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Debt, the grim reaper

By Darryl D'Monte

Two new documentary films by Mumbai filmmaker Suma Josson take a hard look at farmer suicides in India

The cautionary remarks that the Indian prime minister recently directed to the "captains" of industry and commerce may indicate that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, which has just celebrated its third birthday, is now concerned that the high rates of economic growth have not been inclusive of ordinary Indians. This shift is also evident in the announcement of another major package for the farm sector, which is in the throes of a crisis.

However, just three days after the announcement of the package, as many as 11 farmers committed suicide in Vidarbha, mainly in the cotton-growing districts of Wardha, Buldana, Akola, Washim, Yavatmal and Amravati. Ironically, these are the very districts -- the "killing fields" -- that received a relief package of Rs 3,750 crore last July. According to the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, 1,280 farmers from the area have taken their lives since then. This year, Vidarbha has already recorded 426 deaths. The Samiti holds the removal of advance bonus and a doubling of input costs responsible.

Officials continue to ascribe these deaths to other, personal reasons. Of the 426, only 40 were said to have been caused by the agrarian crisis; 285 were due to "other factors" and the rest were "under enquiry".

The bureaucracy in Amravati would do well to contemplate what it is in the last few years that has escalated the number of suicides in this cotton-growing belt. Vidarbha has always been in the rain shadow area of Maharashtra, with only a tenth of cultivated land under irrigation. Farming here has been a subsistence occupation for centuries. Why hadn't farmers committed suicide until now?

Many of the actual reasons are cited in Mumbai documentary filmmaker Suma Josson's new in-depth film, I Want My Father Back, on farmer suicides in Vidarbha and Wayanad. When she looks at the deep-seated factors responsible for this crisis, which is easily one of the biggest facing the country, along with the rise of Naxalism, she correctly cites the Green Revolution that was initiated by the American agronomist Norman Borlaug in the early 1960s. His earliest experiments were with wheat in Mexico -- his farm revolutionaries were nicknamed "the 12 apostles". The results were then transferred to the fertile fields of the Punjab.

However Josson quotes Vandana Shiva, noted environmentalist and activist, as asserting that in the aftermath of the disastrous Vietnam war, the US chemical industry (Dow was guilty of making the defoliant Agent Orange which US forces dropped on the hapless populace, along with napalm) was looking for new markets for its "surplus" chemical capacity. The accusation also seeks to draw a tenuous connection between the extermination of the enemy in a country at war, and pests on a farm. This might be hyperbole: to accuse the chemical industry of such malevolent intent is to stretch the facts. That said, the record of the industry is far from exemplary, and that of genetically modified (GM) technologists even worse.

Josson's film dwells briefly on the success that organic farmers have had in Yavatmal and elsewhere. These experimenters have shown that without resort to pesticides and chemical fertiliser, they have been able to achieve modest crop production and, above all, outputs that are sustainable year after year. The Rural Development Committee of the Rotary Club of Bombay and Forum of Environmental Journalists of India organised a presentation of such practices in Mumbai last August. Dr Tarak Kate from Dharamitra in Wardha described his initiatives with what he terms "resource-poor" farmers in organic farming.

Instead of merely citing such initiatives, however, one should recognise that these have to run the gauntlet of opposition from proponents of conventional agriculture. No less an authority than Nobel Laureate Borlaug is on record as stating: "We cannot feed 6 billion people with organic farming; if we tried to do so we will level most of our forests...." John Emslay, a senior Cambridge (UK) chemist puts it more bluntly. He says that "the greatest catastrophe that the human race will face this century is not global warming but a global conversion to organic farming -- an estimated 2 billion people would perish". So much for the sustained campaign in the UK in favour of organic farming by Prince Charles! Unfortunately, these efforts are dismissed as the preoccupations of cranks or by an affluent minority that can afford to tinker with lower yields because it does not have to put food on the table.

There is no question that what has changed in Vidarbha and Wayanad, not to mention parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, along with pockets in other states, is that the rules of the game have been altered with the new dispensation ushered in by the World Trade Organisation. Thus, in 2001, quantitative restrictions (QRs) were removed: previously, there were physical restrictions on imports of agricultural commodities from industrial countries. Import duties were also liberalised. This was a double whammy: imports were cheaper (and, specifically in the case of cotton, heavily subsidised -- some 25,000 US cotton-growers receive around $ 4.5 billion a year). At the same time, the cost of inputs like pesticides, fertiliser and credit itself (earlier subsidised domestically) became more expensive with the government's neo-liberal policies.

To add insult to injury, GM cotton was introduced in Vidarbha and elsewhere. One should clarify, as the NGO Gene Campaign in Delhi does, that GM technology is not the main cause of farmer distress, but it's certainly a contributing factor. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), in a lengthy report last year on the cotton crisis, says: "In India, GM crop is synonymous with Bt [a natural fungus whose genes are inserted into a GM cotton variety to render it immune to this pest] cotton, as this is the first GM crop and, till date, the only one to be cultivated in the country. Bt cotton occupied an area of 1.3 million hectares out of 9 million hectares planted in 2004-05. [In 2006] the area is expected to have crossed 2.5 million hectares, which includes the so-called illegal [spurious] Bt cotton -- roughly 30% of the cotton-cultivated area. India also registered the fastest growth in GM acreage -- an increase of 160% in just one year amongst the 21 GM-growing nations in 2005."

India began tinkering with GM crops in 2002, when the government approved commercialisation of three varieties of Bt cotton. According to the CSE, all three were developed by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Ltd, a 50:50 per cent joint venture between India's largest seed company Mahyco and the world's largest GM seed company Monsanto, which holds the patent for Bt cotton along with the US department of agriculture. Notes the CSE: "Today there are 36 varieties approved by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) for commercial cultivation; 12 seed companies market these varieties. The introduction of GM seeds in certain agro-climatic zones has led to increased productivity.

"The Asia-Pacific Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology, in its review of Bt cotton in India, says that the sales of the three [varieties of] Bt increased from 73,000 packets of 450 gm each, to 913,000 in 2004. The total number of Bt cotton seed packets sold in 2005 was 3.1 million, accounting for 1.26 million hectares. Maharashtra -- and the ill-fated Vidarbha region -- leads the Bt race with 50% of the cotton cultivated [emphases added]. Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh grew Bt in 20-12% of the cotton cultivated areas." Monsanto has used Maharashtrian film stars like Nana Patekar to spread the good word about Bt cotton, and has earned huge royalties from this seed.

All the same, it would be untrue to say that the bulk of farmers who have committed suicide have done so because they have gone in for Bt cotton. In Vidarbha, most are marginal and could not afford to do so. But it has exacerbated an already terrible crisis. Monsanto's website states that yields of Bt cotton farmers have increased 60-80%, but this is only under ideal conditions when the rains do not fail (Vidarbha continues to depend on the monsoons) and input prices are stable.

The problem is far more insidious, since India is estimated to use $ 620 million worth of pesticide per year, and half of this is on cotton. According to the Central Institute for Cotton Research, three-quarters of the insecticide sprayed on cotton is excessive and wasteful, not to mention hazardous to farmers who do so without adequate precautions. It is the pesticide dealers who are the villains of the piece, using every trick in the book to persuade innocent farmers to spray their crops with chemicals. Often, as Josson's film repeatedly emphasises, he doubles as the moneylender for his own lethal produce. Ironically, many farmers in Vidarbha have taken their lives by consuming pesticide...

Debt is shown as the cause of death in the official records, often citing loans taken for marriages, building houses, and the like. But it is obviously the new dispensation -- seeds and farm technologies -- that is the culprit, since farmers have never committed suicide en masse before. Faced with such distress, an entire village in Vidarbha put itself up for sale in protest, while another openly advertised that its inhabitants were ready to sell their kidneys to repay their loans.

Josson's second film, titled Before the Last Tree Falls, deals with the history of settlers in the hills of Wayanad, in Kerala, who cleared the forest (oblivious of the ecological consequences) and grew coffee and other cash crops decades ago. Once again, it was the removal of QRs that did the trick. In India, the general level of farm subsidies is only 3%, while it is 39% in the US. The cost of locally grown coffee powder does not exceed Rs 240 a kilo, while a kilo of Nescafe sells here for around Rs 1,000. The company is estimated to be earning Rs 1,500 crore a year in this country, since Nescafe is fast replacing "ordinary" coffee in the most modest coffee houses and eateries.

Meanwhile, under the new dispensation, prices of such commodities, fixed in markets abroad, are fluctuating rapidly, often dipping very low. Pepper, for instance, sold for Rs 200 a kilo in 1998; it now sells for just Rs 60. The film exposes how unscrupulous traders, exploiting the rules under which produce from SAARC countries can enter this country without import duties, are surreptitiously bringing in pepper and coffee from cheaper producers like Vietnam, branded as produce from a neighbouring country. Activists estimate that Wayanad, a cash crop centre in Kerala, loses around Rs 1,000 crore a year on tea, coffee and pepper, causing widespread distress.

With modern cash crop farming, two-thirds of the earnings accrue to the agro-industry, pushing the small farmer to the wall. Even under Green Revolution techniques, part of the loans taken for crops included funds to buy fertiliser as a package, all of which sowed the seeds of this new technology. This is why farmers in Wayanad have converted their paddy fields to banana plantations, with consequences for food security that hardly need to be explained. Each acre of banana requires 1.5 tonnes of pesticide. According to activists, there are around 143 pesticides being sold in the country that are banned elsewhere.

The film, funded by the India Friends Association, details how a school science club conducted a survey to show how, in areas with banana plantations, incidences of cancer are on the rise. People apply chemicals to the crop with their bare hands. Needless to add, chemical manufacturers are reluctant to explain to users what precautions they need to take, for fear of losing their lucrative markets. Cultivators, faced with declining income from their small holdings, are travelling 400 km to Coorg to work on coffee plantations there, as labourers. All this coincides with reduced spending by the state on essentials like health and education.

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007