The sun is fire. Denanmma Ramulu, 45, sits against the mud-brick wall, hands on her hair, head buried in her lap, back hunched.
“There’s no time I have ever felt hope for the future,” she says. Her husband of more than 20 years killed himself last year, leaving her with a crippling debt of two lakh rupees (USD 2,000), along with two acres of drought-stricken land. “When I found out my husband died, I broke down completely.” The funeral cost 30,000 rupees (USD 450). After the cremation, they scattered the ashes and faced what was left: the debt and the dusty fields.
“This is my fate,” Denanmma says. “I’m expecting my son to help and keep the family going.”
“And your daughters?”, I ask, nodding my head towards the two women watching our conversation.
“I just want to take care of my son.” As we talk, her two-year-old grandson quietly throws up a translucent, pasty liquid, wearing a bright red shirt and green Spiderman shorts. His mother, only 19 years old, dabs his mouth with her pink sari and wishes she could do more. “We don’t have money to go to hospitals, so we trust in God instead,” she says. The family had leased land from a relative for years, who insisted on reclaiming the plot after their crop failed in 2015. They had grown pulses – crops harvested for their dry seed – for decades, but switched to cotton last kharif season between September and January, seeing others in the village growing cotton successfully. But that cotton grew on irrigated plots; the family’s land was rain-fed.
The new cotton seed came with hope; they never thought things would get so bad. The Telugu language-medium government school doesn’t charge tuition, but after the crop failure the family can’t afford the exam fees – INR 1,500 (USD 20) – so their 15-year-old son, Ganesh, has been out of school for three months. “You’re fined for every day you miss, so we can’t afford to send him back,” his sisters say. “And he has to take care of mother.”
Ganesh listens quietly, standing straight next to his mother. “What was the best day of your life?” I ask. He thinks. A minute passes, two. “There was no best day,” he says. “The worst day of my life was the day my father died. I used to have friends, about 10 of them. I have textbooks and I want to go back to school. Now I can’t, because I’m busy with my mother.”
Denamnna’s eyes are losing focus. “Life is hard,” she says. “People are saying I’m mad.”
But she’s gone, staring blankly at the world.
Many farmers see cotton as a crop of gold, because it is extremely profitable when it thrives. However, small-scale farmers, dependent on rain for irrigation, have seen cotton crops fail repeatedly. This is major factor in thousands of Indian farmers committing suicide annually.
Driving into the suicide belt of Telangana from Hyderabad, the earth becomes red and parched. The eyes are met with fields and fields of shriveled crops, spotted with bright temples and irrigation ditches built to harness the rain that will not fall. Shepherds guide clusters of sheep along roads. Dust flies. Two yellow and orange marigolds poke through the cracked earth. Graves interrupt the flat plane. Some are Hindu, some are Christian, but everything is bone dry.
Unfortunately, cotton is still seen as the crop of gold by many farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, in India’s suicide belt – a region that also receives low rainfall. “The notion persists among farmers that you can make a lot of money growing cotton,” says Asha Satyam, an agricultural researcher and longtime advocate for farmer welfare. It’s a notion that persists because when cotton does grow, it does sell well. “What happens is that one farmer in a village has good irrigation,” Asha says. “Seeing that, the farmers’ mentality is, ‘I can also get that. I’ll use more fertiliser; I’ll dig more bore wells’. He digs more bore wells, investing and taking loans, maintaining hope. The bore wells run dry and then there is no rain. And the crops fail, year after year. “This is unending,” Asha says. “It’s going on and on, and their debt keeps spiraling up. According to her, in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, 80 percent of farmers lease land rather than own it. So a failed crop means that that a farmer adds another INR 8,000 to 15,000 (USD 120-225) to his debt burden, since “rent” is paid in advance before cropping on rented fields.
The statistics are horrifying. In its 2012 annual report, the National Crime Records Bureau noted that out of 135,445 suicides in India that year, 13,755 were farmers, approximately 10 percent of the total. Of these, five out of twenty-nine states accounted for 76 percent of the farmer suicides – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala. A majority eat the very chemicals meant to fertilise their crops, or hang themselves from thirsty trees. Like crops, graves are dug in seasons. Hopeful seeds are sown in June and July and by September the crops have failed. Autumn is a season of death.
“The phase is over now,” Asha told me in December 2015. “It’ll start again next year.” More than 95 percent of Indian farmers killing themselves in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, according to Asha, are men. But what of the women? “Women bear the burden. Girl children bear the burden. When farmer suicides happen, the burden is much larger on women,” says Dr. G. V. Ramanjaneyulu, Director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture. “Every one rupee that is cut down in income does not impact everyone equally. It impacts women and girls more.”
It’s the same story over and over. After a suicide, the children drop out of school, unable to pay school fees. Between the ages of 13 and 17, the girls are married. Farmers don’t want their children to become farmers but they’re trapped. The high-cost, high-yield seeds; the thirsty cotton crop; the bone-dry skies, the bore-wells, the bills, the increasing amounts of fertiliser to rejuvenate the land, pesticides, labor costs, the dowries, the mouths to feed, the debt, the women, the shame. Within this self-perpetuating cycle with no apparent escape, ingesting chemicals or wrapping a noose around the neck are all-too-friendly exits for men. While their deaths might bring personal escape, these men leave behind crippling emotional, financial and physical burdens, inherited by those left to farm the dust: the women who did not die.
A woman holds up a bottle of seed fertiliser while her daughter and grandchildren look on. Her name is Kavitha Ravula. We sit on the packed dirt floor of her house in one of the most isolated pockets of Jangaon district, Telangana, where her husband had eaten fertiliser from the bottle to die just weeks before. She says she’s alone now after 30 years of happy marriage – she was married when she was 12. The family has been farming maize and cotton on their four acres of land for 10 years, but their crop suffered from worsening weather patterns and increasing droughts over the past three years, leaving the family with a debt of five lakhs rupees, more than USD 7,500. When Kavitha smiles, her eyes come to life. A long braid of thick, shining, black hair falls neatly down her back and the sequins stitched neatly into her pink and white sari glitter. “I am feeling terrible because I don’t know how I will bring up my children,” Kavitha says. “My husband felt bad about the debts he had, but he never talked about committing suicide. I put hope in my sons.”
“What about your daughters?
She sighs, then shrugs.
“Life goes on,” Kavitha says. “I want to eat this poison every day. But my family needs me and I am stronger than my husband.”
Though it has been happening as long as anyone can remember, the number of suicides have increased significantly in the last 30 years, and even more dramatically in the past 10. Long spells of drought are interrupted by crop-crushing downpours. As traditional mixes of crops have been replaced with high-yielding wheat, rice and cotton, the consumption of water has gone up, because while the introduced seeds may have been higher yielding, they were also thirstier than natural seeds. According to a 2009 NPR report, the water table level was dropping as much as three feet per year, forcing farmers to bore deeper wells to feed the thirsty crops. Soon, these wells too ran dry. “Climate change has had an effect, especially over the past five years,” says Vipul Kulkarni, of Chetna Organics, an NGO that works with farmers. “The rains are delayed every year.”
Seed companies wield unparalleled influence among farmers in isolated agricultural areas, and the companies encourage farmers to continue purchasing expensive seeds, ill-suited for their region. “The farmers are not benefiting from the seed production, whereas companies are making money,” says Dr. Ramanjaneyulu. “The seed companies’ approach is to promote crops which give them more money, like cotton, and unfortunately those crops are not suitable for the region, so the crisis is increasing. Millets, pulses, or oil seeds are highly suitable for the region, but the seed industry is discouraging them because there is no price incentive for them. They promote seeds which give them more money, which gives them more control.”
Beeram Ramulu agrees. He is the vice president of the Raithu Swarjya Vedika, an NGO that works with farmers, and an activist for farmers for more than 15 years. “The land here is not suitable for cotton, but farmers are still growing cotton because fertilisers and seeds are easily available and promoted by seed companies. When crops fail, the companies just blame the rains.” Monsanto is currently the largest seed supplier in India’s suicide belt and notoriously shy of press coverage that goes beyond laudatory advertorials. Monsanto officials in Hyderabad and Bangalore cities asked me to leave their facilities when I asked them about their practices in the region. Two more Monsanto staff members cut my phone calls, while one put me on a two-hour hold before I hung up, and a fourth promised to reply by email but never did.
Sreeranga Rajan is the CEO of Dibella India, a textile company that produces Fairtrade cotton textiles, and buys its raw cotton through Chetna from farmers at fair prices. “At the end of the chain, the people who are producing the most important raw material, who add the most important value in the whole chain, are forgotten,” Sreeranga says. “They are invisible in your conventional supply chain, and they are committing suicide every year. If thousands of farmers are committing suicide every year, then there is something fundamentally wrong in the way we are doing business.”
Numbers are contested. “What we have seen over the last 30 years is a continuous denial by the government to see the problem,” says Dr. Ramanjaneyulu. Longstanding allegations hold that there is no farming crisis and the cause of suicides are attributed to marital quarrels, extramarital relations and liquor. “The government cites all these problems to say a suicide is not a genuine farmer suicide,” Asha says. She says their reluctance to acknowledge farmer suicides is a direct fall-out of the 2004 Government Order No. 421 issued by the Revenue Department of Andhra Pradesh, referred to as GO 421, which mandates that the state is responsible for providing relief to families of farmers who have committed suicide. “If you identify a farmer suicide, you have to give them compensation,” Asha says. She estimates that only 20 to 50 percent of farmer suicides are identified as such to avoid making payments.
“Seed companies, pesticide companies and fertiliser companies – this entire nexus is a very strong one, and it works against us,” says Vipul Kulkarni, of Chetna. “These companies have a lot of sway and persuading power with the government.” Without the support of the government, NGOs can only accomplish so much. “We don’t want to take on the government,” Vipul says. “We want to work with them.” There are farmers working in sustainable, organic or Fairtrade practices. “If you meet the organic, Fairtrade farmers, you will see the difference; they feel really hopeful,” says Sreeranga Rajan. “They feel that there is somebody who can provide hope for them. That is the stark contrast, and that’s the most important point. We are doing it to make money – if it doesn’t make business sense we won’t do it. It’s a business, not a charity. We are just protecting our security of supply. We are just doing business the way it should be done.”
“In October 2015, the government of Telangana announced six lakh rupees (USD 8,990) of assistance to farmers, but not even one family has received any money,” says Beeram Ramulu. “If there are increased suicides, the government is seeing it as a failure and so they cover it up, blaming it on other factors.” The issue of farmer suicides has been hugely politicised, with the debate spiking around elections, after which promises made by leaders lay fallow with the cotton. With the formation of the state of Telangana in 2014, “everyone started picking up the issue, as if they had suddenly realised it was happening,” Asha says. “What were you doing all these years when every year farmers are committing suicide for the past 20 years?”
Kavitha Suresh, 24, was married to her husband, Anathula, when she was 10 years old. They settled in Aknoor Village, in rural Telangana, and lived a happy nine years of marriage, she says, with two children and fields of rice paddy and cotton. Money was always a problem, she knew, but they made do. “It was nice to be married,” she says. “He used to take care of me.” She fainted when she got the call that Anathula had killed himself, hanging himself from a tree.
When she regained consciousness, she felt like she was dreaming. She doesn’t remember the funeral, or the details of selling the land to help clear the debt of three lakh rupees (USD 4,495). Then the land was gone, and her mind woke up. Kavitha spends her days rolling beedis to earn the family’s only source of money, and lies awake dreaming of living a different life in the dark.
After a death, the women’s lives are crowded with taking care of mundane but critical details. They speak with debt collectors, lease or sell any land they own, reach out to relatives for support. And when all else fails, they roll beedi cigarettes through their waking hours to earn enough to feed themselves and their children. The government, they find, does not help. Despite promises, none of the dozens of widows I spoke with had received a rupee of government assistance. Most still cling to the hope that someday, despite the red-tape and petty corruption, they will receive their due.
However, Kavitha sees no escape for herself in this life and invests her meager savings in her children’s future instead. She wants her children to attend school beyond seventh standard, unlike her, who dropped out at that age. “I don’t have any dreams for myself,” she says, a single tear falling down her cheek. “I didn’t get enough education, so I want this for my children. All my dreams are for my kids.”
Women sit on mesh seed bags as the murmur of men’s voices outside discuss Telangana state liquor laws. They’re rolling beedi, a thin cigarette wrapped in dried leaves and stuffed with tobacco, betel nuts and spices. De-stem, cut, stuff, roll, tie, repeat. De-stem, cut, stuff, roll, tie, repeat. De-stem, cut, stuff, roll, tie, repeat. From 6:30 AM to dusk, and by lantern, beyond. The company will pay 100 rupees – USD 1.50 – for 1,000 beedis and it takes five minutes to roll 10. The beedis are resold at nearly 10 times markup, but the company will also provide $15 monthly pensions after 50 years of work. In another 35 years, those pensions will make all the difference. Until then, it’s repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.
“It takes a lot of hard work to do this,” Naviya Suresh says. Back pains, strained eyes. “My husband cheated on me. I’m under a lot of pain. It makes us prone to cancer and TB.” She’d been sick so she stopped, but she came back. “It’s money.” And she is used to the routine. A snip with the scissors, the whirling fan, roll, crunch the nuts, roll, the popping sound of the snapping string wound around a beedi. Like cigarettes, beedis are stuffed with stimulant. Naviya’s nails are stained dark and sometimes she can feel the nicotine through her skin, she says.
“Have you ever smoked?” I ask.
She laughs. “Only men smoke.”
October 2, 2014. Pentapati Narsi Reddi, a 48-year-old cotton and rice farmer, eats dinner with his two daughters, son and wife, Lakshmi. Heaps of white rice, spicy sambar, rassam, a boiled egg each, eaten in shifts off the family’s two stainless steel plates: first the men, then the daughters, then Lakshmi. Mosquitoes nip their feet. After dinner, he washes his face in the cool night under the stars, and probably touches a bottle to his lips before settling into bed next to Lakshmi in the small room that serves as the living room, dining room, and bedroom. Stars shine through the skylight, built into the center of the house to catch the rain that does not fall. The single bare bulb goes dark but its coil still glows orange. Fan blades whirl, cockroaches sing, the buffalo snores. All else is quiet, but his mind is not at peace.
The next morning, Pentapati Narsi Reddi is dead, hanging by his neck under the skylight. “I don’t know. Alcohol? I don’t know,” his daughter Divya, now 21, says a year later. She rolls round chapathis on a worn wooden cutting board in the kitchen, where there is a small cylinder of gas and some matches next to a portable stove. I flip through photos on her black Acer phone: a bottle of whiskey, dozens of selfies, a photograph of a girl with text: “How could you do that to me… I loved you so much, how could you not see?” The kitchen walls are whitewashed light blue, but time and smoke have browned them around the stove and the bread oven built into the mud-brick wall. She had tried to clean the wall once when her father was alive and occasional streaks of white cut the brown. Outside, a green striped kite is stuck in a tree, white plastic tail flipping in the wind. A withered marigold of faded yellow lies in the courtyard. Hope grows through the dust, but it is against all odds.
“My photo, take it,” Divya says, gesturing with a flour-dusted hand at her phone. “Send it to the government. My father, he’s gone.”
~ Cover photo: Mamatha Neela, 23, the oldest daughter of Nakka Ramulu, who killed himself by eating fertilisers on December 11, 2015. “Our future is bad, not just today but from the beginning,” she says. “Nothing will ever change.”
~ Rianna Pauline Starheim is a freelance writer based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She has reported across five continents, and her works have appeared in Foreign Policy, Pacific Standard and other publications.