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Why dozens of Indian farmers are killing themselves

LUCKNOW, India -- April is usually a time of celebration for millions of farmers across northern India. The winter wheat crop is ready to be harvested, and there's money to clear past debts and plan future planting.

This year, however, unseasonal rain and hailstorms in March destroyed millions of acres of farmland in the region, causing heartache for debt-ridden farmers, and leading dozens to kill themselves.

In Uttar Pradesh alone, more than three dozen farmers have taken their own lives, according to the state's government. The largely agrarian state - India's most populous, with 210 million people - has declared a state of emergency to seek funds from the federal government to compensate farmers.

"Normally this time of the year, we are a happy lot. Our granary is full and we clear all our dues by selling our produce," said Vinod Kumar, an Uttar Pradesh farmer. "This year we lost everything. We are left with nothing. Neither food for us nor fodder for animals."

The rain-stricken swath of northern India - across Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana states, and into villages on the outskirts of New Delhi - is largely the breadbasket of the country, producing most of India's wheat. The damage has been widespread, the effects sometimes devastating.

The rains, and the strong winds that accompanied it, were so unexpected that farmland was often flooded within hours. Stalks of wheat that were nearly ready for harvest were either submerged under water or flattened by the wind. Farmland growing potatoes and onions, both staples in the Indian diet, were also damaged.

Nearly 70 percent of Indians still live in villages, and farm income is crucial to the economy. But the average farmer still lives and earns from season to season.

With dreams of a good harvest, most small- and medium-scale farmers borrow money from local lenders, often at exorbitant interest rates, to buy seed and fertilizer and hire tractors to plow the fields.

Indian farmer Rajvir Singh shows sugarcane crop damaged by unseasonal rains, in Sisola Khurd village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh
Indian farmer Rajvir Singh shows sugarcane crop damaged by unseasonal rains, in Sisola Khurd village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, March 24, 2015. REUTERS

At best, a poor harvest can mean that a farmer and his family must carefully ration their food. At worst, it can mean debt so crushing that suicide seems the only way out.

The reasons for suicides among Indian farmers vary from region to region. But since the majority of the farmers are small or medium scale, most are highly sensitive to the vagaries of the weather.

So it was with Mohammad Sabir of Wazirpur village in Uttar Pradesh. He was so shocked to see the destruction of his wheat fields that he hanged himself from a mango tree on his farm in early April.

"A calamity has struck Uttar Pradesh," the state's chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, said in a recent statement. He said rain had destroyed crops in 44 districts, affecting 750,000 farmers.

Uttar Pradesh's chief secretary, Alok Ranjan, said 41 farmers in the state had killed themselves in the last two weeks. Ironically, most were from water-starved areas and had borrowed money to pay for electric pumps to irrigate their fields, giving them wheat that was nearly ripe. So when the rains finally came to their parched land, they brought more destruction than relief, since rain will cause almost-ripe wheat to rot.

Ranjan said the state government had set aside 5 billion rupees ($81 million) to compensate farmers for their losses. It also has asked the federal government to assist with another 10 billion rupees.

In Punjab, more than 850,000 acres of farmland, growing mostly wheat but also vegetables, have been impacted by the weather. Haryana, where at least three farmers' suicides have been reported, has had hundreds of thousands of acres of ready-to-harvest crops destroyed.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the agriculture ministry to quickly allocate funds for farmers from the National Disaster Relief Fund. The agriculture ministry has asked states where potato and onion crops have been damaged to monitor prices to keep them from spiraling.

But even as the state governments attempt to control the damage faced by the farmers, the amount of compensation has angered many, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, where some received an initial payment of less than a dollar per acre.

"Is this the compensation? It is just a joke," said Ram Lakhan Chaudhry, a farmer in Uttar Pradesh's Barabanki village.

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