Farmers' leader in Wardha Vijay Jawandhia once remarked: "If I were given a choice, I would like to be born as a European cow, but certainly not as an Indian farmer, in my next birth." There, a cow gets a US $ 2 subsidy per day and enjoys all the comforts. "And here, in India, a farmer is a debtor all his life. Post his death, his son inherits his debts and has to borrow money for his funeral."

Jawandhia was summing up the mood sweeping through the farming community particularly in the crisis-ridden Vidarbha. But his sarcastic remark underlines the great contrast that marks the global trade, touted by many a leading economist as an answer to all the problems. For many of those who have been singing to the tune of WTO, the Indian farm crisis is the ugly fallout of "lack of reforms". Their argument is that there are too many government strings attached to the policies; we need to detach them for growth and prosperity of the poor agrarian masses.

A close look at the processes that plague Indian agriculture contrast those claim.

Much before the distress set in, Vidarbha farmers rejoiced in near self-sufficiency on all fronts – food, clothes, seeds, fertilizers, festivals, marriages, construction and you name it. Pre-1991, nobody ever heard of farmers taking their own lives, almost never. Veteran farmers and farm leaders in the region confirm this almost unequivocally. Farmers were poor, but they ate enough and were not in debt trap.

Today, and as reported in earlier articles, this eastern region of Maharashtra sits on an "agrarian volcano". With cotton farmers ending themselves at an alarming rate, the agrarian crisis of the region now goes far beyond the suicides. The green fields are transforming into killing fields. The past four years have seen hundreds of farmers take their own lives in a region rich in cotton, paddy, soybean and oranges. The year gone by – that is 2005-06 agriculture season – has seen close to 550 farmers' suicides in Vidarbha. In the last five months alone, over 300 farmers ended themselves - all due to ruthless policies of the past decade that pushed them to brim. The malady is only getting worse.

Until 2003, suicides were reported from the cotton belt only. Now farmers from a much better-off plateau – one producing paddy – are following the trend. Those holding on to the life have little hope of lifting themselves out of the crisis, unless the state hikes its investments in agriculture sector and takes corrective steps on policy–front. So far, there are no signs that the situation might improve. The crisis needs immediate attention.

The rot runs deeper than drought

It's not drought or incessant rains that are at the root of the crisis, as some newspapers suggest in their reportage of the agrarian distress. Drought is just one factor contributing to the biting distress, not the only. The region receives over 800 mm of average rainfall annually. It is bordered by two major river basins – Godavari to its south-east and Wainganga to its west. A number of tributaries and water bodies place the region at an advantageous position over the other regions on the water resources front. And the suicides were reported even in the good monsoon years when the yield was good. Also some of farmers who ended themselves were from better-irrigated paddy areas of Vidarbha.

From a share of 18.16% in 1998-99, America's share in world cotton exports jumped to 38.96% in 2002-03. Indian cotton imports rose sharply in the same period, crushing the local cultivators.

By one estimate, withdrawal of American cotton subsidies would raise cotton prices by 11 cents per pound, or by 26 per cent.

India has more land under cotton than any other country in the world, and just about the lowest yields. Pest infestations are quite severe compared to the time when farmers used homegrown seed. This has led to heavy pesticide loads that poison people, water and fauna -- including insects that prey on cotton pests, deepening the treadmill cycle. Pesticides for cotton consume more than half of India's massive hard currency pesticide bill. Lint quality has been generally low, yields unstable. There are insecure returns for average cultivators. Transgenic [Bt] cotton has spread rapidly in the last two years in the region, evading national regulatory authorities and making India's bio-safety regime mandated by the Cartegena Protocol a subject of ridicule.

The problem is being acknowledged at the highest levels. "The nation is facing a serious agriculture crisis," admitted the Union Minister for Agriculture, Sharad Pawar, at a press conference in Nagpur in October 2005. "If your investments in agriculture fall, what else would you expect?" he remarked in a rare admission to the government's failure in addressing the "grave problem". But Pawar categorically denied any global links to the national crisis, though as a sugar baron he knows just as well that the rules of the game have changed. Policy decisions are now taken in international trade summits and not in the Parliaments.

Connecting the dots

For instance, two years ago, many developing countries cheered a WTO ruling declaring US agricultural subsidies illegal. Indigent farmers in India will never know the difference though. The WTO ruled that billions of dollars in US subsidies to cotton farmers were illegal. In the post WTO era, ever since agriculture was opened up to "free" global trade, world prices of cotton have witnessed a sharp and steady decline. Despite the avowal by developed nations, the post WTO era has not seen reductions in subsidies for farmers of rich developed countries like the U.S. or in the European Union. At the same time, the little protection that the farmers of developing nations have had are gone. Import duty on cotton in India, for instance, stands at a meager 10%. Even that import duty could be waived if the importer promises to export the yarn in return. Tens of textile mills are taking the advantage of this leeway. Also regulations on inputs and seeds have been long withdrawn.

Notes Devinder Sharma, a policy analyst: "A complicated and veiled system of tariffs allows western countries to protect their tiny farming populations while millions of farmers in developing countries are swamped under a tide of cheap imports." While cotton prices have declined by more than 60 percent since 1995, U.S. subsidies to its barely 25,000 cotton farmers reached 3.9 billion dollars in 2001-02, double the level of subsidies in 1992. Interestingly, the value of subsidies provided by American taxpayers to the cotton barons of Texas and elsewhere in 2001 exceeded the market value of cotton output by 30 per cent.

To put this figure into perspective, as an Oxfam report puts it, that subsidy was nearly twice the total U.S. foreign aid given to sub-Saharan Africa. It is also more than the combined GDP of Benin, Burkina Faso and Chad, the main cotton producing countries of the sub-Saharan Africa. India too is among the countries worst hit by the rising U.S. subsidies for its own farmers and lifting up of whatever little protection Indian farmers enjoyed. There is no study on the losses India suffered in terms of export earnings due to the depressed world cotton prices.

But in one sample, Oxfam estimates that sub-Saharan African countries lost $305 million due to US subsidies in crop year 2001. There is also dramatic fallout in that the subsidies deepen the poverty in the developing world. An International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report in 2005 focused on Benin indicates that a 40% reduction in farm-level cotton prices leads to a 21% reduction in income for cotton farmers and results in an increase in rural poverty of 6-7 per cent.

It isn't just subsidies at static levels of cotton production. In the U.S., cotton production has also risen, and reached historic highs in recent years. However, U.S.' own demand for cotton has slumped, and exports have surged. In crop year 2003, the USA exported 76 per cent of its cotton production and took a 41 per cent share of world exports. These drastic increases could not have been accomplished without government support. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, without subsidies the average US cotton farmer would have lost $871 for each acre planted with cotton over the past six years. All told, between crop years 1998 and 2002, the USA spent $14.8 billion on cotton subsidies. This is virtually the same as the total value of cotton produced during that time—$21.6 billion. Harvesting government subsidies is nearly as lucrative as growing cotton there. Without subsidies, most U.S. cotton production would not be economical.

From a share of 18.16% in 1998-99, America's share in world exports jumped to 38.96% in 2002-03. Indian cotton imports rose sharply in the same period, crushing the local cultivators. In 2004-05, global prices were around 50 cents per pound, the seventh year in succession that they were below the long-term average of 72 cents per pound. Even the most efficient producers are now operating at a loss, unable to cover the costs of production. Marketing projections by the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) suggest that prices will remain "chronically depressed in the foreseeable future". Forecasts point to a modest recovery, but prices look likely to remain at 50-60 cents per pound until 2015 if present conditions continue. Estimates by the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), using its World Textile Demand Model, indicate that the withdrawal of American cotton subsidies would raise cotton prices by 11 cents per pound, or by 26 per cent.

But farmers in developing countries cannot get a realistic price for their cotton because the subsidies in U.S. help their farmers grow surplus cotton, and that surplus crushes the cultivators in a country like India.

Concurrently, indebtedness has grown among cotton farmers of Vidarbha during these years and there has also been a spurt in the suicides. Largely also because the state governments and the Centre have steadily lifted whatever little protection marginal farmers had. In addition, folding up of rural credit, the state government-run monopoly procurement mess, rising input costs and a total shift from food crops to cash crops like cotton and soybean belted the farmers. All this has added to the crisis.

Today, with suicides by farmers breaching their previous high every passing day, the unending misery of Vidarbha's countryside may be matching that of the great depression of the 1930-40s. Or that of the 1870s and 1880s when suicides rose sharply.

A society in agony

The devastation wrought by the crisis on the poor farm families is beyond one's apprehension. In Amravati, a 19-year-old diligent girl committed suicide. Why? Because – as she wrote in a neat handwriting in the suicide note left by her – if it weren't her, it would, most certainly, be her father. The girl knew she was attaining a marriageable age, and her parents were already reeling under tension. With two more sisters behind her, she left the world in her teens.

Not far from that village, in one of Yavatmal's non-descript villages, the villagers raised a corpus from their own collections to cremate a farmer who took his own life by consuming pesticide to put an end to an endless streak of indebtedness. It was a village funeral, as its Sarpanch put it. The rituals too were performed from the village collections. There was no sign of the government presence there.

Suicides are just one among several sickening processes. Children are dropping out of schools, tens of women are ordained into the world of widowhood left to fend for themselves and their children, hundreds of cattle are sold cheaply to the mushrooming slaughter houses – cotton has never burnt with such vehemence in Vidarbha ever. And its flames are now threatening to engulf the paddy cultivating districts in eastern parts and orange orchids too.

Credit, even if available at low interest rates, can't be repaid. Thousands of farmers don't get returns to enable them repay even the capital sum. But as the things stand today, nearly 75% of Vidarbha farmers don't have access to bank finances – or institutional credit, to put it in the official parlance. They borrow from private sources – relatives, friends, big landlords, or the moneylenders.

Standing by the market

Amidst all this despair, a section of private moneylenders, government officials, traders, food merchants and banks had had a grand feast, an endless supper. Their earnings have burgeoned. Land grabs have soared. Cuts in compensation, bounties in contracts, and exploitation of hapless women – ubiquitous market and its promoters at the ground zero have exploited the situation with impunity.

The past decade of liberalization policies have pushed the peasantry to a point of no return. Ironically, though tragically, the government preferred to stand by the market, not the bullied farmers, all these years. It preferred to announce special packages than to correct the policies. It punished small-time moneylenders than caning the giant loan sharks, who sat sometimes on the treasury benches within the system. It's procurement centres have refused to pay a farmer his little legitimate price but gleefully waived hundreds of crores of rupees on excise and other taxes of the corporate industries. It paid for the teeming Metro's (here, read Mumbai) wasteful extravagance and vulgar extravaganza, but in a tearing hurry withdrew whatever little villages have enjoyed.

As P Sainath, frontline journalist on poverty and agrarian issues puts it in one of his essays: "Seldom has policy been so forcefully implemented as in the 1990s. For ten years, the governments have assaulted the livelihoods and food security of the poor. That security does not lie in mountains of grain but in the millions of jobs and workdays for people." That was in 2003-04 when the NDA government proudly spoke of 50 million tones of surplus grain, even as many starved.

Even the most cotton efficient producers in the U.S. are now operating at a loss, unable to cover the costs of production.

Marketing projections by the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) suggest that prices will remain "chronically depressed in the foreseeable future".

In the current situation, any small natural trigger is enough to do the farmers in. For instance, the Water Resources Regulatory Authority bill passed by the Government of Maharashtra last year. It will place irrigation beyond Vidarbha farmers' reach at once, given that it calls for a steep hike in water taxes – in the range of Rs.8000 per acre, according to the Professor H M Desarda, economist. The law is to come into effect soon. In Vidarbha, irrigation is inching towards 10% today. It has more dams under construction than it has rivers, for the past three decades.

The reasons for the distress therefore are policy-driven. It's not the lack of implementation, but the policies themselves that are at the root of the prevailing crisis, and the crisis-driven distress suicides in the region. It's also not, as some newspapers suggest, a successive spell of drought that has hit the farmers, but a perennial drought of good policies. It's not the lack of reforms but the fast-track reforms that are at the root. Add to it the lopsided 'open market' economy weighed inherently against the marginal farmers. Distress is devouring the region at a much greater pace in the wake of open markets, not otherwise. All this, and the state government's failure to protect the peasantry are taking their toll on the region's agricultural economy, as they do in any other part of the country as well.

Jawandhia remarks, "It is increasingly becoming difficult to farm in an agricultural country like India." It's only ironical that food producers are starving, while the purchasers have stocks beyond their consumption limit.

He's not wrong. Vidarbha may be a crisis hotspot, but suicides by farmers are becoming ubiquitous in the country – Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and elsewhere too, ryots are taking their own lives regularly. And those farm deaths are also a part of the larger crisis tearing apart India's labour-filled rural economy. Like Vidarbha's cotton farmers, Andhra's and Punjab's cotton cultivators, who follow intensive farming techniques, are also falling prey to the volatility of highly rigged cotton prices. Increased production levels have not led to increasing income for the individual farmers. Under former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu's regime in A.P., for instance, that farm suicides breached all previous records, and the migration rate out of the state climbed up. Naidu liberalized and privatised almost everything he could lay his hands on – from water to procurement centers to power, in his pursuit of becoming the country's best CEO of a state.

As noted earlier, rising production costs, declining prices, inaccessible institutional credit, declining rural employment rate, slackness in the off and on-farm activities, a risky and total shift from food crops to cash crops, weaning away of indigenous seed varieties and many more factors are all pushing farmers to brink. Of course, particular local spirals - like the state owned cotton marketing federation's breakdown in Maharahstra -- have fueled the crisis as well. Says Sainath: "There are global factors, there are local factors. This agrarian crisis has both the features." But, undoubtedly, lopsided global trade is accelerating the farm crisis, of which suicides are becoming the most visible record.

In sum, in Vidarbha's dusty countryside – it's for everyone to see – festivals are a passé. The village bonds are crumbling. Farmers' confidence lays shattered, resilience stands tested and patience is pushed to the brim. There's no ray of hope, no light. The polity has lost the focus. So has the ebullient media industry.

Not that this is an exception. As Jawandhia puts it: "This is not the beginning, this isn't the end." Vidarbha is just one of the broken pearls. It is now happening elsewhere in the agrarian country of ours.