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.
But the farmers say their plight is largely being ignored as the country rushes to embrace the global marketplace. Few find it reassuring that India's agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, doubles as the nation's top cricket official.
A decade ago, the government began cutting farm subsidies as it liberalized the managed socialist economy. The farmers' costs rose as the tariffs that had protected their products were lowered. It was a combination, analysts say, that made small farms even harder to sustain.
"Suicide is one of the symptoms of the larger agrarian crisis," said Srijit Mishra of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research.
Meanwhile, banking reforms forced farmers to be more dependent on private moneylenders. These generally allow the farmers only 11 months to pay back their loans at interest rates of more than 100 percent a year, or else they seize the land at a drastically reduced rate.
"It's not a nice business," said one village moneylender, who agreed to be interviewed if he was not identified because he was unlicensed. "But you earn a lot of money."
A soft-spoken man with a pencil-thin mustache, he runs a small grocery store and has made hundreds of loans to farmers. He has also seized some 125 acres in his decades-long career, which he took over from his father. He said the number of farmers unable to repay their loans has increased by roughly 30 percent in the last 10 years.
"When we loan them money, we are quite sure whether or not they can pay," he said, his long fingers crossed in his lap. "We know it's going to be our land eventually."
Farmers and analysts say another blow was the introduction of genetically modified cotton seeds, notably St. Louis-based Monsanto Co.'s "Bt" seeds which are resistant to boll worms. The seeds can be more productive and have become standard in much of Maharashtra but can be three times more expensive to maintain than traditional seeds.
For the widows, left to tend the crops and raise the children, the suicides are personal calamities with roots not in macroeconomics, but in homegrown problems — impossible debts, the loss of ancestral land, rapacious money lenders.
Surpam's widow, a stoic mother of three with a face toughened by the sun, blames her husband's suicide on the loans he had taken over the past two years, his first taste of debt. He borrowed 25,000 rupees ($625) from a bank and 20,000 rupees ($500) from private moneylenders to invest in his fields and to pay for his daughter's wedding, she said.
"He used to say we owe money and if anyone comes looking for us, it would be a dishonor," said his wife, Sumitra, who learned only after his death on April 1 how much he owed.
Surpam's three acres produced just $150 worth of cotton this year — not nearly enough to keep the moneylender at bay.
The suicide, Sumitra said, "was obviously because of the loan."
For Surpam and most other small farmers here, borrowing money is as natural as tilling the soil.
When a group of farmers in Kochi were asked recently by The Associated Press which of them was in debt, every hand in the room shot up.
The 2008 budget made special provisions for farmers, forgiving debts to state banks. The move was widely seen as an attempt to stave off rural discontent, which played a large role in toppling the previous government.
But the waivers apply only to farmers who own less than five acres, disqualifying millions. And they don't apply to loans by private moneylenders.
The Waghmere family of Bothbodan village owns slightly more than five acres, so their debt to the bank of more than 60,000 rupees ($1,500) won't be wiped clean.
Before Shanker Waghmere, 49, killed himself in 2005, "he kept talking about debts going up each passing day," said his 35-year-old widow, Shantabair.
With night falling on her crops and her three children fluttering behind her, the widow said she hopes she'll earn enough from this year's harvest to pay off her husband's debt, pay for her daughter's wedding, pay for her son's school.
She plans to buy a batch of seeds she heard grows better cotton.
She said she'll pay for them with a loan from a moneylender.