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Grief in India when farmers can't live off the land

ANANTAPUR, INDIA — ANANTAPUR, India - For the 28th time in less than four hours, the phone in the colonial-era district headquarters trilled.

"Hello, help line," Gurram Pramila answered, her pen poised to record yet another tale of financial distress.

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A 55-year-old farmer who gave his name as Kadirappa was on the line, telling of a dry well on his 8 acres and his $890 debt. If the government did not help, he vowed, he would kill himself.

Pramila, a junior bureaucrat untutored in improving mental health, improvised. "Don't lose heart," she told him. "Have faith in yourself."

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The farmer's threat had the force of ominous context. In the past six years, 2,000 to 3,000 farmers (the state has not compiled an official tally) are believed to have committed suicide in this state, Andhra Pradesh, many of them in this arid district. Fifty to 100 have killed themselves since a new state government took office last month, promising farmers relief.

A help line set up by the government May 22 had logged more than 800 calls a week later. Nearly half were from this district, most of them fielded by Pramila.

The template of the calls - dry land and crushing debt - never varied, nor did their desperate tone.

Nine wells failed on 10 acres owned by a farmer named Umapatty, and he owed $4,400 to banks and other lenders. J. Narayanappa had two dry wells on 20 acres and owed $5,777. Pramila took the details and promised that an official would follow up.

Most of the suicidal farmers have swallowed pesticides, the easiest killer at hand. Burdened by compound interest, they compound tragedy, leaving families their debts and depriving them of fathers, husbands and breadwinners.

"I would have thrown the pills out," said Pullamma, the haggard widow of Jayram Reddy, 52, who killed himself May 22 by swallowing ammonium phosphate tablets in the village of Regadikothur.

He lay down on the family veranda to die, whispering to her that he could not bear the burden of a debt of more than $6,000. Now she will go to other farmers' fields to labor for 45 cents a day.

India has seen spates of similar suicides in recent years, in states from Punjab to Kerala. In part, the suicides reflect a rural culture in which excess indebtedness becomes a mark of shame, yet private moneylenders and public creditors magnify the problem when they come to collect - even after the deaths.

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But the dead farmers are also the canaries in the mine for India's agricultural economy - indicators of dire straits. Agriculture, which supports two-thirds of India's more than 1 billion people, generates only a quarter of its gross domestic product. In the past five years, while the services sector has grown an average of 8 percent a year, agriculture has grown just 2 percent a year.

India's new government rode to power partly on the back of farmers' angst, but relieving it will not be easy. In the farmers' plight, all the strands of an economy in transition intersect. This area had four successive years of drought, but the farmers have been buffeted by more than weather.

With small landholdings, constrained markets for their products, and an overdependence on subsidies for power and fertilizer, India's farmers were ill-equipped to compete when the national government undertook economic reforms in 1991.

To a degree, the suicides reflect the farmers' bafflement at the gradual, and erratic, withdrawal of the state. They have felt the cost of reforms but have yet to see the benefits.

Farmers have also been affected by factors they may be only dimly aware of. Most states spend the bulk of their budgets on debt interest and salaries, which has left almost nothing to invest in irrigation. Ninety percent of this district is unirrigated, and so it depends on rain.

Agricultural markets remain heavily regulated, and because there are few facilities here to process agricultural products, almost every crop must be exported to another state, something beyond small farmers' capacity. They sell cheap to middlemen, who harvest far greater profit across state lines.

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The opening of the Indian economy to imports has also affected farmers. The main crop here, groundnut, or peanut, is processed into oil, but recently, the poor have been forsaking local peanut oil for cheaper palm oil from Southeast Asia.

For now, the new state government is focusing on the symptoms of farmer distress, not the causes. Its first act was to declare free power for farmers and clear their arrears. The short-term relief will only add to the state's fiscal deficit, making infrastructure investment and power sector reform much harder.

Politicians also held a rally in Hyderabad, the state capital, to beg farmers not to take their lives, and state officials set up the help line. It came into being the day Jayram Reddy died, too late to lance the hopelessness of a man out of places to borrow.


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