Although Indian farmers routinely face financial hardship, the lowest domestic cotton prices in three years and higher costs for labor and pesticide will probably make things worse in 2015.

Share story

Shobha Singh Bais waited for her husband, Govind, to finish his dinner of vegetables and flatbread on Jan. 15 before eating her own, as is the custom in their village of Hivar and many others in India.

When Govind was done, the 55-year-old cotton farmer calmly told his wife that he had eaten rat poison. Shobha ran outside, calling for her 30-year-old son, Chandan, who has a tobacco stall nearby. When the two returned, Govind was frothing at the mouth. He died on an auto rickshaw as it sped to a hospital.

In a country where as many as one in three of the world’s suicides occur, about 12 farmers a day kill themselves in Maharashtra, the second-largest state, and the numbers are growing, data from a farmers’ lobby group show. A global cotton surplus has sent prices tumbling and aggravated rural poverty in India.

Govind was two years in arrears on bank loans, had to replant his crop last year because of late rains, and was facing the 100,000 rupee ($1,620) cost of marrying off one of his sons.

“My husband was very tense in the last few days before his death,” Shobha, 47, said as she sat on the mud floor outside her house and cleaned wheat for an evening meal.

Although Indian farmers routinely face financial hardship, the lowest domestic cotton prices in three years and higher costs for labor and pesticide will probably make things worse in 2015, says Kishor Tiwari, president of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, the farmers’ lobby.

Unable to repay

A rising number of growers are unable to repay loans. Many don’t have enough land to offer as collateral and must borrow from money lenders who charge five to six times the bank rate.

According to Samiti, farmer suicides totaled 4,200 last year in Maharashtra, a western state which is the biggest cotton grower after Gujarat and every year has the most such deaths in India. If the government confirms the number, it would be the highest since 2007. Maharashtra includes the city of Mumbai and is home to about 112 million people, almost three times more than California.

The Bais family’s loan totaled 270,000 rupees with repayments due twice a year over five years. Officials from the bank often visited after the family defaulted, Chandan said. “We have to get enough to buy us our daily meals,” Shobha said. “How can we save anything to pay the loan?”

For cotton growers, the outlook is bleak. Global reserves are set to more than double to a record 109 million bales in four years, in part because China, the biggest buyer, is taking less, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. Cotton prices on ICE Futures U.S. in New York fell 28 percent in the past year, touching a five-year low of 57.05 cents a pound Jan. 23.

The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May on a promise of making sure that all crop prices remained 50 percent above the cost of production, has done little to ease farmers’ woes, Tiwari said.

Agriculture is a matter for individual states and the federal government helps only with policy and budgetary support, Mohan Kundaria, junior farm minister, told the nation’s parliament in December, answering a question on farmer suicides.

“Extreme variations in prices with no support system is what hit the farmers,” said K. Nagaraj, a professor at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai who conducted a study on farm suicides in 2008 for the Madras Institute of Development Studies. “When prices are good,” farmers plant cotton, he said. “When the prices are bad, they don’t know what to do.”

India’s cotton exports may drop as much as 58 percent this year, even as the harvest climbs to a near record of 40 million bales, the Cotton Association of India estimates.

Supplies from India are less in demand because they cost more than cotton from producers including the U.S. and Brazil because of government price support, said Shirish Shah, a partner at Bhaidas Cursondas, a Mumbai-based exporter. Indian cotton costs 2 cents a pound more than international rates.

“If we lower our prices, we can export, but then we don’t make money,” Shah said.

Losing money

For Chandan and his uncles, who grow cotton on a nine-acre farm, the cost of cultivation last year was about 150,000 rupees. The field produced about 800 kilograms (1,760 pounds) of cotton, which was divided between him, his two uncles, and a married aunt. At minimum price-support levels, they will earn from 30,000 rupees to 32,400 rupees to be divided equally, meaning they will lose about 120,000 rupees.

“The minute our creditors know we’ve sold the crop, they’ll line up at the door to get their dues,” Chandan said. “What are we to do? Pay the creditors or feed ourselves?”

The government should ban imports of cotton and subsidize overseas shipments to ease the domestic glut, said Shirish Shah, the exporter. Prices ought to be at least 6,000 rupees per 100 kilograms to make it economical for a farmer, says Santosh Naitham, a coordinator for Samiti in Maharashtra state. Recently, traders have bought cotton for about 4,000 rupees.

Naitham, who has been recording farmer deaths in the region for the last 15 years, said the problem is getting worse, with farmers who can’t afford poison resorting to hanging themselves or self-immolation.

On Jan. 14, Manda Shastrakar left her house at midday to work in her four-acre cotton field, expecting to return home in an hour to serve lunch to her husband Moreshwar and their four children. Fifteen minutes later, she heard someone yelling her name and the word “fire.” She ran home to see her husband engulfed in flames and neighbors trying to put out the fire. Moreshwar died.

“The tears have dried, but I am still shocked,” says Manda, 40, five days later at her house in Maharashtra. Her husband kept saying he had debts to pay.

“I never knew he was planning something so terrible,” Manda said. She has no idea how she will get her two daughters married with the paltry sum she earns from the farm and her daily wage as a laborer on other farms.

Modi has pursued a policy of offering compensation for farmers’ deaths. The government has signed up about 115 million new bank-account holders so it can transfer such subsidies directly. Many farm families have nothing to deposit.

“There is nothing to feed the family,” Chandan said. “What will I deposit in a bank account?”

The Bais family didn’t have enough for Govind’s cremation and had to borrow about 10,000 rupees from neighbors to pay for the firewood, doctors’ fees and ambulance costs, Chandan said.

“That is another burden we have now,” he said, while playing with his 14-month-old son. “I want to educate my son and make him go away from here. But if we don’t earn anything from our fields, how will we even educate him?”