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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 June, 2004, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
Suicide spree on India's farms
By Omer Farooq
BBC correspondent in Hyderabad

Parched farmland
Drought is becoming a way of life for the farmers
Lakshmamma and Anjamma are two of the many faces of a tragedy that has been sweeping through the drought-ridden southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

They are relatives of two of more than 100 farmers who have taken their lives in the state over the last fortnight, shocking the nation.

The rise in cases comes despite the newly elected Congress party state government's announcement of a relief package for families of farmers who have committed suicide.

For 18-year-old Anjamma of Guntur district, the suicide of her father-in-law, Thota Samabaih, had a touch of tragic deja vu about it.

Loan defaults

"My husband committed suicide two years ago after he fell ill and could not afford his treatment," says Anjamma, eyes full of tears.

"Now my father in law has ended his life after he failed to repay a loan to the money lender."

Prayer meeting in Hyderabad
Praying for rain

She is now left with a two-year-old son and half an acre of land - she is also saddled with a debt of 150,000 rupees ($ 3,500).

Lakshmamma from Medak district has a similar story to tell.

Last month, her husband Kamuni Sivarajaiah committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree on his arid farm.

A dishevelled Lakshmamma is still in a state of shock.

"When he went out to farm, he appeared to be happy. We had no inkling that he might take his life," she says.

Thota Samabaih was another farmer who took his life last month.

He failed to repay loans, mostly borrowed from money lenders at a whopping 36% interest rate, after his cotton crop failed because of drought and a pest attack.

He consumed pesticide and died on his parched farm.

There are 11 million farmers in the Andhra Pradesh
90% of them are small farmers
The state has been facing a drought since 2001
70% of the state's 78 million people are dependent on agriculture

The new Congress government has announced a series of measures to help the affected farmers.

They include free electricity and compensation of 150,000 rupees ($3500) to the relative of every farmer who had committed suicide or who was being harassed to repay loans.

But this has failed to dissuade the farmers from taking their lives.

Analysts say the spate of suicides is rooted in the endemic neglect of the farming sector in the state.

Economist V Hanumantha Rao says that lack of irrigation facilities and institutional loans to farmers and their overdependence on money lenders has led to the sorry state of affairs.

Psychiatrist Dr P Raghurami Reddy says some farmers could be taking their lives to invite attention to their families' plight.

"Suicide by one farmer is inspiring others to do the same," he said.

Mr Reddy reckons that money lenders may be putting more pressure on the farmers after they feared that the new government could force them to freeze the debts.

'Deadly cocktail'

Changal Reddy, president of Federation of Andhra Pradesh Farmers Associations, says the number of suicides always rise from April to June.

YS Rajashekhar Reddy signs a document to grant free electricity to the poor
The new state government has proposed compensation measures

He says there is a "deadly cocktail" of factors at play during these months that drives farmers to despair.

For one, he says, the farmers come to know around this time whether their crop has failed. The state has been reeling under drought and crop failure has become common.

Then, the "money lenders swing into action to demand their money back," says Mr Reddy.

"If the farmer is getting his daughter married off during this time, then there are the pressures of dowry. The problems just keep piling up."

A total of 250 farmers committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh between 1995 and 1998, according to the government.

There are no definitive records available after 1998 after the previous government stopped paying compensation to affected families on the ground that it was encouraging more farmers to commit suicide.

The new chief minister Mr YS Rajashekhar Reddy says nearly 3,000 farmers in the state have committed suicide over the past six years.

Analysts say that the new government should now spread the message that its relief package was "on its way".

The farmers association chief Changal Reddy has a radically different solution.

He says the government should declare a "financial emergency" and divert all resources to the farming sector.

"That is the only way to save our farmers," he says.

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