BOLLIKUNTA, India — Latha Reddy Musukula was making tea on a recent morning when she spotted the money lenders walking down the dirt path toward her house. They came in a phalanx of 15 men, by her estimate. She knew their faces, because they had walked down the path before.
After each visit, her husband, a farmer named Veera Reddy, sank deeper into silence. Three times he cut his wrists. He tied a noose to a tree, relenting when the family surrounded him, weeping. In the end he waited until Musukula stepped out, and then he hanged himself, leaving a list of each debt he owed to each money lender. She learned the full sum then: 400,000 rupees ($6,430).
A current of dread runs through this farmland, where women in jewel-colored saris bend their backs over watery terraces of rice. In Andhra Pradesh, the southern state where Musukula lives, the suicide rate among farmers is nearly three times the national average; since 1995, the number of suicides by India's farmers has passed 290,000, according to the national crime records bureau, though the statistics do not specify the reason for the act.
India's small farmers, once the country's economic backbone and most reliable voters, are increasingly being left behind. With global competition and rising costs cutting into their lean profits, their ranks are dwindling, as is their contribution to the gross domestic product.
If rural voters once made their plight into front-page news around election time, this year the large parties are jockeying for the votes of the urban middle class. Farmers' voices are all but silent.
Death brings no release: When farmers like Reddy take their lives, their debts pass from husband to widow, from father to children.
Musukula's story is emblematic of the trap in which many find themselves: a farmer's daughter, then wife, and now trying to farm the land herself, she is the end of the line, a hair's breadth from ruin. Around her she sees a country transformed by economic growth, full of opportunities to break out of poverty, if only her son or daughter could grasp one.
But the dragnet that closed around her husband is tightening around her. Like nearly every one of her neighbors, she is locked into an archaic bond with the village money lender. No sooner did they cut her husband's body down than one of them was in her house, threatening to block the cremation unless she paid.
Her appeals to officials for help have been met with indifference.
"Sure, they will pay, otherwise it would be as if someone has broken into our house and stolen our money," said Sudhakar Ravula, a slight man who lives in a village 2 miles away. He introduces himself as a fisherman, but, under questioning, fishes out a pair of reading glasses and unfolds a promissory note signed by Veera Reddy.
Four years ago, he said, he used borrowed money to lend Reddy $800, at an annual interest rate of 24 percent. Reminded of Reddy's suicide, Ravula looked impatient.
"I always feel sad for the man," he said, "but committing suicide is not the right way to go about it."
Stories of farmers committing suicide may prompt shudders in gatherings of sociologists, but the local officials have heard it all before. When market reforms were introduced in 1991, the state scaled down subsidies and import barriers fell, thrusting small farmers into an unforgiving global market. Farmers took on new risks, switching to commercial crops and expensive, genetically modified seeds, paying more to educate their children in the hopes the children would land government jobs.
The farmers found themselves juggling ever-larger loans at exorbitant interest rates, always hoping a bumper harvest would allow them to clear their debts, so they could take out new ones. This pattern has left a trail of human wreckage.
On a recent afternoon, Musukula was one of 18 women waiting outside a government building. Nearly every woman carried a police report, identifying debt as the cause of a farmer's suicide — a fact that should entitle them to a payment of 150,000 rupees ($2,400), to be split between the money lenders and the family, pledged by the state government.
To receive it, they needed a designation from the district revenue officer. They had come to see one of the officer's subordinates.
They crowded into the back of his office and took a good look at him: P. Bhiksham, a middle-aged man in rimless glasses. Bhiksham listened to two women recite the details of their husbands' deaths, then began to speak.
The real problem, he said, was that their husbands drank too much.
He went on to say that he had never in his career encountered a genuine case of farmer suicide.
The women listened silently and filed out, their fates in the hands of the money lenders.