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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Debt, drought and death
Charlie Haviland
By Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent in Bangalore

Farmers and agricultural experts in the southern Indian state of Karnataka are trying to work out how to stop farmers here committing suicide.

Farmers in Karnataka
Owners of small farms have been forced to down tools and sell up

Over 200 farmers here have killed themselves since April.

Many parts of the state have had three successive years of inadequate rains. Drought and debt loom large.

The deaths have now spread beyond the backward arid belt to the more prosperous, well-watered districts.

Moneylender miseries

Chikkamma was a 68-year-old widow farmer in Mandya district, near the state capital Bangalore. She lived with her family in a fairly large house.

But her acre of irrigated land was mortgaged to a moneylender.

With no irrigation water for 18 months, her crops dried up. Last month her lenders sought repayment.

Farmers with bullocks
Colourful protests are a hallmark of Karnataka's farmers

And nine days ago, she hanged herself from the tree in front of her house.

Another farmer, Puttaswamy Gowda, would frequently break down and weep, publicly humiliated by moneylenders.

"They would come like elephants, 10 or 15 together, and harass him," said his wife.

"Our crops were failing, I was doing coolie work, and we did not even have the money to repay the interest." A week ago he hanged himself.

Ishwarappa Bhagoji, a young farmer in the northern district of Belgaum, was a man burdened by debt.

He and his pregnant wife committed suicide after poisoning their three daughters, aged six, three and two.

Stressed and penniless

The mood in many villages is grim.

Small farmer Hemant Panchal, from the northern district of Dharwad, told the BBC he is living on the proceeds from last year's crop of wheat, cotton, oilseeds and gram.

This year, there has been nothing.

Karnataka field
An idyll in trouble - field in Karnataka

He is relatively lucky. Some of his neighbours have had no crop for four years.

Once, encouraged by showers, they sowed with all the inputs they could gather - and lost their produce because drought followed.

"They are almost penniless and under great stress now," said Hemant.

Seeds of doubt

Many farmers depend on informal credit sources.

State Agriculture Minster VS Kaujalgi admits that private lenders often charged exorbitant interest rates.

In a recent emergency law, the government banned annual interest rates above 23% and enforced a year-long freeze on action against debts.
I feel emotional about this. Death by way of suicides moves every one of us.
Chief Minister SM Krishna

But AC Rangaswamy, a farmer and campaigner, says changes in the whole culture of borrowing have made things worse.

"In the past, farmers didn't borrow to raise their crop, but only for marriages or buying new property," he says.

"Nowadays scientists and politicians are pushing new techniques and fertilisers on us, always suggesting we grow more. But ultimately we don't get the returns for our efforts."

Mr Rangaswamy says crop prices in India are unrealistically low and blames the national government for keeping vast stocks in warehouses.

Farmers with produce
Farmers offer their produce by the roadside - but yields have been low this year

In an impassioned speech this week to a seminar addressing the issue of farm suicides, he criticised new seed varieties, which he said were high-yielding but low-quality.

He estimates that more than 20% of small-scale farmers have abandoned their farms for wage labour.

Meanwhile, medium-scale ones stay on the land and their debts spiral.

Task force

This was an occasion for dialogue rather than concrete measures.

The Karnataka government has already extended a $170m relief package for farmers and promised $2,000 to each bereaved family.

Seshagiri Rao
Psychologist Mr Rao believes counselling could save lives

It did not respond to some farmers' calls for free electricity, which Mr Rangaswamy says would help them more than anything else. Nor did it offer to have major debts cancelled by public lending institutions.

What the government will do is organise regular meetings in villages across the state, so that farmers in trouble can talk to officials and psychological counsellors about ways out of their problem.

A psychologist, Professor Seshagiri Rao, is to be part of a task force on this, which he calls "counselling with a helping hand".

A late start

Chief Minister SM Krishna said farmers must know they can depend on the help of the government and civil society.

"I feel emotional about this," he told the BBC. "Death by way of suicides moves every one of us."

Some farmers remain sceptical.

Vatal Nagaraj, a farmer and former politician, shouted slogans outside the meeting, calling on the government to resign and insisting on debt write-offs and fair prices.

KS Puttannaiah, leader of a farmers' union, addressed the seminar at length - but said that no amount of counselling would prevent suicides.

What was needed, he said, were concrete economic steps.

Hemant Panchal was more measured. "Today they have opened that window of dialogue," he said.

"It's a late start but it's positive."

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