India’s sugarcane farmers: A cycle of debt and suicide

How rising debts, pesticides and erratic rainfall are pushing some farmers in southern India to suicide.

[Janos Chiala/AlJazeera]
Srinivas, 35, ploughs his family's plot of land before planting sugarcane in the village of Hulivana, Karnataka [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]

Karnataka, India – Farmers have worked the land of southern India for more than 10,000 years, making use of its fertile soil and abundant rains.

Mahatma Gandhi placed Indian farmers at the centre of his vision for independence. In his 1909 book about Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), he argued that farmers had “managed with the same kind of plough as existed thousands of years ago” and that rural India remained untouched by the corruptions of modernity. 

India achieved its independence in 1947 and in the 1960s, in order to feed its growing population, it embraced the Green Revolution and introduced modern technologies, chemical fertilisers and pesticides to its agriculture.

In the 1990s, the country embarked on a series of neoliberal economic reforms, deregulating the markets and opening them up to international trade. Free from foreign domination and working in a modern, developing country, it seemed as if the farmers of India could finally work for themselves, and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

Yet millions of Indian farmers barely make a living, and many are choosing to end their lives: hundreds of thousands have committed suicide in the past three decades.

In the southern state of Karnataka, more than 1,000 farmers killed themselves in 2015. About 90 of them were from the sugarcane-growing district of Mandya. While the data for 2016 is still unavailable, some 200 suicides had already been reported by the month of July.

There is no single explanation for this wave of suicides, but there are several common elements. The growing level of personal debt is one of them.

Alongside countless other farmers throughout India, sugarcane growers are struggling to earn enough to survive and are being forced to borrow money to continue farming. The crisis doesn’t just affect the farmers, but the widows and children they leave behind, as well as relatives and fellow farmers, who also fall into the cycle of debt.

It’s part of being a sugarcane grower, they say.

Sugarcane was once one of the most profitable crops, they explain. But, things have changed. 

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Shivanna's wife, Sushma, 32, holds their one-year-old daughter. Next to her are Shivanna's mother, Savithriamma, 65, and his father Kempegowda, 72 [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]Shivanna’s wife, Sushma, 32, holds their one-year-old daughter. Next to her are Shivanna’s mother, Savithriamma, 65, and his father Kempegowda, 72 [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]

Shivanna’s story

The Mandya district appears as an expanse of lush, tilled plains where sugarcane fields stretch as far as the eye can see.

Shivanna was a 35-year-old sugarcane farmer from the village of Sadolalu, a few kilometres from the town of Mandya.

He was the sole breadwinner in his family and supported seven people: his parents, his wife who suffers from thyroid problems, his two children and his sick brother and his wife. 

One day in July 2015, after dropping his son off at school, he drove into town and bought a bottle of alcohol and some pesticide.

After lunch, he went off to his fields as usual. At 5pm, he called his niece, telling her that he had drunk the pesticide and that he wanted to see her one last time. The whole family rushed to the field, but by the time they arrived and took him to the hospital, he had died.

No one knew, but Shivanna was heavily in debt.

His debts amounted to six lakhs (about $9,240), and it would have taken him six harvests on the five acres (about two hectares) of land he owned and leased, with an average profit of 20,000 rupees ($308) an acre, just to break even.

“He would not share his troubles with anyone,” Shivanna’s mother Savithriamma says.

He was a responsible person who didn’t drink alcohol, she says. 

“He was very happy that his second child was a girl. He did all the work, took her to the temple, the astrologer, everything,” his mother recalls. “That’s why he bought the liquor, to bring himself to do what he did.”

The family learned about the extent of his debt after his death. They were left in financial ruin, and now face years of poverty to pay back the money owed. To make matters worse, they had to borrow more to organise his funeral. Shivanna’s wife was forced to sell her jewellery, including her thaali, the golden necklace Shivanna had tied around her neck at their wedding.

Savithriamma holds a photograph of her son Shivanna [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]Savithriamma holds a photograph of her son Shivanna [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]

Now, all they have left is a single female buffalo. They get by selling the milk it produces.

“Only to plant the fields, it would cost him 25,000 rupees ($385) per acre, for the seedlings and the labour,” his father Kempegowda says, explaining that Shivanna had no relatives who could help him in the field and was therefore forced to hire labourers to help with the work.

He used expensive NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) chemical fertilisers, such as urea and “Suphala”, the mainstays of the Green Revolution. These cost tens of thousands of rupees an acre and are known to deplete the soil, reducing the yield and forcing the farmer to increase the amount used over time.

Harvesting the crop and transporting it to the factory where it is crushed to make sugar costs more money.

All these outlays ate into Shivanna’s profits, and he was forced to borrow money to cover the mounting expenses and eventually had to take out more loans to pay for his previous ones.

When in 2014 his crops failed due to insufficient rain, he suffered a loss of one lakh ($1,540). The following year, the price paid by the factory dropped from 2,000 rupees ($30) a tonne of sugarcane to 1,500 rupees ($15), some of which wasn’t even paid; factories can take months to make payments, and when he died in July 2015, Shivanna was still waiting to be paid for his January harvest.

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Kamalamma, 55, a daily wage labourer, harvests sugarcane in the village of Madhar Halli. She is paid two rupees, or $0.03, per bundle of sugarcane, and in a day manages to earn 200 rupees, or $3 [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]Kamalamma, 55, a daily wage labourer, harvests sugarcane in the village of Madhar Halli. She is paid two rupees, or $0.03, per bundle of sugarcane, and in a day manages to earn 200 rupees, or $3 [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]
Shivalinga Gowda, 50, holds a bottle of insecticide like the one his 23-year-old son Madhu consumed to kill himself after accumulating large debts while managing the family farm in the village of Arechakanahalli [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]Shivalinga Gowda, 50, holds a bottle of insecticide like the one his 23-year-old son Madhu consumed to kill himself after accumulating large debts while managing the family farm in the village of Arechakanahalli [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]

How debt happens

Rathnamma’s house is located in the village of Chalegowdan Doddi, a short motorbike ride from Shivanna’s home. Her husband, Mariappa, committed suicide at the age of 45, after accumulating more than seven lakhs ($10,781) in debt.

“He said he was going to have a coffee at someone’s house,” she remembers, “and then he left and never came back. We found his body in his barren field. There had been no water because of drought, so he hadn’t been able to plant any sugarcane.”

Now Rathnamma works as a labourer, harvesting sugarcane for other farmers, and so does her son who was in his final year of college, but had to drop out after his father died.

“There are no good public colleges around, so we sent him to a private one, which cost us 15,000 rupees ($231) a year,” Rathnamma says. “Now, we need him to work in the fields, otherwise how are we ever going to repay the debts?”

In 2015, the Karnataka Janashakthi (KJS), a group of local researchers, farmers and activists, produced a report on the suicides of sugarcane growers in the Mandya district, reaching the conclusion that “central to most of them are the issues of indebtedness and economic insecurity”.

A sugarcane farmer can hope for a yield of 40 tonnes an acre, with input costs of about 40,000 rupees ($616) for things such as seedlings, labour and fertilisers. The maximum price currently paid by factories is 2,500 rupees a tonne ($38), with about 800 rupees ($12) a tonne going to harvesting and transport costs, meaning a final profit of 28,000 rupees ($431) for 40 tonnes. That would be considered a good profit.

But yield can decrease to as little as 30 tonnes of sugarcane an acre and the price paid by factories can drop to as low as 1,700 rupees a tonne ($26). In such a situation, the farmer would suffer a loss of 13,000 rupees ($200).

With such narrow profit margins, which don’t allow for costs, such as hiring a tractor or leasing the land, it is easy to fall into debt.

According to the KJS report, the average debt of the farmers who committed suicide was five lakhs ($7,701), a considerable amount when compared to the average debt of about 18,000 rupees ($277) per capita for the general population of Karnataka.

“It appears as though agricultural production [of sugarcane] is not a profitable one,” the study concludes. But the farmers, who still perceive it to be the most profitable crop, prefer sugarcane to other crops or food staples, with which they could feed their families.

The stories of Shivanna and Rathnamma demonstrate how multifaceted the debt epidemic among farmers is.

Shivanna was the only breadwinner in a family of eight, while Mariappa was trying to pay for his son’s private college education, so that he might get a degree and, with it, a different life.

The debts they accumulated didn’t only come from farming; they included education, healthcare and housing expenses. That is because, in order to guarantee a degree of security for their families, those fortunate enough to have some land often use it to grow sugarcane.

The alternative is to work for other farmers, as Rathnamma is now forced to do.

“We are paid two rupees per bundle of sugarcane,” says Kammalamma, a 55-year-old labourer who was harvesting crops in the village of Madhar Halli. “On a good day, I can earn 200 rupees (about $3). But at least I always take some money home: the farmers earn much more, but they can also lose everything if the crop fails.”

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An irrigation channel from the Krishna Raja Sagara dam runs dry on a hot day in the middle of the rainy season in July 2016. Mandya district is supposed to be irrigated by the dam but as the monsoon becomes unreliable and the rains diminish every year, there simply isn't enough water for all the farmed areas [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]An irrigation channel from the Krishna Raja Sagara dam runs dry on a hot day in the middle of the rainy season in July 2016. Mandya district is supposed to be irrigated by the dam but as the monsoon becomes unreliable and the rains diminish every year, there simply isn’t enough water for all the farmed areas [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]

Changing climate factors

Farmers also complain that the monsoon is becoming erratic, with less rain falling at the right time, threatening entire crops of sugarcane, a plant that requires a lot of water.

With only about 42 percent of the Mandya district irrigated by the Krishna Raja Sagara dam, farmers are largely at the mercy of increasingly unreliable weather patterns, and many decide to dig their own wells.

Prasana is a 32-year-old sugarcane grower from the village of Hulivana.

His grandfather had dug a small water cistern which has helped his family survive the unexpected droughts. Prasana’s brother also helps on the land, making the work much faster and the costs lower.

Prasana tries to not use chemicals. Instead, he saves on costs by using his cows to plough the land and produce manure for fertiliser.

“I managed so far only because there is a water cistern here,” he says, “otherwise, it would have all dried up. I was always scared of taking loans, but now there is not enough water [to keep the water cistern full], so I will have to borrow one lakh ($1,540) to dig my own bore well.”

Droughts are intensifying and occurring more often. In November 2016, the Karnataka government estimated the losses suffered by the agricultural sector over the last two years to be more than 12,000 crores ($1.85bn). 

Water has become another input cost in the farmers’ quest for security – whether through crop failure due to lack of rainfall or the debts incurred to irrigate farms.

And the security Indian farmers are looking for is even harder to find it in the globalised markets of the 21st century.

READ MORE: Green innovation saves the textile industry in India

Planting sugarcane in Madhar Halli [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]Planting sugarcane in Madhar Halli [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]

The global sugarcane picture

The financial policies and reforms of the past decades have modernised India’s economy, opening its markets up to foreign competition. As a result, small-scale Indian sugarcane growers find themselves competing with large-scale industrialised plantations in countries such as Brazil, the world’s largest sugar producer, often making it cheaper to import sugar from abroad than to buy it locally from Indian farmers. 

Another central element of these neoliberal reforms has been to reduce the role of government in the economy, reducing subsidies and deregulating prices to let the forces of the market work freely, causing wild fluctuations in the price of commodities, including sugar. 

When, in recent years, the Indian government attempted to subsidise sugar exports in order to help the factories sell off their stocks and, in turn, be able to pay farmers and buy more sugarcane from them, World Trade Organisation members such as the European Union and Brazil objected on the grounds that such subsidies distort the global sugar market.

“By subsidising exports, India reduces its domestic sugar stocks and helps local producers by propping up local prices above global levels. But that forces sugar producers in countries like Thailand, Australia, Colombia, Guatemala and Brazil to reduce their own output and adjust exports in future harvests, or face even deeper losses because of depressed prices,” said Elizabeth Farina, president of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association, in a statement in 2014.

The Indian sugarcane farmers have, in the words of KJS activist Vashu Hu, been “left to subsidise agriculture out of their own pocket, or with their debts”.

With official forecasts predicting that 600 million Indians – 40 percent of the country’s population – will live in cities by the year 2031, activists say that farmers are being abandoned.

“In the past, farmers worked with their relatives and their cows,” Hu says, “which even gave them manure to fertilise the fields – those families had an organic relationship with agriculture.”

But the changes brought about by modernity have broken this organic relationship, and this break has in turn “affected not only the families, but also our society, in which nobody cares about what happens to farmers”.

A farmer's house near the village of Chikkamandhgere [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]A farmer’s house near the village of Chikkamandhgere [Janos Chiala/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera