Drowning the Grain

8. Sep 2014

Loans with usurious interest rates and aggressive marketing of fertilizer and pesticides imprisons Indians rice farmers in a debt spiral. Those who embarked upon organic rice farming say that the yields are not lower.

Poison is literally surrounding him. As the 25- year-old farmer walks quietly through his field, he sprays toxic pesticides on this years crop of Basmati rice. No gloves or even a mask to cover his skin from the poisonous liquid.

We are in Punjab, India, part of the ‘Basmati Belt’ where the majority of the world’s Basmati rice is produced every year and exported to the Middle East and Europe or consumed in India.

Every year during rice season, thousands of liters of pesticides, fungicides and fertilizer are sold to poor farmers, fighting to build a business and save enough money to survive a poor harvest.

Behind cryptic titles like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (which is forbidden in Europe in accordance with the EU pesticide database but however still manufactured in India for malaria control), Lindane and Endosulfan lies the fact, that these insecticides and pesticides are known to affect the nervous system, liver and kidneys, and may be carcinogens. And they are only a few of many heavily used chemicals in Indian rice production.

Aggressive marketing from agribusiness market leaders like Monsanto and Syngenta is persuading the farmers to spend hundreds of indian rupees on fertilizer and pesticides. If the farmers can’t afford to buy the products, the companies offer them loans with high interests.

Eventually, many farmers find themselves trapped in a vicious circle, digging themselves deeper into debt.

Suicide rate in India is among the highest in the world, and according to Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, indebtedness is a major and proximate cause of farmer suicides in India. Many farmers, ironically, take their lives by ingesting the very pesticide they went into debt to purchase.

Despite this, Kulvindar Singh is still spraying his field of rice in the hope of getting richer. The pursuit of a higher yield from this year’s harvest is ongoing. But he has a plan B. We’ll get back to him.

The Power of Promotion

From a small shop in the city of Jaitu, pesticide trader and rice commissioner, Parveen Gayal, is successfully selling loads of fertilizer, pesticides and fungicides. He explains how agribusiness companies promote their products in offices like his, on fairs and through on-the-field-marketing.

Parveen Gayal has been on several incentive trips paid for by the companies whose products he is selling, due to great sales results. He is quite aware of the key to his own success in selling expensive agro products to poor farmers.

“I am like the reserve bank of India”, he says and explains how this is a part of his business; lending money with interests to the farmers, so they can buy his products – with the aim of improving their harvest. Should the crops fail, and the farmers not be able to pay back their loan, they can work off the money, he says.

When labour is demanded as a means for repayment of a loan, a person becomes a bonded labourer, which is prohibited by Indian law. It doesn’t seem to interfere with Parveen Gayals business model though.

As we speak, a farmer comes into the shop to buy ‘something against fungus’. Parveen Gayal hands the farmer two small bottles, one with a yellow triangle for ‘poison’ and one with a blue triangle for ‘danger’.

“Farmers touch all kinds of dirt and then eat with those same hands, so for them it doesn’t matter”, he says, as an explanation to why he didn’t inform about safety measures like masks or gloves.

Forced and bonded labour in India

Article 23 of the Indian Constitution forbids the use of forced labour,and bonded labour is specifically outlawed under both the 1976 Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act and the 1989 Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act..

A poisonous cocktail

Most of the farmers can not read the warnings on the bottles, because they are illiterate, says Anita Rana from the Janhit Foundation, an organization that works with marginalized communities to improve environmental conditions and human rights.

“Pesticides, fungicides, insecticides are all used together in conventional Basmati production and it is a poisonous cocktail leading to all sorts of damage; neurological, respiratory system, skin diseases or deformations, and they are especially affecting pregnant women and infants”, she explains.

There are certain areas, like Kerala in the South and Punjab, which are especially affected. In Punjab, cancer rates are way above national average (90 cancer patients out of 100.000 inhabitants opposed a national average of 80 patients out of 100.000 inhabitants), according to government statistics. “The ‘cancer train’ from Bathinda to Bikaner has become famous for transporting patients to affordable treatment”, Anita Rana says.

The heavy use of toxic chemicals is not only affecting the health of farmers, but also the environment. In India, a country that faces a major water crisis, yet has the world’s largest rice cultivated area, 80 pecent of the surface water is utilized for agriculture, according to WWF.

Traditional farming needs 3,000 to 5,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of rice, which makes rice one of the “thirstiest crops” alongside cotton, sugar cane and wheat.

“This region has been heavily affected by water contamination, not only from basmati production, but also by textile, agrochemical and pharmaceutical industries”, Anita Rana says.

“And of course, this level of chemical use leaves residues in the rice, soil and water, but testing is marginal or non-existent”.

Rice is big business

Rice shipments from India, the world’s largest producer after China, will probably expand to a record as buyers from Iran to Saudi Arabia boost purchases of aromatic basmati grain used in biryani and pilaf dishes.

Thousands of small scale farmers in India are contributing to the massive export, but few of them are gaining enough to support their families, while at the same time saving enough money for a bad harvest season.

If one harvest turns bad, money from the sale of the crop might not cover the costs of the inputs or the suffice to pay the interests on loans. Often, the only way out is to loan more money, which leads into greater debt.

Economic reforms and the opening of Indian agriculture to the global market over the past two decades have increased costs, while reducing yields and profits for many farmers, to the point of great financial and emotional distress, says a report from Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (NYC).

This is one of the reasons, why suicide death rates in India are among the highest in the world.

According to a study from the American medical journal, The Lancet, public health interventions such as restrictions in access to pesticides might prevent many suicide deaths in India.

Going back to organic

On six acres of rice fields in Punjab, basmati farmer Kulvindar Singh, has come up with a plan B. Burdened by the high prices of spraying pesticides, insecticides and fertilizer for 2500 INR on each acre, this year, he has decided to grow organic rice on one acre. Will he grow less rice?

Other farmers are doing similar experiments. Taluar Singh has 19 acres, and within 20 days, one acre will provide him his first organic rice harvest. If it goes well, he will expand the area with organic farming to five acres.

Kulvindar Singh used 2500 INR per acre on chemicals, and he uses only 500 IND on his organic acre. And it is much less work, since spraying the field is very time consuming. So far, there have been no problems with pests.

“I am very happy with the results”, he says, “I’ve had much less work than all the seasons before, and I have reduced the input”.

Taluar Singh has spent 10.000 INR on pesticides, money he lent, and he is selling through a commission agent. All say, the yield is not lower. They have plans to enlarge the organic area next year.