The Imperialist Suicide Epidemic In India
By Larry Everest
15 June, 2011
"The children were inconsolable. Mute with shock and fighting back tears, they huddled beside their mother as friends and neighbors prepared their father's body for cremation on a blazing bonfire built on the cracked, barren fields near their home. As flames consumed the corpse, Ganjanan, 12, and Kalpana, 14, faced a grim future. While Shankara Mandaukar had hoped his son and daughter would have a better life under India's economic boom, they now face working as slave labor for a few pence a day. Landless and homeless, they will be the lowest of the low.
"Shankara, respected farmer, loving husband and father, had taken his own life. Less than 24 hours earlier, facing the loss of his land due to debt, he drank a cupful of chemical insecticide. Unable to pay back the equivalent of two years' earnings, he was in despair. He could see no way out."1
Shankara's story is not unique—or even unusual. Between 1995 and 2009, 241,679 farmers in India committed suicide, and by the end of 2010 the number had probably risen to 250,000—a quarter of a million people. In 2009 alone, 17,638 farmers committed suicide—an average of one every 30 minutes.
And it's even worse. These shocking figures "considerably underestimate the actual number of farmer suicides taking place," according to a new study by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University Law School, "Every Thirty Minutes: Farmer Suicides, Human Rights and the Agrarian Crisis in India."2 For instance, women are often excluded from suicide statistics because they don't have title to their land and therefore are not counted as "farmers."
The Roots of India's Farmer Suicide Epidemic
This suicide epidemic is not a product of "human nature," or India's culture. Mass farmer suicides were unknown in India before the 1990s. Nor are they random and unexplainable: they follow a pattern. 86.5 percent of the farmers who commit suicide are in debt. Like Shankara, 40 percent had suffered a crop failure, the majority are small farmers (with less than five acres of land), and are growing cash crops for export. Cotton is one of India's main cash crops, and one of the highest concentrations of suicides is among cotton farmers like Shankara. Roughly half of all farmer suicides occur in the Vidarbha region of central India, where there are 3.2 million cotton farmers.3
What is the connection between crushing debt, failed harvests, small plots, and cash crops? Why have hundreds of thousands felt they had no way out but to take their own lives? What does this epidemic show about India, a country the U.S. lauds as "the world's largest democracy" and celebrates as a model for economic development? And what does it show about U.S. capitalism-imperialism and how it impacts millions upon millions around the world?
Step Back... and Survey the Globe
To answer these questions, we can't just look at India's cotton industry, or Indian agriculture overall, or even just India. You have to step back and look at what kind of system we live in, how it dominates and shapes the whole globe—especially oppressed countries like India.
We live in a capitalist system. That means that all production, including of basic necessities, is driven and shaped by the maximizing of profit. Today the tentacles of that capitalist system envelop the whole world—capitalism has become imperialism. A small handful of rich, capitalist-imperialist countries dominate the rest of the planet, with the United States at the top of this global system. These imperialist powers dominate the oppressed nations—where over 80 percent of the world's people live—economically, politically, and militarily. The imperialists set the terms for what will be produced in these countries—not to meet the needs of their peoples, but to further the interests of the imperialists, in particular their profitable accumulation of capital.
Imperialist investment is not—as we're told by the capitalist media—a "boon" or a "handout" for people in oppressed countries. As Raymond Lotta has written, "the economic structure of the oppressed nations (like India) is shaped mainly by forces external to them: what is produced, exported and imported, financed, etc., reflects first and foremost their subordination, and not principally the internal requirements and interrelations of different sectors. They answer to another's 'heartbeat.'"4
Globalization, including Third World countries becoming further integrated into and subordinated to imperialism, has intensified since the end of World War 2. Imperialism's need to further integrate and subordinate Third World countries like India took a leap following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union—which by the mid-1950s was an imperialist, not a socialist, country. Suddenly, the global political, economic, and military landscape was radically changed. The U.S. and Western imperialist powers had triumphed in the Cold War. The U.S. saw the need and the opportunity to accelerate capitalist "globalization": to break down barriers to global investment, exploitation, and trade, including opening up countries formerly allied with the Soviet Union or formerly closed to the West.
Poor countries around the world, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, have been subjected to Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These programs require that Third World governments meet strict conditions to get new loans or to obtain lower interest rates on existing loans. Both the IMF and World Bank are controlled by the imperialist powers, especially the United States. And this restructuring creates more favorable conditions for imperialist trade and investment.5
Imperialist restructuring has led to enormous changes in agricultural production in the oppressed countries. They have been more deeply integrated into the workings of an imperialist‑dominated global food system. Agriculture has been further "industrialized" and reshaped to better serve the imperialists. Traditional subsistence farming (based on producing staples like corn, beans, etc.) has more and more been overrun and swallowed up by imperialist‑controlled agribusiness.
India, the world's second most populous country, was one of the U.S.'s prime targets and has been ground zero for this agricultural restructuring. India was a longtime ally of the Soviet Union, and most of its economy was controlled and directed by the Indian state, which represented the interests of Indian capitalism and landed property, including semi-feudal landlordism.
Capitalist Globalization's Devastating Impact on India's Agriculture
India remains a predominantly agrarian society, with over 800 million people (of the 1.2 billion total population)—nearly 70 percent of the population—living in rural areas. Over half of India's workforce of nearly 500 million works in agriculture.6
The world's capitalist powers say that poor countries being integrated into the world imperialist system will lead to rapid economic growth and development and rising standards of living for all. When President Obama addressed India's Parliament in November 2010, he praised India for not "resisting the global economy," instead becoming "one of its engines." He claimed this had unleashed "an economic marvel that has lifted tens of millions from poverty and created one of the world's largest middle classes," and that advanced technology was now "empowering farmers and women" in India.7
But what globalization has actually meant for the masses of people in India is intensified exploitation, sweatshops, and growing disparity between the rich and poor. After 25 years of market reform, the average calorie intake in India has declined! And globalization has meant the ruin of many farmers, driving them into desperation. Let's look, for example, at how imperialist globalization has affected cotton farmers in India, who are a lot of the farmers committing suicide.
Compete on the Global Market... Or Go Under
Beginning in the 1990s, the U.S., the World Bank, and the IMF pressured India to privatize many of its state-owned enterprises, slash regulations on business, cut spending on social services and subsidies to small farmers, tear down barriers to foreign investment and trade, and integrate its economy, including agriculture, more closely into the imperialist-dominated global capitalist order.
Under this "neo-liberal" program, the Indian government reduced subsidies and access to credit for farmers, who had mainly been raising food crops for domestic consumption. It pushed farmers to switch from foodstuffs to cash crops for sale on the global market. And as part of this, the Indian state has promoted the expansion of cotton growing. Today there are 4 million cotton farmers in India, which is now the world's second largest cotton producer.8
However, to sell their cotton, Indian farmers now faced the volatile ups and downs of the global market, and competition with giant multi-national corporations based in the imperialist countries, which had enormous advantages in technology, marketing, and financial resources.
The report, "Every 30 Minutes" says, "In order to compete on the global market, then, Indian cotton farmers desperately turned to using new, higher-priced inputs," and "the cotton market has become increasingly commercialized, and is dominated by a small group of multinational corporations that exert increasing control over the cost, quality, and availability of agricultural inputs."
In India, giant imperialist monopolies exerted this control and extracted huge profits through the sale of genetically modified cottonseed, especially Bollgard Bt cottonseed, made by the U.S. chemical giant Monsanto, the world's largest seed producer.
When Bt cottonseed was approved by the Indian state in 2002, Monsanto launched an aggressive sales program in India with salesmen going from village to village promising these seeds would yield higher outputs—and income—including because they're resistant to some pests, so less can be spent on pesticides. By 2009, a majority of India's cotton farmers invested in the seed, and 85 percent of cotton produced in India was Bt cotton.9
"They Consume the Very Pesticide That They Purchased, in Order to Kill Themselves"
Farmer Shende shouldered at least four debts at the time of his death: one from a bank, two procured on his behalf by his sisters and one from a local moneylender. The night before his suicide, he borrowed one last time. From a fellow villager, he took the equivalent of $9, roughly the cost of a one-liter bottle of pesticide, which he used to take his life.10
Bt cottonseeds cost from two to 10 times as much as regular cottonseed, and can end up accounting for 50 percent of farming costs. Making matters worse, farmers are often prevented from reusing these genetically modified Bt seeds without paying a fee each year to Monsanto—which owns the "intellectual property rights" to the seed.11
Of the 89.35 million farmer households in India, small and marginal farmers make up 84 percent of all agricultural land holdings. These small farmers on average earn less than $2 per day, according to a 2003 study.12
And the workings of imperialism have increasingly forced these kinds of farmers into debt, squeezing them from two sides. On the one hand, these farmers have to pay more for seed, fertilizers, etc., so their costs have gone up. On the other hand, in the name of neo-liberal reform, the government has cut back in providing low-cost credit to small farmers while credit is channeled towards the largest, most profitable agricultural enterprises. This has meant that farmers have had to seek out sources of credit from local, predatory money lenders. And they end up going ever deeper into debt and desperation.
While growing Bt cotton for the global capitalist market can produce high returns, it is also highly precarious and unpredictable. Prices can swing sharply on the world market. Today the price of cotton in real terms is one-twelfth what it was 30 years ago. Also, Bt cotton requires a larger and steadier flow of water than traditional seed, yet 65 percent of cotton farmers have no access to irrigation and depend on monsoon rains. (Only 37 percent of rural households in India have electricity, and 80,000 villages are not even connected to the grid.13) Less than an average rainfall can wipe out their crop, and India's rainfall and weather patterns have become increasingly irregular, with annual monsoons failing three times in the last 10 years and drought impacting some provinces. These changes may be connected to global warming.14
Meanwhile, competition from cotton imported from the U.S. and other major capitalist countries—where farmers and agricultural corporations have much greater access to capital and advanced technology—is driving down cotton prices and ruining tens of thousands of Indian farmers.
Between 1997 and 2004, India imported some eight million bales of American cotton. This cotton was being sold at a price 50 to 65 percent lower than the cost of production because it was being subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which spent $245.2 billion to subsidize U.S. cotton farmers from 1995 to 2009, as part of promoting the interests of U.S. capital around the world.15
Smita Narula, co-author of "Every Thirty Minutes," sums up the impact of all this on tens of thousands of India's farmers: "So they've gone into insurmountable debt to purchase the inputs. They don't have the yields. They repeat this cycle for a couple of seasons. And by the end of it, they're simply trapped in a cycle that they can't get out of, and they consume the very pesticide that they purchased, in order to kill themselves."16
India's Agrarian Crisis
The plight of Indian cotton farmers is part of a broader crisis in Indian agriculture, and most farmers facing ruin have no place to turn. India's much-talked about information technology and business processing industries—the so‑called new economy—employ only 1.3 million out of India's working population of nearly 500 million.17
Oppressive traditional feudal and patriarchal relations also weigh heavily on Indian farmers. Those with daughters have to pay dowries to a prospective husband's family in order for them to be married:
"Farmers who pay these dowries fall further into debt—or face the social stigma of being unable to pay—and may commit suicide as a result. Even more startlingly, in Andhra Pradesh, unmarried daughters, wracked with guilt over their fathers' deaths, have committed suicide themselves. Finally, when husbands commit suicide, they not only leave their wives with their debt but also with the responsibility to marry off their daughters. As farmer-activist Sunanda Jayaram has noted, ‘There are debts hanging on [women's] heads which they did not incur. There are daughters whose marriages are pending. The pressure is unending.'"18
Indian farmers can no longer count on their own food production to stave off hunger and are increasingly subject to the global food crisis created by imperialism. The Revolution article, "The Global Food Crisis...and the Ravenous System of Capitalism" points out:
"Third World countries have been forced to shift much of their food production away from subsistence crops to high value exports. They have been pressured to open up their markets to cheap food imports. As a result, local food production for domestic consumption has been undercut. Now these countries are caught in a vise: The price of imported food has gone way up at the same time that the ability to produce food for local consumption has been eroded."19
In an article about the food crisis in India, Utsa Patnaik wrote, "The colonized Indian peasant starved while exporting wheat to England, and the modern Indian peasant is eating less while growing gherkins and roses for rich consumers abroad." Today, one quarter of India's population—some 300 million people—does not have enough money to eat adequately.20
"The Largest Wave of Recorded Suicides in Human History"
Imperialism has everything to do with the epidemic of farmer suicides in India. And the United States, in particular, plays a major role in shaping India's murderous agricultural system. During her visit to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in July 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that agriculture would be the "strongest and most important pillar" of the strategic partnership between the U.S. and India.
What's taken place in India over the past 16 years represents, in the words of one Indian researcher, "the largest wave of recorded suicides in human history."21
What makes this such a towering crime is that it's totally unnecessary. There is no reason that agriculture and food and other needed goods can only be produced if a profit is turned and the interests of a handful of imperialist powers are served. The basis exists, in human knowledge, technology, and resources, to solve the needs—including for food and clothing—of humanity. But what stands in the way of this is a world economic system of capitalism driven by profit.
Unless and until this system is abolished through revolution, and is replaced by a new socialist system, there will continue to be massive hunger, starvation, dislocation—and yes, farmers will be driven to drink pesticide out of horrific desperation. Under socialism, making sure people have enough food will be the first priority in agricultural production and part of building a whole world of shared abundance for everybody.
India's epidemic of farmer suicides, and understanding that it has been spawned by the workings of the capitalist-imperialist system, speaks powerfully—and achingly—to the urgent need for the revolutions that can bring that better world into being.
The Bay Area Revolution Writers Group assisted with research for this article.
1. Andrew Malone, "The GM genocide: Thousands of Indian farmers are committing suicide after using genetically modified crops," Eurasia Critic, October 2008 (eurasiacritic.com/articles/gm-genocide-thousands-indian-farmers-are-committing-suicide-after-using-genetically). [back]
2. Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, "Every Thirty Minutes: Farmer Suicides, Human Rights, and the Agrarian Crisis in India," New York: NYU School of Law, 2011 (chrgj.org/publications/docs/every30min.pdf). [back]
3. Somini Sengupta, "On India's Farms, a Plague of Suicide," New York Times, September 19, 2006 (nytimes.com/2006/09/19/world/asia/19india.html); Alex Renton, "India's hidden climate change catastrophe," The Independent, January 2, 2011 (independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/indias-hidden-climate-change-catastrophe- 2173995.html). [back]
4. Raymond Lotta, America in Decline, p. 107; cited in "The Collapse of Argentina's Economy: Free Market Madness," Revolutionary Worker #1152, May 26, 2002, revcom.us/a/v24/1151-1160/1152/argentina.htm) [back]
5. "The Global Food Crisis...and the Ravenous System of Capitalism," Revolution #128, May 1, 2008 (revcom.us/a/128/hunger-en.html). [back]
6. CIA, The World Factbook, 2011 (cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/in.html). [back]
7. "Remarks by the President to the Joint Session of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, India Parliament House, New Delhi, India," White House, November 8, 2010 (whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/11/08/remarks-president-joint-session-indian-parliament-new-delhi-india). [back]
8. PBS, "The Dying Fields," August 28, 2007 (pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/episodes/the-dying-fields/introduction/967/); Emeka Osakwe, "Cotton Fact Sheet: India," International Cotton Advisory Committee, May 19, 2009 (icac.org/econ_stats/country_facts/e_india.pdf). [back]
9. "Every Thirty Minutes." [back]
10. Sengupta, September 19, 2006. [back]
11. "Every Thirty Minutes"; PBS, "The Dying Fields," August 28, 2007. [back]
12. "Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers (SAS)", conducted in India in the year 2003 by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), cited in Rajiv Mehta, "Situation Assessment Survey for Farm Sector Policy Formulation," September 2009 (fao.org/fileadmin/templates/ess/documents/
13. Renton, January 2, 2011; "Every Thirty Minutes"; "Briefing Book—India," Stanford University, Social Entrepreneurship Startup; Winter 2003 (cee45q.stanford.edu/2003/briefing_book/india.html#s3.1). [back]
14. Renton, January 2, 2011. [back]
15. Srijit Mishra, "Suicide of Farmers in Maharashtra," Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, 26 January 2006 (www.igidr.ac.in/suicide/FinalReport_SFM_IGIDR_26Jan06.pdf); PBS, "The Dying Fields." [back]
16. "‘Every 30 Minutes': Crushed by Debt and Neoliberal Reforms, Indian Farmers Commit Suicide at Staggering Rate," Democracy Now!, May 11, 2011 (democracynow.org/2011/5/11/every_30_minutes_crushed_by_debt). [back]
17. Sengupta, September. 19, 2006. [back]
18. "Every Thirty Minutes," p. 9. [back]
19. "The Global Food Crisis...and the Ravenous System of Capitalism," Revolution #128, May 1, 2008. [back]
20. Utsa Patnaik, "Origins of the Food Crisis in India and Developing Countries," Monthly Review, July-August (monthlyreview.org/2009/07/01/origins-of-the-food-crisis-in-india-and-developing-countries). [back]
21. P. Sainath, "Neo-Liberal Terrorism in India: The Largest Wave of Suicides in History," Counterpunch, February 12, 2009, (www.counterpunch.org/sainath02122009.html), cited in "Every Thirty Minutes." [back]
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