Monday, January 03, 2011

India’s hidden climate change catastrophe

Over the past decade, as crops have failed year after year, 200,000 farmers have killed themselves 

By Alex Renton, The Independent, January 2, 2011

Sugali Nagamma holds a portrait of her husband, who killed himself by swallowing pesticide in front of her
Abbie Traylor-Smith Sugali Nagamma holds a portrait of her husband, who killed himself by swallowing pesticide in front of her

Naryamaswamy Naik went to the cupboard and took out a tin of pesticide. Then he stood before his wife and children and drank it. “I don’t know how much he had borrowed. I asked him, but he wouldn’t say,” Sugali Nagamma said, her tiny grandson playing at her feet. “I’d tell him: don’t worry, we can sell the salt from our table.”

Ms Nagamma, 41, showed us a picture of her husband – good-looking with an Elvis-style hairdo – on the day they married a quarter of a century ago. “He’d been unhappy for a month, but that day he was in a heavy depression. I tried to take the tin away from him but I couldn’t. He died in front of us. The head of the family died in front of his wife and children – can you imagine?”

The death of Mr Naik, a smallholder in the central Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, in July 2009, is just another mark on an astonishingly long roll. Nearly 200,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves in the past decade. Like Mr Naik, a third of them choose pesticide to do it: an agonising, drawn-out death with vomiting and convulsions.

The death toll is extrapolated from the Indian authorities’ figures. But the journalist Palagummi Sainath is certain the scale of the epidemic of rural suicides is underestimated and that it is getting worse. “Wave upon wave,” he says, from his investigative trips in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. “One farmer every 30 minutes in India now, and sometimes three in one family.” Because standards of record-keeping vary across the nation, many suicides go unnoticed. In some Indian states, the significant numbers of women who kill themselves are not listed as “farmers”, even if that is how they make their living.

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