Graves of Cotton
Rahul Udebham’s wife tells me about the morning before it all happened, when the loan shark came to claim payment of all the debts, how he paced like mad among the cotton plants screaming: “If you don’t pay, this land will be mine!”
That same evening her husband disappeared and came back hours later, drunk, covered in mud and with bruises on his hands. Then, she says, he left the house that night as if he was walking towards a deep emptiness, until he got lost in a shiver of stars. The next morning, with the first light, she found him writhing in agony, on his last gasps of life.
His widow tells me that he died after a single long gulp. Sobbing, she says that Rahul, thirty-five, was a devoted father, respected by all in Madni, a hamlet in the Vidarbha cotton-growing region, right at the center of India. In a sad voice she explains that they could see this tragedy coming because the poor economic prospects of the last few years announced nothing but ruin. The drought had killed all the crops. This meant no income at all, which in turn made it impossible to repay the debts. Rahul could not stand the prospect of losing his land to the loan sharks. Indeed, she says, what he lost in the end was hope. One small bottle of pesticide was enough to take his life away.
More than 270,000 Indian farmers, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, have taken their own lives between 1995 and 2011. Fourteen thousand did so in 2011 alone, or one every thirty-seven minutes. In India, farmers represent nearly seventy percent of the country’s population. Regardless of the giant steps this emerging nation has taken towards modernization, of its 1.2 billion people, some 850 million still rely on farming for a living.
Rahul’s death took place just two weeks before my interview with his wife. In fact, I arrived in Madni the same day his dying body had been found. Outside Rahul’s house, neighbors whispered and waited for the corpse to be returned from the morgue. His family welcomed me in, despite how recent their tragedy was. They wanted the world to know. Then, before the heat could knock us all out, the whispers grew to a shout. An explosion of grief received the van carrying the corpse. The women cried for him, a river of sorrow that he had not let flow. They honored the deceased with garlands of orange flowers and wrapped the body in white cotton sheets, the same cotton that used to provide the people here with a living. His two sons cried beyond consolation, fear showing in their eyes, while the widow passed out often in the arms of other women. Men, on the contrary, stood silent, composed, their chins pressed against their chests. As soon as the body was ready, they were the ones who formed the funeral party and took it, on a wooden stretcher, to the empty field where cremation would take place.
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The decline of the Indian farming sector began in the 1970s. At that time, most of the rural population lived scattered in small villages and had never used chemicals on their crops before. For them, manure from their cows was the best fertilizer, and neem trees, birds or plant rotation the most effective herbicides. But then the Indian government began the “Green Revolution,” fostering the use of hybrid seeds and chemicals (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides) with the aim of increasing the country’s crop yield. In the short term this resulted in larger crops, especially in those regions with regular rainfall.
But this growth was not sustainable in the medium term. Brahmachari Eknath of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math Foundation, a charitable organization devoted to environmental research and promoting farmers’ empowerment, says that “after some time it was impossible to avoid salinization, depletion or over-exploitation of aquifers, together with heavy pollution of soil and water with pesticides.” This in turn resulted in a significant decrease of crop yields, especially in areas like Vidarbha that have a natural water deficit.
Far from solving the problems in the sector, the authorities took yet another step in the wrong direction by the end of the ’80s. As the economic deficit of India was rather large, the government resorted to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for credit, which was granted in exchange for applying the usual “plans for structural adjustment.” These included the privatization of the public institutions involved in farming, cutting back state funding for agricultural activities, deregulation of prices and removal of protective laws on the sector and custom tariffs. This allowed for the free flow of foreign farming products to India’s internal market.
The cutback of state funding, together with the removal of tariffs, was the death knell for many small local farmers. According to Palagummi Sainath, farming affairs editor for the Indian newspaper The Hindu, “the price of many foreign products is kept artificially low, due to governments subsidizing their farmers.” Local producers cannot compete and this results “in a huge gap between income and expenses,” as S. Mohanakumar, a lecturer at the Institute of Development Studies in Jaipur, puts it.
How can farmers overcome this situation? Resorting to credit. Of course, this does not solve anything. It only buys time, and it has a snowball effect. The problem gets bigger as the months go on and at some point it becomes untenable.
As most banks in the rural areas, both public and private, have refused credit to farmers for a long time, loan sharks have begun to circle the villages, with the certainty of their premonitory instincts. By the time Rahul took his life, sharks had been leeching off the weak blood vessels of rural India for many years. They offered credit at a disproportionate interest, sometimes up to fifty percent, to be repaid in as little as six months. Many of them are the perfect examples of that social cannibalism that flowers whenever public protection structures falter. As in the case of the subprime mortgages at the root of the international financial crisis, it was obvious that many farmers would never be able to repay the debt.
Imagine waking up early every morning to toil hard on a few acres of cotton, only to see drought kill all the crops. Then, when you are already barely able to feed your family, you also face the repayment of a 40,000-rupee (about $644) debt with twenty-five percent interest. On top of that you have to produce 30,000 additional rupees to marry your daughter and the family savings account is by now nothing more than a dried well. Next, you realize that not even selling the few family jewels remaining, or the last three buffalos, will allow you to marry off your other daughter. Now you understand the dryness in your mouth and why there are no more tears left in your eyes.
In a traditional society like India, men are still deemed responsible for providing for the whole family. Farmers who come to realize that they can no longer fulfill this role feel that their honor has been shattered. This frustration drives many to despair. However, even when the farmer kills himself, the debt is not cancelled. It usually carries over to the widow or the family, who will in turn worry over the drought, crop failure or the pressure of the loan sharks, to the point that, in many cases, tragedy happens again. According to a report by ActionAid, “Women farmers also commit suicide, but official statistics do not count them as such, as they never own the land.”
Ukandabai Udebham, Rahul’s widow, is not the owner of the land, but she still has to feed her three children with the stigma of a husband who committed suicide, because suicide, apart from being a crime in India and subject to fines, is considered socially unacceptable. She chokes with grief when she tells me that she needs “15,000 rupees a year to tender the crop, but we earn a lot less than that.” Sorrow has ruined her looks. There is a constant sadness in her face that lends it the color of dry earth, and her broken smile cannot find a way to surge from deep within. Her twelve-year-old daughter will have to give up her teenage years and leave school, as many others do, to work in the fields. I can see in her young eyes the look of those who do not even dare to say aloud half of what they see coming upon them.
In the meantime, the government’s response sounds a bit like throwing a stone in a deep well, when there is just a distant echo to be heard long after. Balakrishna Hegde, member of a local NGO, denounces the fact that “the administration offered financial relief packages only to the families of deceased farmers who were unable to manage payments on their loans.” This is not only clearly insufficient, but rumor has it that this method is working as a perverse mechanism to encourage loan sharks to press the farmers to commit suicide, as often there is no other way in which they can get their money back.
Devinder Sharma, an analyst of farming policies, concludes that “the high suicide rate may be a consequence of the end of institutional safety nets.” It is very possible to think that this official neglect cannot be a random occurrence. Sharma warns, “Public policies are designed to make local farming unviable and unprofitable. Mainstream economists believe that if we want to achieve economic growth we must imitate the countries that have reduced the population engaged in agriculture.” That might explain why the crowds flocking to the towns get larger every day.
Maybe Rahul could not leave or did not want to. Instead, his corpse left Madni on a pyre. The dust from the funeral party had not yet settled when the men lit the fire. I could still hear the distant crying from the women, but it was gradually drowned out by the noise of the burning wood. Slowly, the black smoke rose in the night and only when the embers died away did we go back into the hamlet. Then the night sky opened up, silently, uncomplainingly.
Fragile stars are falling off the sky in this new emerging India. For many, sunrise and sunset, the new or full moon cannot be told apart any more. Rahul’s death is more than just a spasm in a glazed eye. It is official silence amidst the dust. It’s one more oblivion of the memory.
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Fernando Molina Cortés (email@example.com) is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Madrid, Spain. His work has been published in BBC, Stern, Toronto Star, Le Soir and Hindustan Times, among others.