KOCHI, INDIA- On the last night of his life, the farmer walked into his dusty fields, choked down pesticide and waited to die.
He owed more than $1,000 to banks and moneylenders and he had told his wife that if the cotton harvest was bad this year, he would kill himself.
Pandurang Chindu Surpam left the near-barren fields he worked with his sons to share a last meal with his family. Hours later, he died. He was 45.
Crushed by debts most Westerners would deem inconsequential, farmers like Surpam killed themselves at a rate of 48 a day between 2002 and 2006 - more than 17,500 a year, according to experts who have analyzed government statistics. At least 160,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997, said K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
The epidemic dates to the 1990s, and is generally attributed to a toxic blend of slashed subsidies, tougher global competition, drought, predatory moneylenders and expensive genetically modified seeds.
"It's one of the largest public health disasters to hit India since independence," said professor Charles Nuckols of Brigham Young University, an anthropologist who has studied Indian village life for decades.
In northern India, authorities have gone so far as to ban a type of cheap hair dye because it was being drunk to induce death by kidney failure.
But it is India's cotton belt, a land of searing temperatures and backbreaking work, that has been hit hardest by the suicides.
In rural Maharashtra state, farmers say things have never been harder. Owing more than they earn, these steadiest of workers have become gamblers of the highest stakes, betting their land - and their lives - on one more good crop.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has visited some of the widows, and the 2008 budget offers some debt relief...
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