Thursday, May 15, 2008

Suicide of farmer poet highlights the poverty trap in India

Farming and poetry were inextricably linked for Shrikrishna Kalamb. As he poured his efforts into scraping a livelihood for him and his family from the unyielding land, so he described in verse the scale of his struggle.

It was a struggle he ultimately lost. Confronted by large debts, a mounting sense of futility and worried as to how he would pay for the weddings of his five daughters, Mr Kalamb, 50, hanged himself. In his final poem, written just two days before he took life, he wrote: "My life is different; my death will be like untimely rain."

Mr Kalamb took his life at the end of March, one of tens of thousands of Indian farmers who have committed suicide in recent years. But rather than allowing her father to become another simple statistic, Mr Kalamb's eldest daughter, Usha, has gathered together the 50 or so poems that he wrote and is seeking to have them published. "My father died as a farmer, in perpetual debt and worries. But he lived as a poet, and will remain immortal in his poems," she said.

No one knows precisely how many farmers have taken their lives in recent years but campaign groups say the problem is huge as India's rural community seeks to deal with a downturn in prices and trade policies that have forced them to compete with subsidised products from other countries.

In the Vindarbha district of Maharashtra state in western India, where Mr Kalamb grew cotton, it is estimated that one farmer commits suicide every eight hours. "A mass clinical depression is silently sweeping the farmers of Vidarbha," said Dr Sujay Patil, a local psychiatrist who offers free treatment and counselling to farmers.

"The solution is to help farming. The farmers are feeling hopeless, they are feeling worthless and they are feeling helpless."

The Indian government is well aware of the scale of the crisis playing out in its agricultural sector, an area on which 70 per cent of the population depends for its livelihood. In this year's budget, about £8bn was set aside as a debt waiver for millions of small farmers across the country.

But campaigners say that still enough is not being done. They also claim that farmers are not being protected from the impact of subsidised farming elsewhere and that seed producers are, in effect, holding farmers to ransom.

The group Navdanya, headed by Dr Vandana Shiva, claims that that more 150,000 farmers have taken their lives in the past decade as a result of the impact of liberalisation policies in the agricultural sector.

"It's all related to the land," said Dr Shiva. "When they get into debt ... this is why they are committing suicide. Whatever the government has done issuperficial."

Mr Kalamb had been struggling for some time to eke out a living from his five acres of unproductive land. The plot brought in little money and 10 years ago he had been forced to sell off a section. His attempt to set up a threshing plant in his village also failed.

A decade later and owing more than 20,000 rupees (£250) to the bank and a minimum of 50,000 in private loans he was confronted by having to sell some of what little remained. That troubled him greatly. He was also upset that his eldest daughter had been forced to give up her education to find a job to help the family.

Usha Kalamb said: "He sustained us on that money [from the sale] for 10 years. But now, we had little options so he was contemplating selling remaining land. He had asthma and could not work hard in the fields."

Although Mr Kalamb poured his emotion into his poetry, written in Warhadi, a dialect of the Marathi language, his friends and family said he never spoke about his worries. "He would hold us in rapt attention and sometime in tears, when he would recite his poems," said Vitthal Patond, a childhood friend. "Financial problems played heavily on his mind. But he would never show it. He abhorred an exploitative system and rebelled against it."

1 comment:

Ayesha said...

The severity of the global food crisis is undeniable. Prices of major commodities have increased substantially over the last three years, and especially, in the last few months.

According to the World Bank, about 100 million people might be thrown back into the ranks of the poor because of these price rises. There have been riots in a number of countries, and the Bank has identified 33 as especially vulnerable.

The poor are especially vulnerable because they spend the largest portions of their income on food. For example, in Nigeria, about 70 per cent of income is spent on food, 75 per cent in Vietnam, and 50 per cent in Indonesia compared with 12 per cent in the United States (though that figure is also now on the rise).