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Why are Indian cotton farmers killing themselves?

Behind the scenes on a new film documenting the savage trade of dirty white gold

Power Dressing explores the politics behind the clothes we wear. Every month, Index On Censorship’s Daisy Williams will look at a different issue behind fashion. 

Somewhere in the Indian state of Maharashtra, a cotton farmer kills himself every 30 minutes. Whilst Maharashtra’s cotton-growing regions - Vidharbha, Marathwada and Khandesh have hosted the highest number of suicides, it’s an issue that spreads throughout the country. Nearly 300,000 agricultural workers have killed themselves since 1995.

Cue Leah Borromeo, the journalist and filmmaker working on Dirty White Gold,a new project to uncover the truth behind the suicide economy of India’s textile production industry. Applying a new cinematic approach to an old issue, she plans to document the issue through the entire cotton supply chain - from the domestic issue of governmental support for agricultural workers, to the international problem of textile industry transparency.

Meeting government officials, industry experts and the families of suicide victims, Leah will attempt to rouse international concern, as well as infiltrating the problem from home.

“The weavers, spinners, farmers, kids who feel they have to work for free... I’ll chase the seed to distribution point and see how it all connects,” says Leah. “It’ll attack every element of the industry - your t-shirt or your jeans’ psychological, economic, political and historical life.”

“Fashion isn’t facile, but having industry ethics and sustainability at the start of the supply chain seems to be a niche thing. Clothing companies can be reluctant to tell the truth - and if you look into it, some things might not sit too easily.”

There are numerous reasons for this problem, and it’s namely because seed prices have soared, with more farmers buying expensive genetically modified Bt cotton (bacillius thuringienis) seeds, the rights of which are owned by UK based agricultural company Monsanto.

“Farmers earn on average 100 rupees a day - but it costs 950 rupees for a kilogram bag of seed - you can look at the boring economics and see injustice,” says Leah. “Capitalism and globalisation is ultimately the culprit - a vast amount of money is being profited by people - but a tiny proportion to those who are really working - that wealth is very rarely seen.”

Of the 950 rupee bag of seed, around 180 rupees goes to Monsanto. After additional labour is paid for, and insecticides are bought, farmers rarely know how much they will earn until their crop goes to yield - environmental factors often mean they’re left short. 

Trapped in a competitive system they cannot afford, desperate farmers resort to suicide in an attempt to write off the massive debts they pile up, often drinking the pesticides reserved for their crops. Their attempts are usually in vain though, as debt collectors arrive at the homes of bereaved families in search of payment.

Focusing on the issue of suicide, Leah will examine how it relates to the rest of the fashion chain, and how clothes picked up all over the world have a knock-on effect on the lives of agricultural workers livelihoods.

“It’s a linear story extracting other narratives into a non-linear, more interactive way of looking at it. You could come at it from the farmer’s suicide angle, for example, and start finding connection between everything,” says Leah. It’s trying to make sure people really know about the clothes they wear and are connected to the person they came from - their struggles and their debt.”

As well as filming in rural India, Leah spent time at London Fashion Week, examining the psycho-semantics of self image, consumption and the need to adhere to micro-trends. 

“We followed various designers who employ sustainable methods of production, as well as vox popping people. We asked ‘where are your clothes from?’ and then when they told us, said ‘no, where’s it really from’?”

“Now, it’s all about selling yourself as a brand, through social media you can become a micro celebrity, it’s quite perverse to base self image around perceptions of you.”

On average, of the 500,000 people reported to kill themselves around the world each year, 20% of them are Indian, a nation holding 17% of the world’s population. India’s economy relies greatly on agriculture, with 60% of the population directly or indirectly dependent on it. Leah hopes that Dirty White Gold will not only make people question their clothes’identity, but change EU legislature:

“We want this film to make people demand to know where their clothes are from and impose a strict labelling system within the UK and EU. We’re not asking for everything to be organic - we’re telling designers and manufacturers, you don’t have to change what you do - just tell us what it is you do - then people can decide whether they want to buy clothes for kids made by kids...(Or by) some poor farmer in some field running up debt, suffering from kidney failure and sometimes committing suicide to fuel our own desire to curate our self image.”