The truth behind the terrible trend of farmer suicides in India

The truth behind the terrible trend of farmer suicides in India

Over three lakh farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995. A majority of them were concentrated in five major agricultural states of the country – Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh. Even Punjab recorded a high number of 449 farmer suicides in 2015, next only to Maharashtra. Farm suicides have been steadily increasing over the years. On an average, around 15,400 farmers ended their lives each year between 1995 and 2003. This number increased to more than 16,000 between 2004 and 2012.

In a study on Indian farmer suicides, Prof K Nagaraj of the Asian College of Journalism writes that the actual count may be higher, but the police follow a strict definition of farmer which limits official data on the extent of cases. Only those farmers who have a land title to their name are considered. So if a farmer working on his father’s plot or a woman working on her husband’s land kill themselves, they are not counted as farm suicides. Add agricultural labourers and tenant farmers, and the total will surely increase.

It is important to note that these suicides are happening on a decreasing base of farmers. Farmer count has fallen by 9 million since 2001, which makes the increased suicide rates that much more alarming.

There is no doubt that our agrarian community is facing a crisis. But questions arise on the exact nature and reasons behind the deepening problem. Farmer suicides have largely been attributed to debt, drought, crop failure or poor returns. However, farmers have been taking the drastic step regardless of a good rainfall year or bad, a good price year or a disappointing one. Why?

Because several socio-economic factors have enabled an environment vulnerable to distress in the agricultural belts of the nation. And drought, crop loss or price crashes only exacerbate the existing plight of farmers. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO) 2013 report, agricultural households made an average monthly income of Rs. 6426. Their monthly expenditure during the same period was Rs.6223. Forget paying off debts, they barely make enough to feed themselves.

But with such low incomes and high costs of cultivation, their main source of capital for farming remains loan. And their main sources of loan are moneylenders. As they try to break-even and somehow pay off their debts with exorbitant rates of interest, a weather shock or price fluctuation will push them into yet another cycle of borrowing. Unable to cope with mounting debt and the inability to take care of their families, many choose to end their lives.

The poor economic state of the farm community is the making of agrarian policies. Journalist P Sainath, who is renowned for his coverage of farmers’ plight has time and again stressed on this point. In a letter to the then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, he writes “The farmers who have been committing suicide in tens of thousands...know it was policies, not the law courts, which drove them to take their lives.” Regimes may have changed but the message applies just the same.