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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The rise of anti-Semitism in Donald Trump's America

On Monday, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated. 

Anti-Semitism is once again on the rise in America. Since January alone, there have been 67 bomb threats against Jewish Community Centres in around 27 states around the country. On Monday, a Jewish cemetery in St Louis, Missouri was desecrated, with over 100 headstones overturned. There has been a large increase in online anti-Semitic threats and hate speechSwastikas have been spray painted on the streets of New York.

Trump's poorly-executed "Muslim Ban" has closed the United States to people from seven majority-Muslim countries, including refugees from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. But the divisive "them" and "us" rhetoric of the White House has had repercussions for other groups as well. 

Jewish people have not explicitly been the focus of any kind of executive order (after complaints about his lack of action, Trump called anti-Semitism "horrible"). Nevertheless, the new administrations appears to be implicitly pandering to anti-Jewish sentiment.

Take, for example, the official White House tribute issued on Holocaust Memorial Day in January. It failed to directly mention Jewish people at all. Jewish groups, including those representing Republicans, criticised the omission. Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus defended the statement, saying: "I mean, everyone’s suffering in the Holocaust, including, obviously, all of the Jewish people.”

Superficially, one could attribute this to ignorance. But how politicians phrase their words matters. It is a common tendency of anti-Semites to play down, ignore or reject the idea that the Holocaust was targeted at Jews. It is hard to believe that no one within the White House would have been aware of the kind of dog whistle this omission sent to the extreme right. 

That White House staff includes Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who was the executive chairman of Breitbart, viewed widely as the online news outlet of the "alt right".

Timing also matters. The decision to shut US doors to Syrian and and Iraqi refugees was announced on Holocaust Memorial Day. The irony of an order singling people out for their faith wasn't lost on Jewish groups, who know all too well how many German Jews fleeing the Nazis were turned away from other shores. 

Trump's response time sent a message too. When a Hasidic Jewish reporter asked Trump about the growing anti-Semitism at his press conference on 16 February, he responded as if it was a personal attack, calling the question "very insulting" and telling him to sit down. Despite tweeting vociferously about Saturday Night Live and his daughter’s clothing line being dropped by a department store, Trump only managed to issue a statement condemning anti-Semitism on Tuesday.

David Samuels is a prominent Jewish writer living in Brooklyn, New York. He told me: "American Jews are threatened by rising anti-Semitism on both the right and left, which FBI statistics show to be more serious and more deadly than any animus directed towards Muslims or any other religious group.

"I feel sad that this is now my country, not because I am Jewish but because anti-Semitism is a degenerative thought-virus that makes people crazy by promising to explain everything that happens in the world with reference to a single prime mover - the Jews.

"Because anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory, and not a form of social prejudice, it is fatal to rational thinking, in a way that simple racial or religious prejudice - including prejudice against Jews - is not."

Whatever the intentions of the Trump administration, the reaction in the country at large shows it is playing with fire. Americans must hope that Trump, who has three Jewish grandchildren, will come to his senses and rid his support base of any who seek to use the presidency to infect the country with their diabolical ideology. 

Lola Adesioye is a British writer based in New York. Follow her @LolaAdesioye.