India acts over suicide crisis on farms

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The Independent Online

In an acknowledgement that the suicide level in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh has reached crisis level, India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, flew in on a special visit yesterday to pledge new help for the families of farmers who have killed themselves.

Nearly 3,000 farmers have taken their lives in Andhra Pradesh over the past six years.

Mr Singh announced a federal compensation package of 50,000 rupees (£600) for every family in which a farmer had committed suicide. The announcement came just a week before his government's first budget, which is expected to include more assistance for India's rural poor.

"I know our farmer brothers are under the burden of debts and many have committed suicide because of this," Mr Singh told villagers from Somayjulapalle, a village where 53 farmers killed themselves in the past six years. "We will try to give a job to one member of each family [where a farmer had committed suicide] and I will personally monitor this." He also promised an irrigation project and improvements to the primary school, roads and drains.

By choosing Andhra Pradesh for his first significant trip outside Delhi since becoming Prime Minister in May, Mr Singh was making a clear statement about the direction his government will take. India has been haunted in recent weeks by newspaper pictures of farmers who had hanged themselves.

The unprecedented rate of suicide has been driven by a series of droughts and local lenders charging exorbitant rates for farmers to borrow money. Desperate to find water, many borrowed money to drill new wells, only to find they dried up as well, leaving the farmer with no way to repay the debt. Many decided the only way out was suicide. Some chose to hang themselves. Others drank pesticide.

The story of Andhra Pradesh is the story of how the rural poor have missed out on an economic boom that has seen India's economy grow at the second fastest rate in the world, after China. On Wednesday the Indian government announced that the economy grew by an impressive 8.2 per cent in the year ending 31 March - the fastest growth rate in 15 years.

The previous government of Atal Behari Vajpayee campaigned on the economic boom. In Andhra Pradesh, it was Mr Vajpayee's local ally, Chandrababu Naidu, who bore the brunt of the electorate's discontent. Mr Naidu was the darling of the World Bank and international IT corporations. As chief minister of the state, he enticed Microsoft and Dell to its capital, Hyderabad, and won £1.2bn of cheap loans from the World Bank, and £67m from Britain's Department for International Development.

Some have criticised the fact that the compensation packages are only available to families where there has already been a suicide, suggesting that it encourages farmers in crippling debt to commit suicide so their families can receive the packages and pay off the debt.

But the new Congress Chief Minister of the state, Y S Rajashekhar Reddy, has said the main blame for the crisis lies with the crippling interest rates farmers are charged.