Farm suicides, anger haunt Indian villages that Modi promised hope

The paradox of Maharashtra, the country’s richest state where Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power locally for most of the past decade, also serving as the nerve centre of the country’s agrarian crisis, has only deepened over the past decade.

Now, as India’s national election rolls on, the anger over failed promises is visible in farm pockets across the region – parts of which vote on Friday, April 26.

Yavatmal, India – Like everyone else around him, Vithal Rathod was excited for what the future held for him and their village when Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister on May 26, 2014.

Just two months earlier, on March 20 that year, Modi had picked the 45-year-old farmer’s village of Dabhadi from the more than 15,500 villages in the Vidarbha region of the western Indian state of Maharashtra to launch his outreach to the country’s farmers. The visit was important for Modi, eyeing the PM’s chair at the time, to be able to reach out to the 65 percent of India’s population that is engaged in agriculture.

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During his visit to Dabhadi, Modi had sipped tea with farmers like Rathod, visited farms in the village and promised an end to the death and despair that had long haunted the predominantly rural, impoverished part of Maharashtra state. A lack of adequate irrigation, erratic weather patterns and fluctuating global prices for cotton – the principal crop grown there – meant that farmers suffered repeated losses and found themselves in debt. The resulting frustration drove more than 9,000 farmers to take their own lives between 2001 and 2014.

Modi came and said what the farmers wanted to hear. “Your pain, your struggle and your troubles will force me to do something good,” he told Rathod and the thousands who had gathered to hear him. “I want to tie myself to this promise, I want to talk to experts and find such solutions that no poor farmer has to kill himself,” he said.

Rathod went back home, reassured, to his family of five and tried to put his recurring farm losses behind him. He had a one-hectare (2.5-acre) farm, not far from where Modi spoke.

But by the following year, Rathod’s losses grew and his optimism shrank. In 2015, Rathod became a statistic: he hanged himself to death from the ceiling of his home, just off the main road that leads to Dabhadi village, following another year of crop losses, making his 120,000 rupee debt ($1,440) insurmountable.

Rathod was not alone in feeling let down. Ten years after Modi’s visit, his promise seems to have crumbled – even as India’s prime minister once again campaigns for reelection, this time for a third stint in office.

Data obtained by this correspondent shows the number of farmer suicides in the region has grown in the decade that Modi has been in power, compared with the preceding 10 years when the now-in-opposition Congress party ruled the country.

Between January 2004 and December 2014, 9,671 farmers died by suicide. That number rose to 10,122 for the period from January 2015 to December 2023, according to information collected from the Amravati Divisional Commissionerate in Vidarbha, which oversees the administration of five of the country’s districts worst affected by suicides: Amravati, Yavatmal, Buldhana, Akola and Washim. The actual number of farm suicides in the region under Modi is even higher – since the PM came to power in May 2014.

On average, between 2004 and 2014, each year would see this region record an average of 879 suicide deaths by farmers. Since 2015, that number has risen to 1,125 suicides each year, on average – or three farmers taking their lives every day.

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