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India rights watchdog sounds alarm over farmer suicides

By AFP
media An Indian farmer from Tamil Nadu state arranges human skulls, said to belong to farmers who had committed suicide, during a protest in New Delhi on August 1, 2017 AFP/File

India's rights watchdog has sounded the alarm over the suicide of hundreds of farmers in the western state of Maharashtra in recent months, calling for an official response.

Despite state aid, Indian agriculture is in a dire state due to drought, failed crops, poor infrastructure and low prices for produce, but Maharashtra is particularly badly hit.

The state government there said last weekend that 639 farmers committed suicide between March and May, an average of seven every day. In recent years the state has seen protests by farmers, sometimes turning violent.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on Monday told the federal and state governments to report back in a month over the crisis and to spell out what government welfare schemes are available.

"Farmer suicides in such large numbers is a serious matter as it involves the right to life of the victims. Their families also come under tremendous pressure due to sudden demise of an earning member," the NHRC said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, likely to seek re-election next year, has promised to double the income of farmers by 2022 and launched a $1.3-billion insurance scheme to protect millions of them.

But Maharashtra Revenue Minister Chandrakant Patil told the state assembly Saturday that only 174 farmers have been given compensation, with 122 cases rejected and 329 under review.

Opponents of the government say more than 13,000 farmers have killed themselves in the western state since Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014 both in Maharashtra and at federal level.

Across the whole of India, 13,000 farmer suicides have been recorded every year since 2013, according to government figures.

Mostly this is due to crops failing and inability to repay high-interest loans from private lenders, some of which resort to violence to get their money back.

A single crop failure can result in huge debts for farmers and leave them devastated as banks often deny future loans.

India lacks a robust irrigation system and instead relies on annual monsoon rains to irrigate millions of acres of farmland.

Agriculture contributes 17 percent to GDP, with some 265 million farmers or agricultural workers in India.

 
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