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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 June 2006, 23:01 GMT 00:01 UK
India's forgotten farmers await monsoon

By Karishma Vaswani
Business correspondent, BBC News, Vidharbha

Indian village with banner advertising farms for sale
Some farmers have had enough of their precarious existence

Kamla Bai's husband committed suicide last month in the dry, arid Eastern Maharashtran region of Vidharbha.

She now spends her days picking up the pieces of her broken life and helping her son Bhaskar to earn a meagre living on their farm. He is the only breadwinner left in their family.

They are far from alone in their plight.

Across much of India, the rains that should have come with the annual four-month monsoon have been lighter than usual - so suicide rates among India's 700 million farmers, many burdened with drought-related debt, are high.

Bhaskar's father poisoned himself with pesticide in May, because he could not repay his debts to the banks.

He owed the banks $15,000, which he had been trying to pay back over the last decade.

Now Bhaskar is left with the burden of that debt, as well as providing for his mother, his wife and his two small children.

Bhaskar, whose father committed suicide in May
Bhaskar and his family are caught in a cycle of debt

He is waiting for the rains to come, so that he may have some chance of paying those debts back.

"After my father's suicide, it's just me left," he tells us, looking away as he talks of his father's death.

"I need a good harvest this year if I want to pay off at least some of our debts. We have no water, no irrigation here.

"If we have a good monsoon this year, then I will count myself lucky. But if God doesn't send the rains, I don't know what we'll do."

Hundreds of farmers have killed themselves in the Vidharba region in the last year because of drought-related debt.

It's a vicious cycle. Farmers borrow money to buy seeds in the hopes of a good monsoon. But erratic rains, and lack of information about when the rains are coming, make for a poor harvest.

They cannot pay back their debts and are forced into more debt for the following year. Suicide seems like the only alternative.

Selling up, moving on

But some farmers have decided to find another route. Just a few kilometres away from where Bhaskar lives is Dhorli village.

Here, farmers have decided that rather than taking their own lives, they will take matters into their own hands.

Dhorli village is one of four villages in India to put itself up for sale. It has put banners up across the village, saying that livestock, homes, property here are all up for sale.

Indian farmer
Tilling the soil is difficult without irrigation

Farmers in this village say they feel neglected by the government. They are so fed up with farming that they want to move to the cities in the hopes of a better life.

Village elders told us they had no other choice but to sell their land to repay their debts.

When we asked them about braving the life in the cities - where they would surely live in one of Mumbai or Delhi's many slums - they said they would rather put up with a life in the slums where they could earn a living, rather than stay in the village starving.

With few irrigation facilities, Indian farmers have little choice but to depend on rains for their livelihoods. Sixty percent of India's land is not irrigated. A bad monsoon means a bad harvest - and more debt for these farmers.

Life or death

"We have an abundance of land here," says Dharampal Jharundhe, the village elder. "You can see that all 53 of us farmers have land to till.

"But we have no water. We are at the mercy of nature. We don't get good harvests - we have nothing to eat here. Tell me, what are we to do? How are we to feed our families - pay back our debts?

Indian villagers at a resource centre
Villagers can now go online to track the monsoon's arrival

"We'd rather move to the cities, and set up small tea-shops, or clean footpaths - something to keep our stomachs fed."

But the Indian government is making attempts to help these farmers out.

It has set up village resource centres around the country, where young children of farmers are trained to access satellite images showing when the rains are due.

This can help farmers plan their harvests better, so that precious seeds are not wasted while waiting for the rains. It's a measure that has not come soon enough.

Farming makes up just a fifth of India's $665bn economy, but it feeds two-thirds of the population. A bad monsoon can spell life or death for millions of India's forgotten farmers.

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