If it’s a busy time at work, as it was for Ivanka on the campaign trail, go into “survival mode”. (“Honestly,” she writes, “I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”) Something for everyone.

Still, Women Who Work gave me the chance to contemplate the point of Ivanka Trump. I’ve seen her far more than I have heard her, which is no surprise, as her role in the administration is largely symbolic. What is Ivanka if not a Renaissance queen, tearfully pleading with her lord to show mercy? She is, we are told, his conscience. When his daughter’s clothing line was dropped by the US retailer Nordstrom in February, Trump tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Two months later, her name was invoked again. The First Daughter was distraught – “heartbroken and outraged”, she tweeted – at the sight of Syrian children gassed by the Assad regime. This prompted her father to bomb an airbase to atone for the slaughter of what his statement referred to as “beautiful babies”. “Ivanka is a mother of three kids and she has influence,” her brother Eric told the Telegraph. “I’m sure she said: ‘Listen, this is horrible stuff.’”

This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanising, empathetic. Their tears moisten the oak-like carapace of great leaders, showing them that sometimes it’s OK to be kind – but obviously not too kind, because that’s a bit soppy and girly and gay. Women are naturally prone to emotion, of course, unlike sturdy, ­rational men, who get so cross about the way TV news is reporting their firing of the FBI director that they start sending unhinged tweets implying they have incriminating “tapes” of White House conversations.

In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway. (As New York magazine urged acidly on 13 April, “Someone Please Show Ivanka Pictures of Starving Yemeni Children”.) Ivanka’s whole book is designed to render female power unthreatening by making it “feminine”; merely a complement to male power instead of a challenge to it.

To reassure us that she isn’t some frumpy bluestocking, Ivanka has crafted an image of expensive, time-consuming perfection: perfect white teeth, perfect blow-dried hair, perfectly toned body. Her make-up, clothes and home are all styled in unobtrusive neutrals. Together it says: let me in the room and I promise not to be a nuisance or take up too much space, even on the colour wheel. It’s noticeable that no woman in Trump’s orbit has “let herself go”, even though his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has the complexion of a body that’s been found after two weeks in the water. I somehow doubt he ever makes “time for self-care”.

And don’t come at me with all that garbage about a nice frock and a manicure being “empowering”. Look at Donald Trump, the one with his own military: he has a fat arse and uses Sellotape to hold his ties in place. A president is allowed to have appetites – for women, for food, for power. His supplicant daughter gets to peddle platitudes about how you should “bond with your boss”. (Being a blood relative helps, although, sadly, Women Who Work is silent on what to do if he also fancies you.)

Is this how far we’ve come in 500 years? Ivanka Trump might try to sell herself as a modern woman, but her brand of female power is positively medieval.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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