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Last Updated: Monday, 29 May 2006, 14:03 GMT 15:03 UK
Suicidal despair of Kerala's farmers
By Renu Agal
BBC News, Wayanad, Kerala

Pepper tree
Kerala's pepper industry has been hit hard by foreign competition
Shaija's husband committed suicide last summer because he was being hounded by a bank for repayment of a loan.

She now lives with her three-year-old son trying to eke out a living.

But Shaija's sad story is not by any means unique.

In fact hers is the kind of tragedy which farmers of Wayanad - a town in the southern Indian state of Kerala - regularly hear about.

In the last five years, more than 500 farmers have committed suicide in the region.

The latest bout of suicides is taking place in the land famed for the Malabar pepper - the best of its kind in the world.

Wayanad district, Kerala
Kerala looks prosperous but life is tough for farmers

It was this pepper that was taken back by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, and which made the Malabar coast a place to fight for among the colonial powers.

Now the same pepper is killing the Kerala farmers.

As you travel down the winding hilly roads of Wayanad to reach Sultan Bathery all you see are lush green hills, tea and coffee plantations.

The area is dotted with rubber and areca nut trees and pepper vines.

In no sense does the traveller feel there is a farming crisis here.

The fact that this farming crisis is pushing pupils out of colleges and technical institutions is hard to bear for a state which prides itself in being 100% literate

The kind of extreme poverty which drives farmers in other parts of India to take their lives does not seem to exist here.

But the small farmers and contract labourers who work on other farms seem to have been hit hard.

Four years ago, black pepper sold for $6 per kg, but today it sells at just about $1.50.

Price crash

The reason for the decline is because pepper is grown cheaper in other areas of India at the same time as less expensive pepper is being imported from Sri Lanka, Vietnam and other South Asian countries.

The crash in prices has left many farmers severely poverty-stricken.

Kerala countryside
The area is dotted with rubber and areca nut trees and pepper vines

They have not been able to repay the loans they have taken from banks and local money lenders.

But this is also not the first crisis to hit Kerala's farmers.

They used to grow vanilla when international prices were high, and at one point managed to sell it for $89 per kg, but then international prices crashed, and the farmers lost out in a big way.

And, now the term "karshika pratisandhi" or agrarian crisis is oft-repeated in Kerala.

The phrase has now become a rallying point for politicians in the state.

Krishna Prasad of the farmers' organisation "Karshaka Sangham" says that unrestrained imports and liberal economic reforms have led to a drastic drop in agricultural prices over the last few years.

"The crops grown by Wayanad farmers have been the worst hit," he said, "and the peasants are finding it difficult to recover their production expenses.''

Puttanparamvil Joi used to own five acres of land, and was a well-off farmer.

Then the crisis hit, and he could not repay the bank loan.

Pursued by debtors, he committed suicide two years ago.

His 80-year old mother weeps when discussing her son.

"My daughter-in-law finds it difficult to run the household and pay the fees of the four children," she said.

Now farmers in the region are having to diversify in order to survive. They are growing rubber and nut crops which still fetch a better price in the market.

Farming crisis

But not everyone is able to do that.

Anu was a second year nursing student before she hung herself in her room.

Her brother and parents still look baffled by her step.

Kerala coast
Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed with the pepper to Europe

"The college asked her to pay dues of 8,500 Rupees ($190)," her father said.

"I tried to get the money from my neighbours but none of them could help because they were also poor farmers. But she could not take the strain and took her life," he said.

Her father used to have a small amount of land which he used to grow crops to provide for his family - around $880 annually.

But now he is not even able to get work on other peoples' land and can barely make ends meet.

The fact that this farming crisis is pushing pupils out of colleges and technical institutions is hard to bear for a state which prides itself in being 100% literate, and where parents often send their children to expensive private institutes in neighbouring states to further their education.

The people of Wayanad are painfully realising that the process known as globalisation can be as ruthless as it is generous.

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