More than 17,368 Indian farmers killed themselves in 2009, the worst figure for farm suicides in six years, data from the National Crime Records Bureau indicate.
The suicides increased by 1,172 over the 2008 count of 16,196, bringing the total farm suicides since 1997 to 216,500.
"Poverty has assaulted rural India," journalist Palagummi Sainath, an expert on rural poverty in India, told Britain's The Independent newspaper. "Farmers who used to be able to send their children to college now can't send them to school."
Nearly all of the bereaved families of those who have committed suicide, he said, had problems with debts and land loss due to failing crops.
While the causes of poverty are complex, Sainath points to the long-term collapse of markets for farmers' produce. The price of cotton, for example, is 1-12th of the amount it was 30 years ago, in real terms. About half of the suicides are occurring in the four states of the country's Cotton Belt.
Vandana Shiva, a scientist-turned-activist, notes that the problem of farmer suicides started in 1997 when the Indian government removed cotton subsidies and genetically modified varieties of cotton were also introduced.
"Every suicide can be linked to Monsanto," Shiva told The Independent, saying that the biotech firm's modified Bt Cotton caused crop failure and poverty because it requires the use of pesticide and fertilizers.
India's increasingly erratic climate is taking a toll on Indian farmers as well.
In the past, farmers could prepare for droughts when they came every four years or so. Rajasthan, in northwestern India, only emerged from a 10-year drought this summer. And monsoons, which used to arrive once a year, have failed three times in the last 10 years across much of the country.
M.S. Swaminathan, chairman of the National Commission on Farmers, has called for a restructuring of the country's policies to help agriculture, saying the sector is entering a state of serious crisis, The Hindu newspaper reports.
Noting that 45 percent farmers in a national survey said they want to quit farming, Swaminathan said farming has become nonviable.
"Unless we revitalize farming and make our farmers enthusiastic, it is difficult to feed 1 billion people and 1 billion farm animals. It is going to be a difficult period."
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