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
Photo: Getty
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This is no time for civility towards Republicans – even John McCain

Appeals for compassion towards the cancer-stricken senator downplay the damage he and his party are doing on healthcare.

If it passes, the Republican health care bill currently being debated in the Senate will kill people. Over the past few months, the party has made several attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act passed under Obama, all of which share one key feature: they leave millions more people without healthcare.

Data indicates that every year, one in every 830 Americans who lack healthcare insurance will die unnecessarily. A report by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that the newest “skinny repeal” plan will leave an extra 16 million individuals uninsured. That’s an estimated annual body count of 19,277. Many more will be forced to live with treatable painful, chronic and debilitating conditions. Some will develop preventable but permanent disabilities and disfigurements - losing their sight, hearing or use of limbs.

This is upsetting to think about as an observer - thousands of miles across the Atlantic, in a country that has had universal, free at the point of delivery healthcare for almost seven decades. It is monstrously, unfathomably traumatic if you’re one of the millions of Americans who stand to be affected. If you’ve got loved ones who stand to be affected. If you’ve got an ongoing health condition and have no idea how you’ll afford treatment if this bill passes.

I’ve got friends who’re in this situation. They’re petrified, furious and increasingly exhausted. This process has been going on for months. Repeatedly, people have been forced to phone their elected representatives and beg for their lives. There is absolutely no ambiguity about consequences of the legislation. Every senator who supports the health care bill does so in the knowledge it will cost tens of thousands of lives - and having taken calls from its terrified potential victims.

They consider this justifiable because it will enable them to cut taxes for the rich. This might sound like an over simplistic or hyperbolic assertion, but it’s factually true. Past versions of the bill have included tax cuts for healthcare corporations and for individuals with incomes over $200,000 per year, or married couples making over $250,000. The current “skinny repeal” plan has dropped some of these changes, but does remove the employer mandate - which requires medium and large businesses to provide affordable health insurance for 95 per cent full-time employees.

On Tuesday, Senator John McCain took time out from state-funded brain cancer treatment to vote to aid a bill that will deny that same medical care to millions of poorer citizens. In response, ordinary US citizens cursed and insulted him and in some cases wished him dead. This backlash provoked a backlash of its own, with commentators in both the UK and US bemoaning the lack of civility in contemporary discourse. The conflict revealed a fundamental divide in the way we understand politics, cause and effect, and moral culpability.

Over 170 years ago, Engels coined the term “social murder” to describe the process by which societies place poor people in conditions which ensure “they inevitably meet a too early… death”. Morally, it’s hard to see what distinguishes voting to pass a healthcare bill you know will kill tens of thousands from shooting someone and stealing their wallet. The only difference seems to be scale and the number of steps involved. It’s not necessary to wield the weapon yourself to have blood on your hands.

In normal murder cases, few people would even begin to argue that killers deserve to be treated with respect. Most us would avoid lecturing victims’ on politeness and calm, rational debate, and would recognise any anger and hate they feel towards the perpetrator as legitimate emotion. We’d accept the existence of moral rights and wrongs. Even if we feel that two wrongs don’t make a right, we’d understand that when one wrong is vastly more abhorrent and consequential than the other, it should be the focus of our condemnation. Certainly, we wouldn’t pompously insist that a person who willingly took another’s life is “wrong, not evil”.

Knowing the sheer, frantic terror many of my friends in the US are currently experiencing, I’ve found it sickening to watch them be scolded about politeness by individuals with no skin in the game. If it’s not you our your family at risk, it’s far easier to remain cool and detached. Approaching policy debates as an intellectual exercise isn’t evidence of moral superiority - it’s a function of privilege.

Increasingly, I’m coming round to the idea that incivility isn’t merely justifiable, but actively necessary. Senators voted 51-50 in favour of debating a bill that will strip healthcare from millions of people. It’s unpleasant to wish that John McCain was dead—but is it illegitimate to note that, had he been unable to vote, legislation that will kill tens of thousands of others might have been blocked? Crude, visceral language can be a way to force people to acknowledge that this isn’t simply an abstract debate—it’s a matter of life and death.

As Democratic congressman Keith Ellison has argued, merely resisting efforts to cut healthcare isn’t enough. Millions of Americans already lack health insurance and tens of thousands die every year as a result. The Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction, but the coalition of resistance that has been built to defend it must also push further, for universal coverage. Righteous anger is necessary fuel for that fight.