Grapes of Wrath

Divya A, TNN, Apr 4, 2010, 03.02am IST

Many believe that a debt-ridden farmer’s problems end when he ends his life. But it is just the start of a tragic trajectory for those left behind. Especially his widow and children. By default, they become responsible for the debts the dead man has left behind.

Thousands of such widows are trapped in the web of debt in the cotton belt of Punjab, comprising sparsely populated districts such as Bathinda, Faridkot, Muktsar, Ferozepur and Sangrur.

A recent study by the Ludhiana-based Punjab Agricultural University in the districts of Bathinda and Sangrur found there had been around 3,000 suicides between 2000 and 2008. Every suicide, says the study, affects at least five people. Mostly, it is the women who have the burden of raising a fatherless family. Last year, the state government announced compensation of Rs 2 lakh for the families of farmers who had committed suicide. But, as with most bureaucratic procedures, the bereaved families are yet to receive the money.

Umendra Dutt, executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission, an NGO working for farmers’ rights in Faridkot’s Jaitu village, says it isn’t easy for the families to get their due. “After the announcement for compensation, the state commissioned a survey to enumerate the number of suicides. But it has not yet taken off”. It is especially hard for widows now, he adds, because they have to “prove” their husbands committed suicide on account of indebtedness.

Dutt says more often than not, officials attribute suicides to “something else”, not agrarian debt. Just weeks ago, G S Kalkat, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, suggested that debt may not have been the only reason as many as 86% of the farmers committed suicide. Kalkat’s claim was disproved the very next day when 13 widows from Ludhiana district met the deputy commissioner with their case files, demanding Rs 5 lakh in compensation, a debt waiver and a government job for one eligible member of the bereaved family.

They described the desperation their husbands felt. Amar Singh of Bondli village near Samrala took a Rs 3-lakh loan after his crop failed. It was a desperate move at a desperate time. Singh went missing from home on April 1, 2009; his widow Manjeet Kaur had to sell off three acres to pay off the loan.

In Dhanur village near Samrala, Kashmir Singh consumed pesticide. He had five children, a wife, a mother, and debt amounting to Rs 5 lakh.

But this is not just the tale of two families, says Kultar Singh, Congress sarpanch of Sandhwan village in Faridkot. “Every month, we learn about at least three cases where a woman has to bear the brunt of life after her husband has committed suicide,” he says. Often enough, the despairing widow commits suicide as well, he adds. The late Indian president Giani Zail Singh belonged to Sandhwan village.

Activist Inderjit Singh Jaijee, whose documentary film “Harvest of Grief” takes a hard look at the agrarian crisis in Punjab’s Sangrur district, says that most villages in the Moonak and Lehra blocks have suffered anywhere between 40 and 80 suicides.

Vandana Shiva, author of “The Violence of Green Revolution” and founder of Navdanya, a movement for sustainable agriculture, says, “Hapless women in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh are bearing the cost of the profits that the seed and chemical industry are making”.

That is a larger issue. But for most widows of debt-ridden farmers, the politics of big business are deeply personal. Pramod Kumar, director of Chandigarh’s Institute for Development and Communication, has conducted a large-scale study on farmer suicides in the state. He says one of the saddest symbols of the spiral of despair is a 70-year-old woman in Ferozepur district who has been left to fend for herself and her daughter-in-law after both her sons committed suicide following multiple crop failures.

‘Punjab: 3,000 farmer suicides in 8 years’

Priya Yadav, TNN, 24 January 2010, 04:44am IST

CHANDIGARH: While Punjab remains, in popular perception, the land of plenty, a group of economists at Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) has revealed that the picture isn’t rosy at all — in fact it’s grim.

Rural indebtedness has touched Rs 35,000 crore and, worse, 3,000 debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide in the last eight years. Economists are also relating the suicides with high illiteracy among the poor farmers and say Punjab needs to increase expenditure on education.

“Rural debts are mounting rapidly and have touched Rs 35,000 crore in the year 2009-2010 as against Rs 21,640 crore in 2007,” said Sukhpal Singh, senior PAU economist in Ludhiana. In the first such survey commissioned by the Punjab government, door-to-door survey of two districts indicated that nearly 3,000 farmers had killed themselves in the last eight years. “About 38% of these were 20 to 30 years old and 60% had unpaid debts. Significantly, 47% suicides were by illiterate,” said Sukhpal Singh.

It’s the small farm holdings, of two acres or less, which have made farming economically unviable and driven farmers who took debts to keep their crop alive to kill themselves. “A follow up at the homes of suicides have shown that nearly 25% of such families sold off their land after the death,” said Sukhpal.

Inderjit Singh Jaijee, who launched Movement Against State Repression, blamed the government for keeping farmers’ suicides under wraps. “Most of these suicides are unreported because suicide is a criminal offence and families avoid going to the police. This helps the state to go into denial about these tragic deaths at the grassroots,” Jaijee said.

Linking the suicides to not just farm indebtedness but also to lack of education, R S Ghuman, professor and head of Economics, Punjabi University, said, “The state budget on education and its infrastructure is mere 11% and just 3.7% of children in Punjab are getting into professional education.” Emphasising on the need for better education infrastructure, Ghuman said, “The drop out rate in schools is unacceptably high at 60% until class X. This is making the farmers, especially those holding small farms, completely dependent on farming as a source of raising money to support their families.

A hidden truth of farmer’s suicide

BY CHENNAIVISION AT 27 APRIL, 2009, 2:29 PM

Ludhiana, A glaring and sad aspect of suicides in the agriculture sector in Punjab is that the families of the victims not only had to sell land, but also other assets such as farm machinery, gold to repay their debts.

A government-sponsored study conducted by Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Bathinda and Sangrur districts came across 2,990 suicides in the farm sector from 2000 to 2008. Of these, 1757 were farmers and the remaining farm labourers. Of these, 1288 farmers and 671 labourers ended their lives because of debts.

As many as 227 families in Bathinda district sold land worth Rs 7.36 crore to repay their debts. The average value of land sold was Rs 3.24 lakh.

In all 550 farmers committed suicide in Bathinda district due to debt. A majority of them (87 per cent) were small and marginal farmers owning land upto five acres while 13 per cent cases were reported among the medium and large farmers owning more than 10 acres.

The debt ranged from Rs two lakh to Rs 8.20 lakh in case of farmers who committed suicide.

In the case of Sangrur district, 738 farmers committed suicide owing to indebtedness. Of these, the families of 353 farmers sold land worth Rs 19.05 crore to pay off their debt.

The average debt burden in Sangrur was Rs 5.39 lakh. Besides, 58 families of these farmers sold even machinery and other assets.

In Sangrur, 57 per cent farmers were in the marginal category and 29 per cent were small scale farmers. The remaining 14 per cent were medium and large farmers.

The debt against them ranged from Rs 2.8 lakh to Rs 7.87 lakh in Sangrur district.

Average debt against labourers who committed suicide was Rs 70,036 in Sangrur district, and their average income was Rs 19,419.

The average debt against labourers who committed suicide in Bathinda was Rs 47,347 and their average income was Rs 21,710.

In Bathinda district, the most affected villages include Vhauke where 18 farmers ended their lives while in Mandi Kalan 17 farmers and in Pitho 13 farmers committed suicide.

In Sangrur district the most affected village were Andana where 18 suicides were reported followed by Bhutal Kalan (20), Seron (14), Bhattiwala Kalan (11) and Nagara (10).

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Farmer & Agricultural Labourers Suicides due to Indebtedness in the Punjab State — a pilot project of Sangrur and Bathinda districts

A Punjab Agricultural Univeristy report Farmer & Agricultural Labourers Suicides due to Indebtedness in the Punjab State — a pilot project of Sangrur and Bathinda districts, submitted to the Punjab government a few days back has sirred a political storm.
The survey report says that 2,990 farmers had committed suicide in two districts — 1256 in Bathinda and 1634 in Sangrur district — between 2000 and 2008. This report, more or less like a household census, is considered to be the first authentic survey of the spate of suicides among farmers and agricultural workers.
This report comes within a month of the Punjab government’s decision to fix a price for farmer suicides — Rs 2 lakh to the families of those farmers who have committed suicide in the past one year.
In Sangrur district, 738 farmers who took the fatal path to escape growing indebtedness, had an average outstanding debt of Rs 3.36 lakh per farmer. For another lot of 246 farmers who committed suicide for other reasons, the average outstanding amount standing against their name was Rs 79,935. As far as farm labourers are concerned, the average debt was Rs 70,036.
In Bathinda, the average outstanding due against farmers who could not sustain the growing indebtedness, was Rs 2.94 lakh. As many as 550 farmers belonged to this category. For another lot of 223 farmers who too committed suicide but for other reasons, the average outstanding debt was Rs 85,825. For the workers, the outstanding amount against their name was Rs 47,347 on an average. The report also provides a list of such households.
Meanwhile, another report in The Independent, London, says 1,500 farmers in Chattisgarh State have committed suicide. It blames crop failure and the falling water table to be responsible for the serial death dance. If this is true, I don’t see why the Punjab farmers, who are endowed with assured irrigation, have to commit suicide. That means lack of irrigation alone cannot be the reason. The PAU report blames growing indebtedness for the spate of suicides. Indebtedness comes from various reasons, and somehow I find we shirk from pointing to the real causes.
Reports about suicides in Vidharba belt in Maharashtra also ascribe it to lack of irrigation and distress sale of produce. While all this may be true, but I sometimes wonder why are we all reluctant to dig it deeper and find out the real causes that triggers indebtedness.

Devinder Sharma Groundreality

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It’s high time farm pricing got a booster dose

Amrita ChaudhryPosted: Sep 26, 2008 at 0110 hrs IST

Ludhiana, September 25 With theWorld Bank giving a call to shift focus on agriculture to tackle food crisis, data gleaned from Punjab’s villages only add to its urgency.

The national census for the year 1991 showed Punjab as having 11 lakh farming families. Of these, 45 per cent were small or marginal farmers who owned fields measuring less than five acres. This figure in the next census in 2001 slid to 9.7 lakh and the percentage of small farmers to 30 per cent.

In other words, 30,000 farmers on an average quit agriculture each year. The primary reason for this has been the decline in profitability of crops, particularly paddy and wheat—a phenomenon that agricultural experts are trying to tackle along with suicides by farmers. For example, take the case of Gurdip Singh, a small farmer from village Mehla Kalan. Gurdip, who owns two acres of land, says, “I can just manage to raise food grains for my domestic use from these two acres.”

The situation of Avtar Singh, a farmer with 20 acres of land in Alamgir village, is no different. “My inputs costs over the years have skyrocketed while the prices of crops haven’t risen. And what we all forget is that farmer too is a consumer. I have to pay the college fees for my two children, which runs into lakhs per annum. Then there are the medical costs of my family.”

To drive home his point, Avtar Singh says, “A couple of years ago, one of my kidneys was damaged in an accident. I could not afford treatment. I know there will be a day when all my 20 acres will be lost in medical treatment.”

R S Sidhu, head, Department of Economics, Punjab Agricultural University, agrees as he explains, “The data speak so. The best period for agriculture in the recent past was between 1990 and 2000, more precisely till 1995. While the crisis in agriculture began around 1995, it was nationwide then. Now, however, Punjab alone is suffering. Our calculations have shown that while input costs have gone up dramatically, the rise in Minimum Statutory Price (MSP) of crops is very slow and this has resulted in reducing of profit margins for the farmers.

Sidhu adds, “Since 2001-2007 the input costs have risen by 8-9 per cent while the MSP growth has been hovering around 2 per cent. The wheat MSP announced this year (Rs 1,000 per quintal) had brought a relief for farmers and when the picture was easing out the latest news of Rs 850 as MSP for paddy this year is like a bolt from the blue.”

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Assault on farming: Punjab Government ties with Syngenta

UMENDRA DUTT

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Now it is understandable that government machinery in Punjab is more worried to offer market to MNCs rather then serving the genuine interests of farmers. Recently a Punjab government agency Markfed has signed a MoU with Syngenta to provide agrochemicals and its right practices on farmers’ doorstep.

This indicates that either the government officials do not have understanding of real crisis of farmers or they do not want to understand it. There is a strong third possibility also that Marked and its parent department wants to serve MNCs only sans the poor farmers.

Kheti Virasat Mission-KVM deplores this move of Markfed. The will prove a disaster for the farming and ecology of Punjab. This is an anti-farmer and anti-environment step and will jeopardize the possibilities of ecological sustainability of agriculture in Punjab. 

It is ironical that the Minister for Cooperation Capt Kanwaljit Singh was present in person in this MoU signing ceremony. This irony turned in to a tragedy when Minister speaking on the occasion urged the company to develop eco-friendly crop protection inputs. What an incident Capt Kanwaljit Singh is giving the responsibility of protecting ecology to a known environmental offender and poison merchant.

While speaking on the occasion Capt Kanwaljit asserted that ” The state is facing threat of disease due to overuse and misuse of pesticides, which is both unmanageable and unacceptable……so the need of hour is cutting costs and bringing in environment-friendly and safe methods of crop protection.”. It is a great statement indeed. But minister was betting on wrong side. Those who are known environmental scandalous cannot and should not be asked for environmental solutions. 

    The Markfed is more enthusiastic to serve MNCs and become their extension arm to market their products.  First it was Bt cotton in 2005. Then CM Capt Amarinder Singh very passionately makes Markfed the distributing arm of Mahyco for Bt cotton seeds. There was euphoria at that time and Markfed has published advertisements in newspaper singing happily about its achievement. Mahyco is a Monsanto owned company. 

After Monsanto now it is Syngenta.

Monsanto sold Bt cotton with a promise to reduce use of pesticides and now Syngents is entering with promise to provide extension services to farmers to educate them about right method of pesticide use. It is regrettable that government executives, agriculture experts and technocrats and departments dealing with agriculture or farmers particularly are still obsessed with the pesticides and their so-called safe use. They cannot think of agriculture without agrochemicals. After witnessing adverse impacts of pesticides several countries are now pursuing the pesticide free farming. There are several successful examples of chemical free natural / organic farming in the world, in India and even in Punjab. 

Chemical pesticides were pushed in indiscriminately. Forty years after the advent of green revolution, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Manila, Philippines now clearly accepts its mistakes in promoting pesticides and has gone on record saying that ‘pesticides were a waste of time and effort’ in Asia for rice. Punjab Agricultural University however continues to push in pesticides knowing well that these were not required in the first place. In case of cotton, agricultural scientists have compounded the problem by turning the insect profile hostile. There were only six or seven pests that worried the cotton farmers in the 1960s. Today the number of cotton pests has multiplied to over 60.

Studies done by ICRISAT and IRRI clearly demonstrate the sustainability, viability and successful economics of Non-Pesticide Management practices. Farmers in Bangladesh, Philippines and Vietnam have successfully opted for pesticide free rice cultivation. The Cuba has also shown the way. Former Director General of IRRI, Dr. Robert Cantrell had this to say: “It shows that the mistakes of Green Revolution where too much emphasis was sometimes put on the use of chemicals for pest control have clearly been recognized and corrected”.

But irony of Punjab is that the agriculture establishments are not open to this truth of pesticides and even they are not tolerant to any question and debate related to pesticides and environmental health crisis. They are still in green-revolution mindset and insulated from alternative paradigm for sustainable agriculture, environment and development. The agriculture establishments feel honour of their role played in green revolution, it could be their proud. They already got pat for that, they earned whole lot of admiration for the work they had done, but now it is time to have an honest introspection and constructive criticism. Those who are supported Green Revolution setups until now should own responsibility of its adverse effects.

The Markfed and Ministry of Cooperatives should open to know more about the alternative paradigm of agriculture, they should came forward  to learn from the farmers committed to ecological practices. Capt Kanwaljit rightly raise the issue of rising cost of production and depleting returns ,but he should be aware of the fact that every village is exporting cash roughly something between Rs  25 lakhs to 5 crors , depending upon its area, cropping pattern and ecological factors. If the minister is really sincere in saving and serving farmers he and his department should encourage natural farming. We should proudly shout -“Say No to Pesticides”. It is only way to save ecology of Punjab, it is only way to bring Punjab out of devastating environmental health crisis. 

Punjab government has no vision, no roadmap for restructuring agriculture to make its agriculture ecologically sustainable. Neither they have any plan to learn from farmers nor do they want to promote any civil society initiative in this regard. Government is just promoting corporate model of farming. This is symbol of intellectual impoverishment and bankruptcy of thoughts and ideas.    

Syngenta is also known for hiding facts related to adverse effects of its bestseller herbicide Atrazine. The scientists working on test the effects of Atrazine on African clawed frogs found that Atrazine inhibits development of the larynx in male frogs at low doses, that Atrazine, at even lower doses, feminizes male frogs by altering the testes so they will produce eggs. Syngenta even tried to purchase the silence from the concerned scientists.  

Pesticides are only one side of coin of doom, the Genetically Modified seeds are waiting to spill the new era of sorrow.  Syngenta will use this MoU to create market for its GM seeds. The company is trying to get proper IPR protection for its seeds. Syngenta has done a day light robbery on rice.  This Swiss biotech giant based at Basel in Switzerland, has tightened its monopoly control over rice. Seeking global patents over thousands of genes in rice (a single grain of rice contains 37,544 genes, roughly one-fourth more than the genes in a human body), the multinational giant is all set to “own” rice, the world’s most important staple food crop. Syngenta claims it invented more than 30,000 gene sequences of rice. Syngenta in collaboration with Myriad Genetics Inc of USA had beaten Monsanto in the game of mapping the genetic structure of rice by sequencing more than 99.5 per cent of the rice genome. Syngenta’s efforts to seek control over rice have severe implications for the future of rice research and its resulting impact on food security and hunger. For countries like India or Japan, one of the seats of origin of rice, it is an ominous sign. In other words, biological inheritance of the world’s major food crop is now in the hands of a Swiss multinational. If Syngenta’s application for global patents is accepted, the Asian countries will lose all control that comes through ‘sovereign’ control over genetic resources (as defined by the
Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992) of the staple grain.

Syngents is going to bring its GM seeds with in next few years; the company is preparing its market network from now courtesy Markfed.

Marked is working like Mir Jafar for MNCs which is highly intolerable. This MoU will prove battle of Plassey and will pave way for total corporate takeover of Punjab agriculture. Those who are signing these documents should prepare them selves to be known as Mir Jafars. History will teach then a lesson.

It is high time that farmers of Punjab should resist and revolt against this onslaught on their sovereign right over natural resources and knowledge system.

(Author is Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission civil society ecological action group based at Jaitu town in Faridkot district, Punjab. Phone: 9872682161, E-mail: umendradutt@gmail.com)

Village for Sale: Farmers in Crisis

Over 25,000 farmers in India have committed suicide between 1990 and 2006, many of whom owed less than Rs.8,000, writes Jaskaran Singh.


(Inset): Sikh farmers in a village in Punjab. A farming crisis has led to a spate of suicides in this agriculturally rich state.
(Above): A Punjab village. Its outwardly calm exterior belies a severe economic crisis that has hit the farming community. (Photos: Amritsar Times)

Amid all the hoopla over India’s much vaunted economic reforms, a silent crisis has been stalking India’s rural hinterland. Amid the bright lights, glitz and glamour of India’s rising clout in IT and BPO, this is a much darker legacy of India’s economic liberalization that has received far less attention from India’s typically navel-gazing metropolitan-bound English-language media.

How many Indians are aware that as many as 25,000 farmers in India have committed suicide between 1990 and 2006? Many of them owed less than Rs.8,000 ($173). A majority of those who committed suicide were relatively young, below the age of 45 years. In many cases the families of suicide victims did not have enough financial wherewithal to arrange the last rites of the victims.

Andhra Pradesh has among the highest number of cases, over 9,000 farmer suicides from 1997 to January 2006. More than 3,000 have taken their lives during the past 22 months.

In the Punjab, there were 2,116 suicides between 1998 and 2005 according to official statistics. Non-government organizations quote much higher figures.

The farmer suicides are not confined to these two states. Maharashtra witnessed over 250 farmer suicides in Vidarbha district from June 2005 to January 2006.

Amid such misery comes the news that sometimes a whole village is for sale, lock, stock and barrel! Not one farm or house, but the whole village as a single lot.

So what is it that is driving whole villages to put themselves on the auction block?

When India became independent in 1947, the nation did not have enough food for all. It has come a long way since then, becoming the world’s second largest exporter of rice and fifth largest exporter of wheat. Agricultural exports account for 15 percent of Indian exports. Something must be terribly wrong if a third of the Indian population still goes hungry to bed everyday; farmers are still dying, not from starvation but from hopelessness. The money lender is not the only villain, government agencies and institutions are acting just as callously. Today, it turns out that the farmer cannot pray for rain and then hope; he finds that he cannot compete with global forces and the apathy of his own government.

So a Punjab village took the extreme step of putting itself for sale. In January 2001 Harkishanpura, a village in Bathinda district of Punjab took an unheard-of step. The village panchayat announced that the village was up for sale. Since then five more villages in the state — known as the food bowl of the country — are awaiting auction. What started as an isolated and bizarre case is now becoming a tragic and wider reality.

Not just in the Punjab. In December 2005, Dorli in Wardha district of Maharashtra made itself available for sale. “Dorli village is for sale” signboards were everywhere, and the message was painted on trees and cattle. It looked like a symbolic gesture, surreal, from a Kafka or Camus story.

In the Chingapur village in Yeotmal region of Maharashtra, the villagers organized a “human market” for the sale of kidneys and invited Indian President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In 2000, 22 peasants in the Kundoor district sold their kidneys to pay their debts.

In a neighboring village, Shivani Rekhailapur, banners read: “This village is ready to be auctioned. Permit us to commit mass suicides.”

Why do villages put themselves up for sale? Take the example of Malsinghwala, a tiny village in the Mansa district of Punjab. It is a collection of low brick buildings, a dusty road and fields. The village owes around Rs 70 million, of which Rs 25 million is to private moneylenders and commission agents. Jasbir Singh, the village sarpanch, says, “We are neck deep in debt. We are left with no other option but to sell of our land.” Each of the 4,000 residents has an outstanding debt of Rs 13,000. Of its 1,800 acres, about 1,150 are good for growing crops. Half of this land cannot be cultivated for lack of irrigation facilities.

More than 43.4 million Indian peasant families are deeply indebted. Small and medium peasants are the worst affected, but they are not the only ones.

Overall, the number of rural landless families is increasing. Farmers cannot ensure a secure livelihood for their families even after selling their valuables, land and body organs.

Devinder Sharma, a food and trade policy analyst, points out that harmful combination of chemical outputs with water-guzzling crops is responsible for the present predicament of the farmers.

In 2005, the Commission on Farmers’ Welfare, set up by the Andhra Pradesh government, concluded that the state was in “an advanced stage of crisis,” the most extreme manifestation of which was the rise in suicides among farmers.

Chaired by Professor Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University, the commission concluded that the causes of the problems related directly to public policy and economic strategy at both local and national levels. Heavy burden of personal debt among farmers is the “most acute proximate cause of agrarian distress,” the commission said.

Why are farmers suffering from high indebtedness?
There institutional reasons are: (i) A steep rise in the cost of inputs; (ii) Volatility and often a fall in the price of produce (iii) Lack of proper agricultural advice and (iv) lack of access to formal lines of credit.

Farmers have been forced to pay more for their seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, water and power. At the same time, the price they’ve received for their crops at market has swung wildly and even fallen. Round this off with an inability to get bank loans and a sudden absence of proper advice from the state government on what crops to grow where, and farmers are on the fast track to ruin.

According to the Commission of Farmers’ Welfare, economic policy in India at central and state level “has systematically reduced the protection afforded to farmers and exposed them to market volatility and private profiteering without adequate regulation; has reduced critical forms of public expenditure and has destroyed important public institutions, and did not adequately generate other non-agricultural economic activities. “While this is a generalized rural crisis, the burden has fallen disproportionately on small and marginal farmers, tenant farmers and rural laborers, particularly those in drier tracts. The most extreme manifestation of the crisis is in the suicides of farmers.”

As the Punjab government gets ready for the second Green Revolution, planning to shift 33 percent of state’s total farm land to horticulture, corporate farming and organic farming in next couple of years, one wonders if Indian policymakers have learnt their lesson.

http://www.siliconeer.com/past_issues/2006/october2006.html