MUMBAI (Reuters) - Hundreds of farmers unable to repay crop loans killed themselves in India's richest state in the past year, despite a multi-million dollar cash plan to improve their lot, activists said on Friday.
The spate of suicides in Maharashtra since last July touched 1,132, they said, highlighting the failure of highly publicised efforts by New Delhi to ease the financial burden of cotton farmers.
Debt-ridden farmers have been committing suicide in four Indian states and government statistics have recorded more than 4,500 deaths in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala in the past six years.
Activists and farmers' groups say the figure is at least five times more.
They say the "accumulated distress" of the cotton growers of Maharashtra was the highest because of $400 million in one-time grants, interest waivers and debt restructuring announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last year had not been properly implemented.
"Even crop seeds promised were never given," said Kishor Tiwari, head of Vidharba Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmers' lobby.
"The money lies unutilised because of a callous bureaucracy. There are at least 1.2 million farmers under distress now."
Most of India's farming community is poverty-stricken and many farmers borrow -- often amounts that would only buy a few drinks in an upmarket London or New York pub -- from the village moneylender at rates as high as 10 percent a month.
Their debts soar when crops fail due to poor rains or when prices tumble.
Those borrowing privately are not eligible for government relief. Even those who borrow from banks, including state-run rural banks, often have to pay bribes for their loans.
Agriculture supports 600 million of India's 1.1 billion people, but contributes only a fifth of gross domestic product and accounts for only 12 percent of bank credit.
A Maharashtra government Web site said 454 farmers had killed themselves between January and May this year.
Officials said the relief plan was starting to benefit farmers, but more time was needed.
"Suicides have come down by 50 percent in the last one year," said Ramesh Kumar, a top Maharashtra relief official.
But activists said the government was playing down the crisis which the special relief package had not been able to deal with.
"Just go and see if there has been any change in their lot. They are still dying," said Sharad Joshi, chief of Shetkari Sangathan, a powerful farmers' group.
By Krittivas Mukherjee