Monday, November 2, 2009

Indian Farmers Commit Suicide as Drought Continues

Farmer's widow Sugali Nagamma, 41, with her daughter Devi, 18, walk through the fields near the village of Kapiripalli in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Her husband committed suicide three months ago, after the worst drought this region has experienced in two decades. Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos.

Andhra Pradesh is historically called the "Rice Bowl of India". More than 77% of its crop is rice and Andhra Pradesh produced 17,796,000 tons of rice in 2006. However, things are changing.

Andhra Pradesh, India’s fourth largest state is now in the grip of a drought brought about by climate change; and, farmers are literally killing themselves because they cannot grow any crops. Not being able to grow any crops means not only can’t they feed themselves and their families; but, they also have no income to pay off any bills or to buy supplies of any kind.

What was once considered the rice bowl of India is now an area of desolation, drought and death.

India depends on the monsoons or "rainy season" to provide the water necessary to grow their crops. To most of India’s amazement the July monsoons did not arrive as scheduled. When they did arrive – 45 days late – they were woefully inadequate for the crops that had been planted and too late for others to be planted at all.

Descriptions of the so-called monsoon rains from the locals include “scanty”, “maybe just five minutes a day”, “raining on one field; but, not the next”. Not good news for one of the driest states of India. There is no such thing as irrigation so all water needed must come from the rains.

By the end of September, a drought had been officially declared in the state. Food prices were rising – rice (a staple) by 20%, sugar by 45% and most vegetables went even higher. The farming families are some of the poorest people in India and now they are unable to grow crops to feed their families. Without the small income generated by the sale of some of their crops, they are unable to afford to buy food for their families.

The rains have not been kind this year. Early in October, massive storms brought floods that drove nearly half a million people in the state from their homes.

But the rains came to late to help people like Naryamaswamy Naik. His wife, Sugali Nagamma, says of her husband, “I don't know how much he had borrowed. I asked him, but he wouldn't say. I'd tell him: don't worry; we can sell the salt from our table. Everyone has debts."

In July, Mr. Naik took a tin of pesticide from the cupboard, opened it and drank it. His wife, Sugali tells the story. "He'd been unhappy for a month; but, that day he was in a heavy depression. I tried to take the tin away from him but I couldn't. He died in front of us. The head of the family died in front of his wife and children – can you imagine?"

It is a story repeated over and over throughout India – the details change slightly; but, the outcome is always the same. Through no fault of their own, farming families accumulate debt they are unable to pay due to the drought. Drowning in debts stemming from several years of insufficient rain, the head of the household commits suicide in shame over his inability to support his family.

In the villages people talk a lot about suicide. Oxfam’s regional manager, Shaik Anwar, says this is the result of the total desperation felt by people who see no other way out. All other methods of coping have failed; and, thoughts of suicide become constant companions.

"They already have a huge amount of debt, and the delay of four or five weeks in the planting season just finishes people. A shortfall in rain is OK, people are used to drought, but this is different: farmers lost the seed and they lost the crop. Often the social pressures contribute to suicides: marrying a daughter is very tough. The culture is that they have to feed 50 or 100 families at the ceremony, even when they don't have enough grain at home for themselves."

So farmers hire out as labourers earning the magnificent sum of 30 rupees (75¢ USD) a day if they work for a local farmer or 100 rupees ($2.40 USD) if they get on a government scheme designed to help the rural poor. Children drop out of school and work alongside their parent(s). Some families get government-subsidized rice that lasts only one week out of the month; but, is better than the nothing they now have.

Adding to the misery is that the summer temperatures can be 10°C hotter now than in the past. Since they can reach 45°C (113°F), this makes work outdoors near impossible.

Ramesh Naik, a 35-year-old red gram farmer, says, "When I was a child everywhere there was water, and rains. I suppose those were the golden days – now we're always looking to the sky, looking for the rain. It was eight or 10 years ago that things started changing. Every year since has become worse and food problems have got worse. Before, if something was required people would share; now there's no support, no sharing of grain or anything. People can't afford to help any more. Everyone is in crisis."

Via Guardian

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