Indian Farmer Suicides

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Indian Farmer Suicides refers to an chronic incidence of suicide amongst Indian farmers claiming at least 250,000 fatalities.[1] The conditions driving Indian farmers to commit suicides is the "liberalization" of agriculture resulting more imports, lower prices, misguided agricultural extension advice, and pressure by different groups to acquire land. The so-called liberalization of the Indian agriculture began during the 1990s.

Quantifying the Epidemic

In 2008, K. Nagaraj analyzed the data up to that point. At that point, official statistics found that 166,304 farmers committed suicides between 1997 and 2006. From these numbers, "on average nearly 16,000 farmers committed suicide every year" for a decade and "every seventh suicide in the country was a farm suicide."[2] However, this is likely an underestimation:

"We would believe that even this number, shocking as it is, is in fact an underestimation of the actual number of farm suicides in the country during this period. These data published by the National Crime Records Bureau, as we have noted above, are put together from the police records from different states. Our experience during our field visits in Andhra Pradesh as a member of the Farmers’ Commission set by the state government in 2004 was that the police often adopted a rather strict and stringent definition of a farmer in identifying a farm suicide. The title to land was taken as the criterion for identifying the farmer and this often left out a genuine farmer from the count. For example, a tenant farmer who leased in land and hence did not have a title to the land could be denied the status of a farmer; so also a farmer if the title was in his father’s name."[2]

A few trends are clear within the national data. First, "the number of farm suicides have kept up a more or steady increase over this period in the country." In the years 1998 and 2002 there was a sharp increase in the number of farm suicides over the previous years, 18% and 10%, respectively. Following those increases, the numbers remained fairly steady, at around 16,000 farm suicides per year between 1998 and 2001, and between 17,000 and 18,000 between 2002 and 2006.[2] Male farmers are the vast majority - 85 percent - of farm suicides. "Suicides in general, among the population as a whole, are also largely concentrated among males, but the degree of concentration here is significantly lower than in the case of farm suicides: male suicides in the general population account for nearly 62 percent of all suicides in the country." However, this might be due to the undercounting of female farmers, as they often would not have titles to the land.

To truly see the magnitude of the crisis, these numbers must be viewed on a regional basis instead of as a national average.

"In terms of distribution of the number of suicides, the extent of concentration in certain states – and regions – in the country seems to be higher in the case of farm suicides compared to general suicides. Thus the top five states in terms of the number of farm suicides in 2001 – viz., Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh – account for nearly two-thirds ( 63 percent) of the suicides in the country. The top five states in terms of the number of general suicides only partially overlaps with this set: they are Maharastra, West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and they account for nearly 57 per cent of the total general suicides in the country."[2]

Looking at those five states with the highest farm suicides - Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh - they "are contiguous and hence form a region or zone."[2] In that region, farmer suicides constituted 21.7% of all suicides in 2001 and represented a much higher rate of suicides than the general population, even using the numbers for farmer suicides that are likely underestimations, as noted above. Between 1997-2006, farmer suicides in those states were 21.2% of all suicides. During the decade, farm suicides increased by 61% compared to a 34% increase in total suicides and a 27.6% increase in non-farmer suicides. This region is home to merely 30% of the population and 33% of the farmers, but has 60% of the nation's farmer suicides. In 2006, the region had 68.2% of Indian farmer suicides.

"Within this region, it is in the state of Maharashtra that the problem is particularly acute and distressing. Over the ten years between 1997 and 2006 the number of farm suicides in this state more than doubled, from 1917 to 4453. This gives an annual compound growth rate of an exceedingly high figure of 9.8 per cent for farm suicides here, a rate at which the number would double every 7-8 years. Considering the period 1997-2006 as a whole, every fifth farm suicide committed in the country during this period occurred in Maharashtra; for the latest year, i.e., 2006 this figure is every more stark: every fourth farm suicide in the country occurred here in that year."[2]

Although there is no district-level data available, available evidence, "particularly from an alert socially conscious print media in the country," points to "certain pockets within each of these states... where farm suicides are concentrated and where the problem would be very, very acute. The Vidarbha region in Maharashtra, Deccan and Hyderabad Karnataka regions in Karnataka, Telangana and Rayalaseema regions in Andhra Pradesh seem to be the ones – along with Wayanad in Kerala – have received a great deal of attention and coverage by the press on this issue... Now these sub-regions within these states – i.e., Vidharbha, Deccan and Hyderabad Karnataka, Telangana and Rayalaseema and Chhattisgarh – in fact do constitute a contiguous region in the heartland of India as it were." The area is a "semi-arid, poor, backward region in the heartland of India" and it appears that this is likely where the farm suicide issue is most severe.

Causes of the Epidemic

Changes in Rural India from the 1960s to 1980s

Indian agriculture changed dramatically in the latter half of the 20th century. The Green Revolution introduced seeds that farmers must purchase along with inputs to make the seeds yield well - synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. The seeds often required irrigation as well. The epidemic of suicides beginning in the late 1990s must be viewed in the context of the changes in agriculture and agricultural policy that came in the decades preceding it. (See also the articles on Wheat Breeding in the Green Revolution and The Green Revolution in India.)

"Another fact is that in the Indian context, the agrarian capitalism was introduced or juxtaposed on the existing social structure. In the process, it allowed different social structures to coexist along with the capitalism - it allowed the presence of different social structures along with agrarian capitalism. This does not mean that the state intervention was limited: its intervention was conditioned by such other factors as increasing the productivity, interlinking the local with the international market, bringing in large amount of land under capitalist development, remove the social categories who are “drag on the economy”, and finally create new social categories such as rich peasantry who can partake in the capitalist development.. This has been done by using different methods - one of the methods was by introducing Green Revolution, which created surplus food, but allowed global capitalist to enter into the domain of agriculture through the means of seeds, fertilisers, etc. Secondly it was done through the means of land reforms. However, it was only partially successful, and that too, only in some states including Karnataka. This helped in bringing new social categories into the market, and also created spaces for them to operate at local/regional/national level. Finally, it is done through introducing co-operatives and other financial institutions. However, they tended to cater to the needs of large farmers, especially those who had land and other properties. However, the intervention of the state in the capitalist development of agriculture, including the ambiguous path that it resorted to, ultimately led to larger consequences on agriculture. Here lies the failure of Indian state too.
"This is also the reason why the crisis began to emerge within one or two decades of the introduction of Green Revolution, when a series of farmers’ movements came to emerge in different parts of India. Their demand mainly centered on the issues of remunerative prices or support prices, writing off loans, declaring agriculture as an industry, increased subsidies to agriculture produce, etc. Thus, the crisis brought the Indian State, including the Indian industrial classes to the focus. While analysing the crisis, loosing the class identity of the farmers’ movements also assumed the centrality of debate. Further, the farmers’ movements employed newer theoretical discourses. It was best conceptualised by Sharad Joshi in his famous, “India versus Bharat”- the former representing the industrialised India, which can be located both in the agrarian economy as well as in the metropolitan/cosmopolitan cities while the latter, “Bharat” wholly representing the agrarian India."[3]

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