The tragedy of farmers' suicides in India
Huffington Post, April 22 2009
Last week, a blog I wrote entitled 1500 Farmers Commit Suicide: A Wake Up Call for Humanity was virally shared online, and was the featured story on the home page of Huffington Post. Referencing a story from The Independent that was vague on details and called them "mass" suicides, undoubtedly, I participated in the sensationalization of this story. But, for this I do not apologize.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau of India, 182,936 Indian farmers have committed suicide between 1997 -2007. It estimates 46 Indian farmers kill themselves every day - that is, roughly one suicide every 30 minutes. An estimated 16,625 farmers across India killed themselves in 2007, the last year that was reported. The numbers are horrifying, and they indicate the sense of despair that the poorest people in the world are facing today.
The current fate of farmers in India is a tangled hierarchy that involves politics, agro-business, multinationals, trade liberalization, global subsidies, the environment, water, ethics, and human rights. Activists point out the role of agrochemicals, particularly genetically engineered seeds, that have been aggressively marketed to Indian farmers by companies like Monsanto--an American multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation that also wields a powerful influence on the farming practices in America.
Companies like Monsanto promise farmers that these genetically modified (GM) seeds, which cost significantly more than traditional seeds, require less pesticide and will potentially produce higher yields than traditional, renewable seeds. However, farmers are usually not told that GM seeds also require more water, making crops more susceptible to drought, irrigation and lower water levels. These genetically modified seeds also do not produce viable seeds of their own to be saved for the next season's harvest, which means that farmers are forced to buy the patented seeds and fertilizer again and again every year.
Lured in by these promises, farmers are forced to take out high interest loans to purchase these "magical seeds" - often from aggressive lenders who charge exorbitant rates - just to survive. Combine that with Western subsidies on cotton - which deflate global prices - and Indian farmers are faced with revenues that cannot cover their debt. Out of despair, hopelessness, even shame, farmers turn to suicide - often by drinking pesticide - they kill themselves, leaving behind children and families who must bear the burden of a system that is too overwhelming to even think about.
Dr. Vandana Shiva, a world-renowned ecologist and champion for Planet Earth and her people, has been a powerful and provocative voice for the hardships faced by farmers in India. Dr. Shiva encourages traditional practices and organic farming, recognizing the seed as a currency for empowerment and freedom. While the Indian government has provided debt relief and seed replenishment programs, the plight of farmers has continued at alarming rates.
This week, many of us will be celebrating Earth Day. Media will be abundant with messages about how we can take care of our planet and its ecology by making changes in our personal lives and in our communities. Let us not forget, however, those individuals who work the land for our food and basic goods. We must mandate corporations and world leaders to cherish the soil and her people for our global wellbeing. We must also be vigilant more than ever, and speak out against corporations that exploit the farmers and the earth for their own monetary self-interest.
The reality is that if we do not collectively create solutions for this problem, we will likely have much larger ones on our hands. The tangled hierarchy extends to all of us, no matter where we live and how comfortable our current economic situation is in comparison with the rest of the world. More death creates more disharmony, more civil violence in areas of weak global security, disruption to the food supply, higher food prices, and most of all--the collective burden of a weakened, ailing planet that will create unspeakable suffering for our grandchildren and our grandchildren's grandchildren.
This ongoing tragedy in India is hardly some faraway global event, but a terrifying manifestation of a simple truth that many of us would rather ignore or forget: all of us are directly responsible for the present state of this ailing planet, and all of us directly responsible for finding a radical new solution that will save us from destroying the only home we have.
Mallika Chopra is the founder of Intent.com, a site focused on personal, social and global wellness