Every 30 Minutes": Crushed by Debt and Neoliberal Reforms, Indian Farmers Commit Suicide at Staggering Rate
A quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last 16 years—an average of one suicide every 30 minutes. The crisis has ballooned with economic liberalization that has removed agricultural subsidies and opened Indian agriculture to the global market. Small farmers are often trapped in a cycle of insurmountable debt, leading many to take their lives out of sheer desperation. We speak with Smita Narula of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University Law School, co-author of a new report on farmer suicides in India.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the issue of farmer suicides in India, where a quarter of a million farmers have committed suicide in the last 16 years. On average, that figure suggests one farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes.
Today, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU Law School will release a report called "Every Thirty Minutes: Farmer Suicides, Human Rights and the Agrarian Crisis in India."
The agricultural sector in India has become more vulnerable to global markets as a result of economic liberalization. Reforms in the country have included the removal of agricultural subsidies and the opening of Indian agriculture to the global market. These reforms have led to increased costs, while reducing yields and profits for many farmers.
As a result, small farmers are often trapped in a cycle of insurmountable debt, leading many to take their lives out of sheer desperation. The rate of suicide is highest among cotton farmers. Like other cash crops in India, the cotton industry is increasingly dominated by foreign multinational corporations that tend to promote genetically modified cottonseed and often control the cost, quality and availability of agricultural inputs.
To discuss this issue, we're joined by Smita Narula, faculty director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
SMITA NARULA: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this report that you are just releasing today.
SMITA NARULA: Our major finding for this report is that all the issues that you just described are major human rights issues. And what we're faced with in India is a human rights crisis of epic proportions. The crisis affects the human rights of Indian farmers and their family members in extremely profound ways. We found that their rights to life, to water, food and adequate standard of living, and their right to an effective remedy, is extremely affected by this crisis. Additionally, the government has hard human rights legal obligations to respond to the crisis, but we've found that it has failed, by and large, to take any effective measures to address the suicides that are taking place.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this number is unbelievable. Thirty—every 30 minutes, an Indian farmer commits suicide?
SMITA NARULA: And that's been going on for years and years. And what these intense numbers don't reveal are two things. One is that the numbers themselves are failing to capture the enormity of the problem. In what we call a failure of information on the part of the Indian government, entire categories of farmers are completely left out of the purview of farm suicide statistics, because they don't formally own title to land. This includes women farmers, Dalit, or so-called lower caste farmers, as well as Adivasi, or tribal community farmers. In addition, the government's programs and the relief programs that they've offered fail to capture not only this broad category, but also fail to provide timely debt relief and compensation or address broader structural issues that are leading to these suicides in the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the issue of globalization and how it's affecting these farmers.
SMITA NARULA: Sure. So, basically, ultimately, the proximate cause for a number of these suicides is farmer indebtedness. What lies behind that indebtedness is two decades of market liberalization in India, which have resulted in two simultaneous processes. First, the government has withdrawn significantly from the agricultural sector. It has reduced subsidies. It has decreased access to rural credit. Irrigation is insufficient and doesn't reach most farmers who need it. And at the same time, it has encouraged a switch over to cash crop cultivation, of which cotton is one example.
Simultaneously, the market has been opened up to global competitors, which makes Indian farmers extremely vulnerable. And at the same time, foreign multinationals now dominate industries, such as the cotton industry, including dominating the key inputs that are needed for cotton. In the case of cotton, in particular, the genetically modified Bt cottonseed has been promoted so effectively in India that it now dominates the entire sector, and between its cost, quality and availability, has an enormous impact on farmer costs and profits and yields to the point that it's landing them in enormous debt. And many of them, ironically, are actually consuming the very pesticide that they went into debt to purchase, to kill themselves when they can't escape that cycle of debt.
AMY GOODMAN: They're consuming the pesticide.
SMITA NARULA: That's correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about genetically modified seeds and U.S. multinational corporations.
SMITA NARULA: So, genetically modified seeds. Bt cottonseed is the cottonseed input that dominates the cotton industry now. And what the genetic modification promises to do is to produce a toxin within the seed that kills a very common pest that affects the cotton crop in India. The Bt cottonseed, which is — has been marketed by Monsanto, among other multinationals, requires two resources that are already scarce for most Indian smallholder farmers. That's money and water. Bt cottonseeds cost anywhere from two times to 10 times as much as regular cottonseed, and they also require a great deal more water in order to yield successful crops. The farmers often go to private moneylenders, who charge exorbitant interest rates, to purchase the seeds, on the promises and based on aggressive marketing that they will bring greater financial security. But then, because 65 percent of cotton farms in India are rain-fed and don't have access to irrigation, the crops inevitably fail. And also, increasing drought has made that the case for many farmers. So they've gone into insurmountable debt to purchase the inputs. They don't have the yields. They repeat this cycle for a couple of seasons. And by the end of it, they're simply trapped in a cycle that they can't get out of, and they consume the very pesticide that they purchased, in order to kill themselves.
Some good news is that many of us are not allowing it, we are fighting it. And that is the positive side to this. Dr. Vandana Shiva through her organization Navdanya has been providing seeds to farmers in order to get them out of this nightmare and farmers themselves are standing up to the deceptive tactics employed by Monsanto and other companies doing this. More and more Americans as well are becoming aware of these practices and demanding an end to them. The problem arises out of the fact that the biological contamination of organic varieties is such that none now exists thanks to the spread of this BT cotton, which has also killed livestock and presented farmers with a problem in that it is not resistant to the pests it was said it would prevent, while also presenting another problem regarding the use of Round Up.
This is so utterly heinous I don't know what other words to describe this with except evil. Monsanto lied to these farmers, took their money and now claims no responsibility for what has now happened as a result of it, even increasing the prices of their imputs. This is why it is important that as many people know about this as can get this information. It matters not who in the White House, they and the agencies responsible for allowing this to happen need to be made accountable for the repurcussions of their actions. The only way it would seem to do that now is through citizen action and civil disobedience. These companies have blood on their hands!
Project Kalpana and the Farmer Suicides in India by KalpanaFilms
This is what globalization and the war on the poor looks like.