Farmers driven to suicide as untimely rains damage crops

Mar 25 2014, 00:51 IST
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SummaryUnseasonal rains and hailstorms this month have damaged the winter-sown crops of millions of Indian farmers, but Rekha Garole lost more than others.

Unseasonal rains and hailstorms this month have damaged the winter-sown crops of millions of Indian farmers, but Rekha Garole lost more than others.

Her 42-year-old husband Santuka killed himself this month after hail devastated the wheat and chickpea crops that they had been counting on to repay a bank loan of R90,000.

"He committed suicide to escape his debt burden," says Rekha, who met nearly a dozen political leaders in a week at her mud house in the Nanded district of Maharashtra but has yet to receive any financial aid.

Santuka, like other farmers in his village of Golegaon, prayed last year for bountiful rains to end two years of drought in the region.

Ample rainfall did come, but at the wrong time. In September, cloudbursts damaged soybean and sorghum crops that were ready to be harvested, forcing farmers like Santuka into debts that they could not pay due to the latest crop damage.

Millions of small farmers are struggling to survive as erratic weather hits their only source of income. They are seeking government help to stay afloat until the next harvest, but bureaucrats are moving slowly to record crop losses.

Anger is mounting among affected farmers tired of hearing empty promises. Many have given up hope.

Nearly five dozen farmers in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have committed suicide this month over debt worries, farmers' advocacy groups say.

This could spell trouble for the ruling Congress in a five-week general election that starts on April 7, as the farmers' vote helped it retain power in 2009. Opinion polls suggest that Congress faces a heavy defeat.

"It will make the government more unpopular just before the elections," said Jaidev Dole, a political analyst based in the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra.

"The farmers affected are unhappy with the government's response, and that can be reflected in votes. Opposition parties have already started to make this an election issue."

In Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, nearly 3 million hectares of crops have been hit, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar said. Crops have been damaged in Rajasthan and Punjab and in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to a lesser extent.

Orange, grape and mango farmers were the worst hit by the storms, along with wheat, rapeseed, chickpea and red gram.

The damage could force the government to slash production estimates for key winter-sown crops like rapeseed, chickpea and wheat, but the immediate worry would be vegetable supplies.

After moderating in recent weeks, vegetable prices have started to rise again

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