FARMER suicides are a wrenching and contentious issue and are surging upward even as the number of farmers in states is going down. It is a two decades-old national affliction that is as tragic as it is complex and is a serious threat to India’s most critical economic sector.
Currently, the government does little more than grant compensation to the families of farmers who take their lives, which many consider an incentive. The cash compensation does help them tide over the immediate problem of feeding the family. There is politics here too.
The compensation can be denied if ownership of the land is disputed or if the death is not judged to be linked to indebtedness or the farm crisis. For many bereaved families, receiving compensation remains out of bounds. The agricultural department does not accept all suicides as compensation-worthy. A department official said: ‘If a farmer is unable to clear loans taken for agriculture from authorised banks or financiers, it is considered a farmer suicide by the Karnataka government. Loans taken for other purposes, or even agricultural loans taken from unauthorised financial institutions, are not accepted as causing farmer suicides.’
The roots of despair of the Indian farmer have been well researched and documented. They are a toxic blend of: livelihoods drained away by spiralling debt; soil tired on heavy doses of chemicals-fertilizers, crops and livestock destroyed by drought or unseasonable monsoon rains associated with climate change; plummeting water tables from relentless water mining; the loss of agricultural land to development; a collapse in cotton prices and dependence on expensive genetic-engineered hybrid seeds; penury and debt on account of dependence on predatory moneylenders, and near absence of rural mental health services and public awareness of mental health disease. The sector has been the slowest-growing in India with growth averaging around 2 per cent a year, exacerbating the crisis.
Farmer suicides are simply a reflection or a symptom of how fragile the farm economy is. Even a small aberration in the weather — unseasonal rains, high winds, dry weather and drought — multiplies the risk factor for farmers, taking it to unmanageable levels. Livelihood security for any farming family, therefore, hangs by a slender thread.
According to an economic survey carried out last year for 17 Indian states, a farming family earns 20,000 rupees a year on average, or 1,700 rupees a month. The suicide rate for farmers is 48 per cent higher than any other profession. In the 20 years since the Indian government first started to keep track of farmer suicides, about 3 lakh farmers have ended their lives. Farmer suicides are a red stain of shame on the democratic pretentions of the Indian government as it continues to bungle the handling of its agricultural policies and programmes. To a degree, the suicides reflect the farmers’ bafflement at the gradual, and erratic, withdrawal of the state. They have felt the cost of reforms but have yet to see the benefits.
The high rate of farmer suicides is often traced back to the early 1990s when India embraced a raft of free market reforms, kick-starting the current era of economic liberalisation. There are two triggers for the suicides. The first at the time of sowing, when the cash strapped farmer is pushed to buy seeds he can ill afford, so he takes credit. The next is at the time of harvest, when he arrives in the market and realises that he will not get the price that will enable him to repay the loan. That’s when the desolate fellow has no option but to consume pesticide.
A closer look would suggest that there is a broad pattern to farmer suicides. Most of these farmers were happy with the modest yield that kept their home and hearths running. They were not too keen on taking risk. Lured by the promises of new foreign seeds, the farmers started availing big ticket loans to invest in high yields expensive seeds in what they saw a fair commercial risk. If the math was right it was certainly worth it. Unfortunately, we don’t have sophisticated financial risk-hedging instruments at the lower segment of farmers. Nor do we have super-efficient supply chains that should support this type of savvy ventures. Any adverse development can send the farmer into a tailspin.
Anoop Sadanadan, a professor of political science based at Syracuse University, has argued that farmer suicides should be attributed not to agricultural practices but rather financial ones. In a paper published two years back, he says that farmer suicides were concentrated in five of India’s 28 states and those five states offered the least institutional credit to farmers, leaving them to take loans from rapacious sharks at stratospheric interest rates. The government is introducing several policy interventions that can equip farmers to negotiate the competitive markets. A number of initiatives are being taken by voluntary organisations to improve their mental health profile through therapeutic and behavioural techniques.
A field-based research study in The Lancet suggests that actual suicides may be 35-40 per cent higher than officially recorded. The study concludes:
‘Most Indians do not have community or support services for the prevention of suicide and have restricted access to care for mental illnesses associated with suicide, especially access to treatment for depression, which has been shown to reduce suicidal behaviour. Reductions in binge alcohol drinking through regulations, higher alcohol taxation, or brief interventions in primary care might also reduce suicide deaths.’
The abysmal state of mental healthcare in the country made matters worse. Most government-run hospitals do not have psychiatric drugs and visiting a private psychiatrist and sustaining the treatment usually a long drawn out affair. More importantly, it is an expensive proposition for most families. The ignorance and callous attitude towards psychiatric ailments, coupled with social stigma, dissuades most from seeking help while counselling centres are urban phenomena.
There may be some light at the bottom of this abyss, as a grassroots community mental health programme, called Vishram or the Vidarbha Stress and Health Programme, has been engaged in therapeutic counselling of distressed farmers, which has definitely improved their mental health profile. Launched a few years ago, it is designed to establish a sustainable rural mental health programme to address mental health issues in rural India and mental aberrations that abet suicide, such as alcohol abuse and depression in the agrarian community.
The worsening woes of Indian farmers can hardly be neglected by the leaders of a country where two-thirds of people live in the countryside and many are being forced to head to cities to escape the wrath at their farms. Gandhi’s declaration that agriculture is the soul of Indian economy is as relevant as the man himself. When India became independent, the contribution of agriculture to the economy was 50 per cent; it is now 15 per cent. Employment in the agro sector was 88 per cent and it is 66 per cent now. Rural wages have fallen to their lowest.
For every Indian farmer who takes his own life, a family is hounded by the debt he leaves behind, typically resulting in children dropping out of school to become farmhands, and surviving family members themselves frequently committing suicide out of hopelessness and despair.
The Indian government’s response to the crisis — limited debt relief and compensation programmes — has failed to address the magnitude and scope of the problem or its underlying causes.
There are too many questions that seek quick answers. Some groundbreaking reforms are needed as the first steps in breaking the cycle of desperation and misery that so many Indian farming communities face. We must respect the ominous signs in the country’s farmlands which are claiming their debt in the form of lives of farmers who own them.
If the government is serious about reviving agriculture, it ought to act fast. We have the tools, but we need to summon the political will. This is the only way we can save thousands of farmers from the deadly noose.
Moin Qazi is the author of ‘Village Diary of a Heretic Banker.’ He has spent more than three decades in the development sector.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion