In India, suicides are a well-known, if unwelcome, phenomenon. The worst of it happens in the rural parts of the country, where a 2011 census revealed that the suicide rate for farmers was 47 percent higher than the national average. In the agricultural states of Bengal, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh, it’s estimated that a farmer takes his life every 30 minutes, usually by hanging, drowning, or ingesting pesticides. Vandana Shiva, one of India’s leading environmental activists, deems the suicides a kind of “genocide” that has resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 farmers—overwhelmingly of whom are men—since 1995, the first year the Indian government began keeping formal records. She places much of the blame on Monsanto, the multinational corporation behind Bt Cotton, a breed of genetically modified cotton that contains insecticidal toxins from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium.
Photo by Shutterstock
Monsanto’s essential monopoly over India’s cotton sector, its exorbitant royalties, and the proprietary rights that forbid farmers from saving or selling seeds, are among the reasons why so many of the suicides occur in the cotton belt, Shiva says.
“Eighty four percent of the farmer suicides have been attributed to Monsanto’s Bt Cotton, placing the corporation’s greed and lawlessness at the heart of India’s agrarian crisis,” she wrote in a post on the EcoWatch website on Saturday, calling the high costs of seeds and chemicals a “debt trap.” “We must end Monsanto’s colonization, its enslavement of farmers—for whom the only escape from the Monsanto treadmill is suicide.”
Monsanto, for its part, claims no such link between Bt Cotton and farmer suicides. “Farmer suicides in India have been a problem for nearly three decades—starting well before the first GM crop (biotech or Bt cotton) was introduced in 2002,” the company says in a statement on its website. “Monsanto is committed to helping improve the lives of Indian farmers, and several of the projects we’ve implemented have been recognized for positively contributing to the lives of our customers and their communities.”
Others blame the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party for its “pro-industrialist and anti-farmer” policies.
Monsanto’s complicity—or lack thereof—aside, the suicide rate among India’s agrarian workers shows no sign of abating. That’s downright alarming.
Earlier this month, the country’s national crime records bureau reported that 5,650 farmers committed suicide in 2014, citing family problems, crop failure, or indebtedness or bankruptcy due to crop loans as the main reasons given.
Activists say, however, that actual figures could be much higher, since official statistics take only into account landowners and not agricultural laborers.
“Hundreds of farm laborers die every year in this region, but these cases do not figure in NCRB records,” Kishore Tiwari, leader of the farmers’ advocacy group, Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti of Nagpur, told the Times of India.
Officially, 2014’s numbers are an improvement on 2013, when 11,772 farmers committed suicide across India, or an average of 44 per day.
India’s Business Standard, on the other hand, suggests a 2014 figure that’s closer to 12,360, which would mean a 5 percent increase over the previous year.