Thursday, September 6, 2007


The Dying Fields

The Issue

India has increasingly embraced free trade and, since 2002, has had one of the world's fastest growing economies. But only images of this new prosperity have reached the impoverished rural areas where two thirds of India's 1.1 billion people live. Left behind by India's soaring economic boom is Vidarbha, a region of hilly forests in the middle of India. It used to be known as India's cotton belt - but now captures headlines as its suicide belt. In 2006, 1,044 suicides were reported in Vidarbha alone - that's one suicide every eight hours. Vidarbha farmers face a grim reality of crop failures, sinking global cotton prices and crushing debts. Farmers in default at the bank frequently resort to illegal moneylenders who charge up to 100 percent interest. And, the government safety net - that once kept cotton prices closer to the cost of production - has all but disappeared. Under India's new free trade policies, Vidarbha's 3.2 million cotton farmers - most of them small landholders - must compete in a global market that includes formidable, often subsidized rivals, including American cotton farmers.

The Film

At a moment when India is enjoying record economic growth, THE DYING FIELDS turns to Vidarbha's four million cotton farmers who have been left behind, struggling to survive on less than two dollars a day. WIDE ANGLE cameras follow Kishor Tiwari, former businessman turned farmer advocate, whose tiny office in the heart of this cotton-growing region functions as the archive and watchdog for the suicide epidemic; traveling salesmen hawking genetically modified - and costly - cotton seeds that require irrigation that few Vidarbha farmers have; the last rites of a farmer who couldn't pay his debts; a tour of the poison ward at the local hospital, where beds are always filled; and a visit by then-president of India, A.J.P. Abdul Kalam, whom the farming widows beseech for help in convincing the government to forgive their debts.
Fred de Sam Lazaro

The Dying Fields
Director's Notes

June 2007

Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Vidarbha, IndiaIndia is a country where I was born and it's becoming increasingly difficult to recognize many parts of the urban landscape, it is just growing at breakneck speed. But it is not doing that here in rural parts of India. Mahatma Gandhi, the founder of modern India, spent many a day imploring Indians to place themselves in the service of their country and especially of its rural poor. It is from that population in Vidarbha that we've seen an enormous toll of farmer suicides among cotton farmers at a rate of about one every eight hours - three per day in 2006. It is an awfully complex problem, a problem as complex as this country itself, and one that would require some of the best minds to address. India is a technology-driven economy. In the rural areas, the technology has come in very selectively and it's taken a toll on farmers. Indeed, many farmers in this area who farm with traditional methods and live in timeless environments in their villages are suddenly going into towns going into the street to buy genetically modified seeds, fertilizers, pesticides. These all cost money. They used to create their own seeds and grow them. Now they have to buy seeds. What they're finding is that when they do get a good crop - and that's not always guaranteed - but when they do get a good crop, the price that the crop fetches for cotton is just so low that they're unable to make a go of it. That's one reason that there is so much despair in this region. Farmers whom we visited in this film are, in some mind, just a microcosm of a much larger problem of agriculture in this country. The farmers' education is just not commensurate to make them savvy in the globalized trading system. And the government support system in this country is close to non-existent - the central cause of the enormous distress that so many of them have had here in central India, in the cotton farming belt. It is interesting to compare the transformation of the Indian economy and where the rural economy fits in, with what happened in the United States during the 1980s where we saw massive transformation of its rural farm economy. So many farmers went out of business, so many farmers found themselves terribly indebted and so many farmers indeed in Minnesota and Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, committed suicide as well. That's happening in India on an Indian scale. The distress has mostly passed in the U.S. The offspring of those farmers in Nebraska, in the Dakotas, found themselves in Chicago, in New York, on the West coast in an urbanized economy and are thriving. That is not what happened in India. You're seeing an urbanizing country here. However, 70 percent of India's 1.1 billion live in the rural areas and the cities are already full. They do not have the option, for a variety of reasons, of wanting to go to the cities to become accountants, to become janitors. That is not an option for the farmers and their children here in India. It's been an incredible experience to be at ground level watching these farmers toil in over 100 degree temperatures, days on end, as they pray for rain which will bring down the temperatures and hopefully bring up their crop. One of the worries that a filmmaker has when you spend weeks in a region where there is so much death and distress is that you get concerned that it is going to be an awfully morose account of something that happened. So how do you continue, and how you, as an audience, continue to watch it? So it is just impressive to me that we can visit farmers who, despite the fact that they're facing such odds, are pursuing their day-to-day lives. There is an innate optimism that drives them. People break into songs. So much of the trends are going against them, whether it is prices or the weather it's the bankers or the moneylenders. And yet they continue, as vigorously as they ever did, to pursue a livelihood in their optimism. We've shot films in the world's most forbidding regions and never have we seen so much hospitality and warmth among people who've met so much suffering. What these farmers went through here in central India, is just a testament to the human spirit, and their ability to really plod forward as best they can, facing such tall odds.
Commentary on PBS-Wide Angle's The Dying Fields

Commentary on PBS-Wide Angles' The Dying Fields2 September 2007Jonathan Gillis

Wide Angles' "The Dying Fields" definitively brings to light: India's receipt and performance of Free Trade consequently has caused a substantial crisis among Vidarbha's 3.2 million dependent cotton farmers. The cost of seeds, fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides, in addition to the dowries appropriated for weddings, and life's obvious necessities, leave most farmers and their families financially estranged. Furthermore, an outrageous number of these farmers have tragically committed, and will commit suicide; with a major reason being the inability to repay odious debts from "money lenders," financial institutions, and the Indian Government. The danger is lucid; this is a case of an aftershock from globalization, partially attributed to the United States. A striking point of differentia between Free Trade markets conveyed in the film is the United States' subsidization of its cotton farmers; an asset Indian cotton farmer's unreasonably do not have. The novelty of "Bt" seeds is another feature of stress trouncing Vidarbha's virtually agrarian community. The scandalous imposition of these "commercially produced hybrids" is credited largely with interplay between U.S. and Indian chemical companies. A glorified advertising campaign is the gloss.It seems, organic or even traditional seeds would be far less costly and yield much better results for Vidarbha's farmers, yet these alternatives are becoming increasingly threatened. The Indian Government has tried to relieve some of the financial burdens, for example, with "mass communal weddings." As the film shows, this type of government assistance is not altogether effectual. Also in the film, the lobbying efforts, namely that of A.J.P. Abdul Kalam, India's president at the time when "The Dying Fields" was shot, portrayed the segregation, and almost sanctified height, of power the Prime Minister holds as the top policy maker.Globalization needs to be coordinated with more caution and a broader appeal; if capitalist interests become more important than social interests, the situation like the present one in Vidarbha India, is inevitable and possibly irreversible. Sources referred to:The Dying Fields. Dir. Fred de Sam Lazaro. Wide Angle, PBS-(MPT) 2007.

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