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150 in India commit suicide after bugs kill crops

Laksmaya Jaggu bought pesticide to destroy black caterpillars that were ravaging his cotton crop. When that failed three months ago, he drank the poison himself.

Burdened by debt and harassed by money lenders, more than 150 cotton farmers have committed suicide in the dry fields of Andhra Pradesh, a state in southern India."My father told me, `Son, my loan is 50,000 rupees ($1,285). After my death, look after the family,' " said Ravi Jaggu, who is 18. "But how can I survive without gov-ernment help?"

The elections preoccupying the rest of India evoke little more than a shrug in this village 100 miles north of Hyderabad, the state capital. Most of this region went to the polls Sunday, while other districts voted Feb. 16, the first of six non-consecutive polling days.

Vote-counting begins March 2, and a new federal government is expected to be seated by mid-March.

In Andhra Pradesh, farmers' anger about their economic woes has turned against all politicians, but especially the ruling Telugu De-sam Party. The crisis has fueled sympathy for one of India's most murderous rebel groups, the Maoist People's War Group, which claims to support poor tenant farm-ers against wealthy landlords.

Guerrillas hide from police in the mud and grass huts of villages like Bhimnagar Tanda.

Anti-election slogans are sprayed on the nearest paved road, a 20-minute walk from the village: "Democracy is false. Politicians are all looters." Threatening the worst insult in Hinduism, another painted slogan says: "If politicians come here, hit them with slippers."