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Vidarbha Farmers' Suicides Inspire Highway Blockade Across India

NAGPUR, Maharashtra, India, October 3, 2007 (ENS) - To publicize the demands of thousands of Vidarbha cotton farmers who have committed suicide, a unique protest rally was held Tuesday in honor of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, who was born on October 2, 1869.

The rally kicked off a national highway blockade of non-violent resistance that will start October 11 and last indefinitely to press the main demand of the Vidarbha cotton growers - to obtain higher prices for their cotton.

More than 10,000 cotton farmers of the Vidarbha region participated in the rally organized at Pandharkawada in the Yavatmal District, which is the epicenter of farm suicides in the region, said Kishor Tiwari, president of the activist group Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samit, or Peoples' Protest Forum.

Thousands of farmers rallied to protest spiralling costs and sinking incomes. (Photo courtesy Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti)
The protest rally was presided over by senior farm activist Vijay Jawandhia. He was joined by activists and political workers of all parties who are praying to the Indian government to "Bring Back Mahatma Gandhiji." They are demanding that the central government bring back Gandhian policies of truth and non-violence to save Vidarbha farmers.

There were 110 suicides committed in August by Vidarbha farmers unable to overcome wrenching poverty or repay their debts.

Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti reports that more than 800 farmers have taken their lives since January 2007 in Maharashtra state.

Since June 2005, more than 5,000 desperate farmers have killed themselves across India, leaving their wives and children in even worse financial situations than when they were alive.

"Vidarbha was once a white gold mine. We gave the world the best soft cotton. Our cotton was liked by Europeans because it was cheap and shirts made from our cotton kept them warm," Tiwari said.

A Vidarbha farmer (Photo by Sanjib Ganguly)
Tiwari explains that while the cost of healthcare, education and food have all gone up, farmers' earnings are sinking into the negative zone. He cites a government survey showing that a Vidarbha cotton farmer earns minus 400 rupees. In other words, said Tiwari, "He is not earning anything."

At the root of the thousands of suicides among Vidarbha cotton farmers is a credit squeeze by legitimate banks, which forces them to depend on illegal money-lenders, while they must use expensive genetically modified seeds, pesticides and fertilizers.

The central government has failed to provide a minimum support price for cotton farmers that is equal to the cost of production.

The combination of all these factors is driving farmers over the brink.

Janwandhia urged United Progressive Alliance, UPA, convener Smt. Sonia Gandhi to restore the advance bonus to cotton farmers and give a price of rs.2700 per quintal as promised in the UPA manifesto.

The United Progressive Alliance is the present ruling coalition of political parties of the government of India. The UPA was formed soon after the 2004 general elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's parliament. The coalition is dominated by the Indian National Congress whose president Sonia Gandhi is its chairperson.

Sonia Gandhi heads India's ruling United Progressive Alliance. (Photo courtesy Sonia Gandhi)
An Italian-born Indian politician, Sonia Gandhi is the widow of former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, who is not a blood relation of Mahatma Gandhi despite his name.

Janwandhia said, "We are forced to come on the street in order to stop the ongoing farm suicide spiral in Vidarbha as the government is not attending to the main demand of cotton growers."

"The time has come for central government intervention to stop this mass genocide as millions of Vidarbha farmers are in deep distress, Tiwari told the farmers at the rally.

Tiwari said, "Most of the political parties are shedding crocodile tears over the insult to the cotton farmers but they are not talking about finding solutions to redress the hardships of the Vidarbha farmers."

"Presently, most of the farmers who are committing suicides are victims of poverty and hunger that has resulted after the economic collapse in the Vidarbha region due to the ongoing agrarian crisis," said Tiwari.

"We demand urgent steps to provide food security and health care facilities to these dying farmers before making arguments over farm suicides being agrarian or non-agrarian," he said.

"Now the time has come to give complete loan waivers and price protection on all agriculture produce from free trade in the World Trade Organization era to Vidarbha's dying farmers," Tiwari declared.

To mark Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, thousands of concerned Indians and world citizens gathered in candlelight vigils in more than 50 locations in the United States, India and other countries.

Hundreds of Vidarbha farm suicide widows joined the worldwide candlelight vigil Tuesday to support the worldwide program of the Association for India's Development, AID, a volunteer movement based in the United States and India.

Participants sought to bring urgency and immediate attention to the crisis facing India's agricultural community of 600 million people, nearly double the size of the U.S. population.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the vigil was held at the Lytton Plaza in downtown Palo Alto. About 40 individuals and organizations from around the Bay Area participated in the solidarity event.

AID volunteer Samantika Subramaniam told the gathering, "The expensive and patented genetically engineered seeds are not a good fit for India. These have worked well, so far, in well irrigated areas in Gujarat, but have not been effective in rain-fed areas like the ones at Vidarbha, and this calls for a government policy change towards awareness and marketing of such seeds."

Genetically modified Bollgard cotton from Monsanto (Photo courtesy Monsanto)
Participants and passersby who were interested in understanding the crisis signed a petition containing a set of demands to be presented to the government of India calling for immediate action to help the cotton farmers of Vidarbha.

The petition calls for a guaranteed minimum support price with a margin of profit for the farming household that ensures "a decent and dignified life throughout the year for the family."

The petition asks that an agriculture insurance commission be established to offer low premiums to small farmers as recommended by the Prime Minister's Council on Trade and Industry.

The petition also requests a waiver of small bank loans and/or grants to pay off loan liabilities and an increase of available credit. It seeks to ensure that all farmers, including tenant farmers, are covered by institutional credit facilities.

The petition calls for the government to provide training to farmers who wish to move away from mono-cropping to multi-crop, sustainable agriculture, as this will increase food and livelihood security. It also asks for strict regulation of the seed, pesticide and fertilizer industries.

Finally the petition asks that the government set up a committee, with proper representation from farmers and people's groups, to analyze the current situation and implementation of government relief packages in the suicide-prone region and make public the real numbers of farmers' suicides.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.



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