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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There is one thing Donald Trump can't build a wall against

Muslim immigrants don't bring terrorism - ideology does. 

Rather than understanding the root of the Islamist extremist issue and examining the global scale of the challenge, one US presidential candidate has decided to pin his domestic security hopes on the demonisation of a particular group of people. 
 
The arrest of Ahmad Khan Rahami over the recent New York bombing, an Afghan-born naturalised US citizen, proved too tantalising an opportunity for the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to once again conflate terrorism and immigration. Taking aim at his rival Hillary Clinton, Trump claimed that she “wants to allow hundreds of thousands of these same people", people who he described as having hatred and sickness in their hearts.
 
It is unclear who exactly Mr Trump is referring to here, one can only assume that it is a reference to Muslims, more specifically those not born in the US, and their apparent deep-rooted hatred for all things American. These comments will no doubt strengthen support for his campaign among those who have remained supportive of his overtly anti-Muslim stance, but the reality is that Mr Trump is rather missing the point.
 
Trump’s insistence on profiling Muslims as a measure to curb terrorism is not merely offensive; it reinforces the "us versus them" rhetoric used by the very terrorists he is trying to defeat.
 
The attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando earlier this year was described as the deadliest mass shooting by a single attacker in American history. Omar Mateen, the perpetrator, was not an immigrant. Born in New York, Mateen was an American citizen by birth. This, however, did not stop him from killing dozens of innocent people and wounding many more. 
 
One of the most influential jihadi ideologues, certainly in the Western world, was in fact an American. Not a naturalised citizen, but a born American, Anwar al-Awlaki was a central figure in the propaganda output of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula. Awlaki’s ideas are reported to have been a significant factor in the radicalisation of the Tsarnaev brothers, the perpetrators of the deadly Boston Marathon bombing. 
 
Putting the spotlight on immigration as the most effective means to curb terrorism ignores the real problem; the ideology. The poisonous, divisive, and intolerant mindset that is at the heart of the matter is the real culprit. This ideology, which presents itself as a "true" reflection of Islam is nothing more than a politically motivated worldview that seeks to spread hatred and violence. 
 
Research from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics has shown that those individuals who buy into this worldview come from a multitude of backgrounds. Some are from poor backgrounds while others are from more affluent ones, some are well-educated while others aren’t. The truth is that there is no prototype terrorist - the common denominator, however, is that they share an ideology. Focusing on immigration as a source for terrorists fails to acknowledge the wide and varied pool from which they recruit.
 
The ideology, which perverts the shared religious heritage that 1.6bn Muslims around the world hold dear, is not simply a threat to the US, but to the world over. There is no wall high enough, no trench deep enough, and no bomb big enough to destroy this ideology. 
 
While the focus on Isis conjures images of the Middle East, this year alone we have witnessed deadly attacks committed by the group including Indonesia, Bangladesh, France, Germany, and Belgium. The ideology that drives the violence is transnational; it’s a global threat that necessitates a global response.
 
The transnational appeal and threat of this ideology is evident with the recent phenomena of online radicalisation. Men and women, boys and girls, have been lured by these ideas from the safety of their own homes, with these powerful ideas moving some to join causes in lands they have never visited. 
 
Recent attacks in France, Germany, and indeed the US, have demonstrated how items that can be obtained ordinarily, such as vehicles and knives, are being weaponised to cause maximum damage. But would a ban on knives and trucks be the solution? The only effective means for defeating terrorists is by challenging and dismantling their ideological appeal, effectively sapping the substance that fuels the violence.
 
Mr Trump, who may become Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most formidable army, must recognise that we are engaged in a battle of ideas, similar to that of the Cold War. A battle in which opposing worldviews are key, words are important, and taking control of the narrative is paramount.
 
In this battle of ideas, Mr Trump is not only hampering the global efforts against groups like Isis and its ilk, but actually reinforcing the ideas put forward by the extremists. Our leaders should not mirror the intolerant attitudes of our enemies or echo their binary worldview. 
Though, when it comes to the Republican candidate, his past statements on the topic indicate, perhaps, that this aim is overly ambitious.
 
Our response must be clear and robust, but we must first acknowledge who, or what, the enemy is. Muslims coming to the US are not the enemy, Muslims born in America are not the enemy, the enemy is the poisonous ideology that has manipulated Islam.
 
Defeating this transnational ideology requires alliances, not alienation. Mr Trump has expressed his commitment to work with allies in the Middle East to fight terrorism, but it is just as important to foster good relations with American Muslims. They can, and should, play an integral role in defeating Islamist extremism at home.

Mubaraz Ahmed is an analyst at the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics. He tweets at @MubarazAhmed.