By Divya Murugesan
Rajendra Lomte, a farmer, had high hopes of a good crop this year that would help him clear his debts. Instead, his 12-acre mango field in Deolali village was wrecked by a powerful hailstorm in early March. Burdened with losses worth Rs. 5 lakh, the 34-year-old farmer had no answer for banks’ repeated calls for repayment of his loan. On March 12, he emptied a bottle of petrol on himself and set himself on fire.
This is an excerpt of just one of the several of articles reporting farmer suicides in India every day.
In Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words, ‘Prosperous farmers mean more employment, more prosperity for the workers and the business men of every industrial area in the whole country.’
Well, prosperity seems to be a far-fetched dream for the Indian economy given the horrifying statistics of farmer suicide cases. Since 2001, one Indian farmer has committed suicide every half hour. And graveness of the situation comes to light, again, with the recent surge in farmers committing suicide in Maharashtra.
‘As many as 38 farmers have committed suicide in the State over the last month, after hailstorms and unseasonal rain, official figures show. North Maharashtra alone has reported 16 cases.’ (Source: The Hindu.)
The farmer suicide rate is one of the most harrowing signs of the state of the Indian farmers. Here are some statistics to support the claim.
According to the latest census, which was taken for 2011, nationwide, farmers committed suicide at a rate of 16.3 per 100,000 farmers which is slightly higher than the 15.7 per 100,000 farmers who had committed suicide per 100,000 in 2001.
When these figures are compared to the Indian population at large, which has also experienced a rising suicide rate in recent years, it gives a more gruesome and shocking picture! An article on The Diplomat reads, ‘For example, among the population writ large, an average of 11.1 Indians per 100,000 killed themselves in 2011. Thus, India’s farmers committed suicide at a rate 47 percent higher than the rest of the population. The problem has become so bad that some states stopped keeping track of the suicide rate among farmers’.
And according to the Report of Prof. K. Nagraj of Madras Institute of Dev. Studies, the General Suicide Rate, the overall suicides per 1 lakh population in the country between the period 1997 to 2005 was 10.6, where as the Farmers Suicide Rate was 12.9 and the ratio of FSR to GSR was 1: 1.2. In Maharashtra the position was alarming with GSR at 15.1 and FSR at 29.9.
Another interesting aspect about the agricultural suicide rates in India is that, it is highly concentrated mainly in 5 states, namely- Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, with Maharashtra having an exorbitantly high suicide rate of 29.1 persons per 100,000 farmers.
Journalist Palagummi Sainath, notes that four of these five states listed above are in the cotton belt region of India. The sharp dip in the price of cotton (which fell to a twelfth of what it was thirty years ago) and the removal of cotton subsidies after 1977 led to the acceleration of farmer suicide rates.
Apart from climatic changes, like the unseasonal rains and hailstorms that swept through 28 of Maharashtra’s districts last month, the biggest culprit behind these suicides is said to the ‘monster’ named ‘globalization’ which entered through the doors of the 1991 market reforms, promising the farmers commercial crops, modified seeds and higher revenue but instead led the state to scale down subsidies and reduce import barriers, throwing the poor farmers to be swallowed by the unforgiving world markets.
Many scholars and professors working in the field on agricultural indebtedness hold that indebtedness is not the main cause of farmers’ suicides contrary to what majority of people cite. The study holds that stagnation in agriculture, marketing risks, collapse of extension system, growing institutional vacuum and lack of livelihood opportunities are the primary causes. This causes a decline in returns from agriculture which causes the inability of farmers to repay debt and this in turn triggers farmers’ suicide.
Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) submitted its report in March 2005 highlighting various facts as well as causes of suicides which are relevant and hold true for the recent happenings too. This report was based on a study of 36 out of 644 farmer suicide cases that year. One interesting fact highlighted by the report is that suicide was not a rare phenomenon among large landholders. Medium and large landowners were also affected by high levels of un-payable debts. The report cited inaccessibility of extension machinery of the government in giving sound information on how to deal with pests and declining productivity of land as the stimulants of farmer suicide.
The farmers end up taking serious risks in terms of fertilizer-based cropping pattern on the advice on the agents of fertilizer and pesticide companies who paint a very rosy picture of their future for them. This shows the very limited base of knowledge of those involved in farming and this issue requires immediate attention. This, coupled with the withdrawal of government intervention from safety nets such as fair price shops also contributes to worsening of the farmer’s condition.
Juggling with issues of low yield, ruthless climate, repayment of loans and feeding his family with at least one square meal, he gets the shock of his life when demanded with a high dowry for his daughter’s marriage. As he gets burdened with social norms and the stigma of caste on top of ‘kapda, roti, and makaan’, suicide seems like the only way out.
Delving deeper into a farmer’s psychology, a British study has shown that farmers reported a lower prevalence of psychiatric morbidity than the general population, but were more likely to think that life was not worth living. Farmers’ leader Prof. M.D.Nanjundaswamy blames the cumulative effect of free imports, falling prices and lack of social security for farmers for this situation. He also brings up a very interesting view that the compensation amount of Rs. 1 lakh for farmers committing suicide must be cancelled because it acts as an incentive for them to take their lives
Compensatory steps like the waiver of loans and interests, credit covers through institutional credit sources and more immediate relief measures like providing the affected families with cash are followed by the government. Recently, the state government of Maharashtra asked the centre for Rs 5000 crore for the relief of the affected farmer’s families.
Such initiatives along with others like assuring irrigation facilities, seed replacement program, subsidizing agricultural inputs etcetera have been and still are being executed, but this doesn’t seem to solve the problem of the ever rising rate of farmer suicide rates.
For the long run abatement of suicides, the state must aim for an effective credit mechanism leading to capital formation in agriculture which indicates that agriculture credit is productive. Another test of an effective credit system is rural indebtedness which presents a very dismal situation as of now and has been on the rise.
Providing income and employment opportunities in allied sectors like dairy, fishing, poultry and small scale agro-based industries can prove to be a great step.
Most importantly, the farmer’s knowledge base must be improved. Providing them with upgraded technological inputs and modern equipments and seeds at subsidized rate shouldn’t be the only motive, they must also be taught how to use them properly.
The state must also make sure that they have enough safety nets to fall back on in case of crop failure.
Though the picture looks quite dismal and disheartening as of now, the work towards the goal is on. Whether it’s the actual concern of the political parties or simply vote-bank politics, the leaders of several parties are talking about step to uplift the agrarian society. Hence, there is a ray of hope for the betterment of the farmer’s conditions with effective measures of the state policies and of course, with the blessing of the weather gods!
The author is currently pursuing B.A. (Hons) Economics at St Stephens College. She is a zealous writer who likes to share her political and social opinions. She holds prior experience as an editor at Sanskriti School, Chanakyapuri, writes regularly at The Stephanian Forum and has also contributed as an editor to Eureka Wow. A music lover and an enthusiastic reader among many other things, she also likes to spend her time, sketching and painting. She believes in taking each day as it comes and living life to the fullest!