HYDERABAD, India — Dozens of impoverished farmers struggling with debt and poor rainfall have killed themselves in southern India in recent weeks, leaving behind families plunged even further into poverty, activists and politicians said.
Nearly every day, newspapers report more farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh, a state of 80 million people where 70 percent of the population depends on agriculture – and which has suffered badly this year from weak monsoon rains.
Officially, the total number of suicides stands at 25 in the past six weeks. But opposition parties and farmers' groups say the true total is more than 150.
"The government is trying to hide the facts," opposition leader N. Chandrababu Naidu said Wednesday in a speech before the state assembly. "I have a list of the names and addresses of 165 farmers who have ended their lives because of the distress caused by the drought."
Farmer suicides have, over the past decade, become a grim ritual in Andhra Pradesh and other parts of the Indian agricultural heartland, where small farmers are increasingly in debt. The sums can appear barely consequential to a Westerner, or even to India's increasingly large middle class: $300, $500, $1,200.
But for families often earning less than $2 a day, the loans, mostly made by small-town moneylenders, can be overwhelming. More than 17,500 farmers a year killed themselves between 2002 and 2006, according to experts who have analyzed government statistics. At least 160,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997, experts say.
Many kill themselves by swallowing a tool of their trade: insecticide. What they leave behind are indebted families that now have no one to work their fields.
Andhra Pradesh received just 50 percent of its normal rainfall this year, and while recent showers have helped some farmers, enormous damage had already been done, particularly in water-intensive crops like rice, sugar cane and cotton.
As farmers depend increasingly on loans to buy fertilizer, irrigation equipment and increasingly expensive high-tech seeds, they are driven directly into the hands of moneylenders who charge up to 30 percent interest, activists say.
The lack of access to bank credit at reasonable rates laid the groundwork for the trouble years ago, said K. Ramakrishan, president of the Andhra Pradesh Farmers' Association. "Drought has only worsened it," he said.
Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy insists his government is taking the problem seriously, telling reporters Wednesday that he has ordered local officials "to submit a detailed report on such incidents and check the veracity of the opposition's allegations of more suicides."
He added that a national job plan for the rural poor, which guarantees 100 days of work per year at a daily wage of about $2, should help most poor farmers.
"The state government is also providing a package of 150,000 rupees (about $3,000) to the family of every farmer who commits suicide", he added.
Activists, though, say profound changes are needed to fix the problem.
"There is no new reason for the current spell of suicides," said P.V. Sateesh, director of the Deccan Development Society, a group working with farmers to use less irrigation-dependant crop varieties.
"We have been following a pattern of agriculture which is bound to create such a serious crisis," he said.