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Farmers Suicides in India: Magnitudes, Trends and Spatial Patterns

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Suicides mount as farm crisis sweeps India

At least 200,000 farmers have killed themselves in India in the last 12 years as governments have imposed policies suited to the global market on poor regions of the country. Peter Arkell reports.

The suicide of a small cotton farmer in India, Anil Kondba Shende, aged 33, who swallowed a bottle of pesticide and fell down dead in front of his mud house, was recently highlighted by the New York Times in an article about the distress of small farmers in India.

For the policeman who recorded the death, it was the eighth suicide he had attended in six months. When the farmer’s wife, who had been tending a sick relative in a nearby village, returned, she shrouded her face in her “cheap blue sari and wailed at the top of her lungs. `Your father is dead`, she screamed at her small son who stood before her dazed”.

About 200,000 small farmers in India have killed themselves in the last 12 years, with new farming practices and neo-liberal government policies all contributing to the distress of the 100 million small farmers in the country.

A new study, Farmers Suicides in India: Magnitudes, Trends and Spatial Patterns, by Karkada Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, analyses the figures from all the states in India, and tries to cut through the confusion regarding the numbers and regional patterns of this “epidemic”.

The study concludes that farm suicides are increasing, not only directly but as a percentage of the whole population, with particularly sharp jumps in the years 1998 (with an 18% rise) and 2002. The average figure for the five years from 2002-2006 is 17,513 a year. They are nearly all men and 30% of them are men between the age of 15 and 29.

Because the figures reported as suicides by the police are not entirely reliable, the study estimates that the actual figures are even higher. And with circumstantial evidence pointing to a general decline in the numbers of small farmers, from 111 million in 1991 to about 104 million in 2002, and a even lower figure in 2008, the figures are even more shocking.

The report also studies the regional variations, dividing the states into four categories, between those where the rate is around the national average, to those where it is much higher. There is a group of five states, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in the heartland of India, where the suicide rate is twice the national average. Here, in the years 1997-2006, the number of farm suicides increased on average at an annual compound growth rate of 5.4% which means that if this trend continues the number of suicides would double every 13-14 years.

It is the state of Maharashtra where the problem is particularly acute, with a rate of increase that would double the number of suicides of small farmers every six to seven years, and the report records this state as “the graveyard of farmers today”.

The study pinpoints an area comprising parts of all these five most-affected states in Central India. “It would be a safe guess”, the report says “that it is in this semi-arid, poor, backward region in the heartland of India where the problem of farm suicides in terms of number, rate, intensity and trend would be the most acute and distressing”.

In the final section of the study, the factors underlying the farmers’ suicides are examined. The report is at pains to emphasise the importance of underlying social and economic causes, rather than trying to explain the problem in terms of single causes such as alcoholism or unsustainable life-style or family problems, which is the method often favoured by the authorities and which end ups by blaming the victims. In Maharashtra, for example the state functionaries have been trying to “delink farm suicides from the agrarian crisis”.

The author argues that it would be perverse not to see the acute agrarian crisis as the underlying factor in the epidemic of suicides. But why, if the crisis is country-wide, do the figures indicate such strong regional variations? Why are the numbers of suicides so high in the one group of states in Central India? The area in question is undeveloped and economically backward, is highly water-stressed, with poor irrigation and scanty, uncertain rainfall, as well as poor soil. With this high degree of vulnerability, the agrarian crisis, when it came, caused particularly severe social problems.

The agrarian crisis itself, the study says, was “precipitated by the neo-liberal state policies in operation since the beginning of the 1990s”. Capital expenditure by the state declined as part of its stabilisation measures, while investment in irrigation and soil conservation was cut, with very serious consequences.

“Banking reforms meant that organised credit to agriculture practically dried up … costs of production particularly of cash crops like cotton shot up. On top of all this, external trade liberalisation in the form of withdrawal of farm quotas and tariffs provided the ground for farm price crash.” The state more or less withdrew its support services in a fragile area where farmers were dependent on them.

“The space vacated by the state”, the study continues, “was taken up by private agents, particularly in areas like credit, supply of seeds and fertilisers, extensions services … and marketing of crops.” There was no regulation of the operation of these agents and “their relationship with the farmers was essentially a predatory one”.

All this resulted in a loss of livelihood for large numbers of farmers in a area where there was no alternative work. What distinguished these five states, particularly the one state of Maharashtra, from the rest was this very great vulnerability to any change or crisis, and it was only a matter of time, the study implies before other states become similarly vulnerable as the crisis worsens.

The study ends by calling for a complete reorientation of agrarian polices, the repeal of all neo-liberal policies and for basic institutional transformation as a basis for comprehensive modernisation. “Such basic changes in state policies rarely come without pressures created by mass movements … India has had an enviable tradition of farmers’ movements, with large-scale mobilisations taking place as late as the 1980s. But today such movements seem to have dried up. Large numbers of farmers seem to be taking their lives rather than taking to the streets. And suicide is a cry of desperation rather than a form of social protest. It is this aspect of the situation which is as disturbing as the epidemic of farm suicides that we witness today,” the study concludes.

This scientific analysis of the figures and its conclusions are supported by other writers and commentators. Countercurrents describes the essence of the crisis eloquently:

“As farming is delinked from the earth, the soil, the biodiversity, and the climate, and linked to global corporations and global markets; and the generosity of the earth is replaced by the greed of the corporations, the viability of small farmers and small farms is destroyed. Farmers suicides are the most tragic and dramatic symptom of the crisis of survival faced by Indian peasants.”

In 1998, the policies of the World Bank forced India to open up the seed industry to companies like Monsanto, Cargill and Syngenta. Seeds saved each year by the farmer were replaced by corporate seeds which required fertilisers and pesticides, and which had to be bought each year. A free resource available on farms or in the state warehouses that had been set up in an earlier period in order to assist farmers, became, overnight, a commodity to be purchased every year by the farmers in many areas.

This development, away from bio-diversity to monoculture in agriculture or uniformity, increases both the risks and the disastrous consequences of crop failure. Furthermore, the agribusiness corporations stand accused of introducing unadapted and untested varieties of corn, cotton and other crops, leading in some areas to complete failure. In the state of Bihar, when Monsanto’s hybrid corn replaced the farm-saved seeds, an entire crop failed which cost the farmers there 4 billion rupees.

With falling world prices (until recently anyway), rising production costs and unfair subsidies in the rich countries like the US, the move away from traditional bio-diverse and sustainable farming towards the growing of cash crops for the global market is causing untold misery for the huge numbers of families dependent on the land.

10 April 2008

Farmers Suicides in India: Magnitudes, Trends and Spatial Patterns, by Karkada Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies

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