- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

BOMBAY — Five successive years of drought and crop failure had all but ruined small farmer Nagappa. The village moneylender warned of “serious consequences” if he didn’t start paying back the 30,000 rupees ($665) he had borrowed some years earlier to sow his cotton field.

Crop failure and mounting debts had led to about 450 suicides by farmers in his district of Anantapur in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh since 2000, Nagappa knew. He did not lose heart.

After praying at the local temple, he left his wife and three children in the village last year and went to the nearby city of Vijaywada to work as a porter at the railway station.

Nagappa’s life remained hard. Desperate to earn more, he worked harder and skimped on expenses by eating just once a day and sleeping on the railway platform. He sent his wife about 2,500 rupees ($60) each month, which was barely enough to feed her and the children after she paid the moneylender 1,500 rupees ($36).

But a message from his wife last month brought him back to his village, where he met with agricultural development officials. Now Nagappa, 35, is in a buoyant mood: He is among poverty-stricken small farmers selected by the state government for migration to East Africa to set up cooperative farms.

“The god has smiled on me at last. My prayer has been answered. I am lucky that I never despaired and committed suicide. I have been told by the officials that in about four months, I can take the flight for Africa. It seems too long a wait,” Nagappa said.

Senior Andhra Pradesh officials are currently touring East Africa, where some governments are ready to welcome Indian farmers to till vacant fertile lands.

“Kenya and Uganda have already expressed eagerness to receive Indian farmers. Tanzania is also likely give a positive response by next week,” said a member of the Indian team that visited Nairobi.

“They know that our skilled, drought-hardy and innovative farmers can contribute to the prosperity of those countries, and the Africans can learn and benefit from the skills of the Indians.”

Kenya’s ambassador to India, Mutuma Kathurima, said last week after meeting in Hyderabad with the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh that his country has more than 125,000 acres of vacant arable land that could be leased to Indian farmers.

“We have the fertile land and abundant water. Only 5 percent of the land there is cultivated. What we need is the ‘green revolution’ experience of Indian farmers,” said High Commissioner Kathurima.

The Andhra Pradesh government is enthusiastic about the project, which is expected to bring hope to the lives of more than half a million poverty-stricken farm families in the drought-prone west of the state.

“Our farmers have been suffering from drought while these African countries have excellent infrastructure and land, but do not have people to farm it,” said Raghuveera Reddy, the state’s agricultural minister.

“This is a business opportunity for our farmers, who are well-versed in tropical and arid-area farming.”

Continuous drought since 1998 has severely affected Andhra Pradesh, where 90 percent of the state’s 12 million farmers till small plots and 70 percent of the state’s 78 million people depend on agriculture.

Repeated crop failures have pushed thousands of the state’s small and marginal farmers into increasing debt, leading 3,500 of them to commit suicide in the past six years.

Analysts say the rash of suicides is rooted in the state’s neglect of the agriculture sector. V. Hanumantha Rao, an economist, said lack of irrigation facilities and institutional loans to farmers, and their consequent dependence on private moneylenders, has led to the worsening situation.

Activists say neglect of the farm sector is nationwide, and this is why suicides by farmers have been reported from most of India’s 25 states and seven union territories over the past five years. Most of the suicides were blamed on mounting debts and crop failure from drought.

Agriculture — which supports two-thirds of India’s 1.06 billion people — generates only one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. Over the past five years, while the service sector has grown an average of 8 percent a year, agriculture has grown just 2 percent a year.

Dr. P. Raghurami Reddy, a psychiatrist, believes some farmers could be taking their lives to draw attention to their families’ plight. “Suicide by one farmer inspires others to do the same,” he said.

According to a survey by a newspaper in Andhra Pradesh, 87 percent of the farmers who committed suicide in the first six months of this year had taken loans from private moneylenders. The interest rates in most cases ranged between 36 and 60 percent annually. In some remote villages, annual interest rates for private loans were 120 percent.

The Telugu Desam Party of Andhra Pradesh was swept from power in state elections last May because of widespread anger over mounting suicides and the state government’s indifference toward subsistence farmers.

But despite announcement of relief measures by the state’s new Congress government, including free electricity and a relief package to the families of farmers who committed suicide, farmers are still killing themselves.

Since June, 500 farmers have committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh according to official figures, but the unofficial toll stands at 1,100.

In the initial phase of the state government’s African relocation plan, 1,000 Andhra Pradesh farmers are to set up cooperative farms on 50,000 acres of Kenyan land leased for 99 years to grow cash crops like tobacco, sugar cane, cotton, millet, peanuts, bananas and flowers.

C. Chandrasekhar Reddy, Andhra Pradesh state adviser on foreign investments and human resources outsourcing, who is playing a key role in the Africa migration project, said the Indian state would also provide technical support to the cooperative farms.

“Andhra [Pradesh] government would pay for the travel and cost of rehabilitation of the farmers in Africa. Farmers would be allowed to send their earnings to families in India without any hindrance,” Mr. Reddy said.

About 500 of the state’s farmers have already accepted the Africa relocation offer, and many more are expected to line up for migration in coming weeks.

However, opposition leaders in Andhra Pradesh are not enthusiastic about the project.

Sending Indian farmers to Africa “cannot be a long-term solution to the agricultural crisis that haunts the state. The government should try to find a solution within the state. The whole scheme looks escapist and fanciful,” said one Telugu Desam leader.

“It reminds us of those indentured Indian laborers who were sent by the British to work in plantations in Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere.”

Thousands of Indians left drought-prone parts of India in the 19th and 20th centuries for Fiji, Mauritius, Caribbean islands, Suriname in South America and East Africa, settling there and creating successful farming and business communities.

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