In the first month of this year 62 farmers committed suicide in Vidharbha, a cotton-growing belt in west India, but the tragic figure was considered a positive sign as the monthly suicide rate finally dropped below 100 for the first time since last July.
According to the state government, 1,452 farmers killed themselves in this region last year. Many did it because of failure of crops and unbearable debts.
There was a popular comment among local farmer activists: "If I were given a choice, I would like to be born as a European cow, but certainly not as an Indian farmer, in my next birth."
In Europe a cow gets two U.S. dollars as subsidy per day while here a farmer could be a debtor all his life. After his death, his son might inherit his debts and has to borrow money for his funeral.
According to a report from the Planning Commission of Indian government, the cost to produce a quintal of cotton stands at 2, 215 rupees (49 U.S. dollars) but the minimum support price offered by the government remains 1,960 rupees (43 U.S. dollars).
Some blamed the failure of their crops to the genetic modified Bt cotton which was promoted by the government.
"The low yield is because of the genuine Bt. Cotton, which is highly uneconomic and known to fail in rain-fed farming," said Ramashankar Tiwari, a farm activist in Vidarbha.
The agriculture authorities blamed the low yield of cotton to spurious Bt cotton seeds but Tiwari said there has been few spurious cotton seed in the market since U.S. bio-agriculture giant Monsanto lowered the price from 1,780 rupees (39.56 U.S. dollars) per bag to 750 rupees (16.67 U.S. dollars).
Drought and lack of irrigation facilities contributed to heavy burdens upon farmers in Vidarbha. In a region that receives over 800 mm of average rainfall annually, the cultivation area totals 17 million hectares but only 3.5 percent of them has access to its 10 major, 49 medium and 650 minor irrigation schemes.
Other factors that worsen the situation are reducing price of cotton in the market and competition from cheaper cotton imported from the United States.
Insiders here said that the subsidies that U.S. government provides to its cotton growers have greatly lowered their cotton products and tiny farmers in Vidarbha have few resources to stand against it.
The cotton price dropped by 60 percent since 1995 but the U.S. subsidies to its 25,000 cotton farmers reached 3.9 billion dollars in 2001-02, doubling over that in 1992.
When a farmer in Vidarbha suffers loss in the fields and needs some cash to restart, he has few choices but private money lenders.
Nearly 73 percent of Vidarbha farmers don't have access to institutional credit. They borrow from relatives, friends, big landlords, or the moneylenders, though Vidarbha has a good banking network consisting of 823 commercial banks, about 200 regional rural banks and close to 60 other banks.
An investigation team of the Planning Commission said in its report that nearly 2.8 million of the 3.2 million cotton farmers in Vidarbha are defaulters and for every 100 rupees (2.22 U.S. dollars) they borrow, about 80 rupees (1.78 U.S. dollars) goes into servicing of old loans.
The high farmer suicide rates have attracted lots of attention from the central government. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the region in July last year and promised a special relief package of 37.5 billion rupees (833 million U.S. dollars). At least 16 panels from various government departments and committees have visited the region producing quite a few reports but little visible improvement has been seen so far.
According to the Prime Minister's relief package, 20.77 billion rupees (462 million U.S. dollars) will go to irrigation facilities but the projects have not started after six months, said Kishore Tiwari, chairman of Jan Andolan Samiti, a local farmer organization.