The crisis of farmer suicides

  • Blog Post Date 04 May, 2016
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Maitreesh Ghatak

London School of Economics

More than 15,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide per year, on average, in the last two decades – a suicide rate that appears to be higher than that of the general population. In this article, Maitreesh Ghatak emphasises the need to think of farmer suicides as a policy problem, rather than tragedy, and to deliberate on the causes and remedies.

The public suicide of a farmer at the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) rally in Delhi last month, while dramatic, is not an isolated incident. It is yet another grim addition to a staggering tally of nearly 300,000 Indian farmers who have committed suicide in the last two decades. The exact figure, from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is 296,417, for the period 1995-2013. One farmer suicide is a tragedy, but more than 15,000 a year on average for the last two decades is a crisis. Just to give a sense of the magnitude, that is nearly twice the annual number of dowry deaths.

All political parties and the Prime Minister have expressed their grief. After routine lip service to “let’s not politicise a tragedy”, political parties have done precisely that. After all, what is politics if not making currency out of tragedy, resentment, and outrage? The main opposition party has criticised the current Land Bill, saying that it is anti-farmer, even though it is just a tweak of the Land Bill they introduced a few years ago, with stiff opposition from the current ruling party. There has been little systematic discussion of policies to address the problem of farmer suicides, other than a series of ad hoc short-run measures like loan waivers or relief packages to alleviate farmer distress, or payments to the family in the event of a suicide.

Suicide is first and foremost a tragedy, and I do not doubt the sincerity of anyone who expresses grief. However, calling farmer suicides a tragedy almost makes it a human condition that is universal and eternal, rather than a policy problem, absolving us from thinking hard about the causes and possible remedies.

Suicide rate of farmers vs. general suicide rate

Even when it is accepted that a high rate of suicide is a problem worthy of attention, some have argued that farmers’ suicides are part of a broader trend on suicide among all groups and an excessive focus on farmers may be misguided. Also, there may indeed be other groups in the population whose suicide rates are higher than that of the general population (example, housewives). Variations in suicide rates in different demographic groups deserve careful analysis, and studying farmer suicides should not be taken in any way to imply that it is the demographic group for which the problem is the most acute. Equally, if farmer suicide rates are higher than the general suicide rate, nationally or in some specific states, not trying to understand the specific socioeconomic factors that could be driving it because suicide is a general problem or there are other demographic groups which are at higher-than-average risk of suicide than farmers, would also be misguided.

Turning to data, we can find overall number of suicides and farmer suicides from the NCRB, which uses police records as its source. To obtain suicide rates (as opposed to absolute numbers) we need the relevant size of the population. NCRB reports overall suicide rates for the whole population. To obtain suicide rates for farmers, we need census estimates of population size in different occupational groups. Let us take the latest year for which census numbers are available, namely, 2011. For this year, the general suicide rate according to NCRB turns out to be 11 per 100,000 of the population. If we take census estimates for 2011 of all cultivators as the relevant reference group to obtain suicide rates for farmers (whose population size is 118,808,780 according to the census), including those for whom farming is a marginal activity, then farmer suicide rates would indeed appear similar to suicide rates for the rest of the population. However, if we take farmers whose main occupation is farming (whose population is 95,942,413 according to the census) as opposed to those who are described as marginal cultivators, the corresponding suicide rate is 15. In 2001, the previous census year, the corresponding figures are 11 for the general population, and 16 for cultivators whose main occupation was farming, according to this study. These are noticeable differences. The suicide statistics of NCRB do not have the split between farmers in terms of whether their main occupation is cultivation or not. Case studies and media reports suggest that they tend to be full-time farmers. To the extent that is the case, it seems farmers (whose main occupation is farming) as an occupational group do have a higher rate of suicide than the general population nationally. But even if we take all cultivators (and not just those for whom cultivation is the main occupation), and look at more disaggregated state-specific numbers, as this study has done, the gap between the suicide rates of farmers and the general population is rather large in states that top the list for farmer suicides, such as Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

Not just that, there are reasons to believe that the existing data is likely to under-estimate farmer suicides.

Given that suicide is associated with social stigma for the family and is in fact a crime according to Indian law, NCRB statistics on suicides are subject to an under-reporting bias. Indeed, a recent WHO report as well as a study published in the Lancet suggests a considerably higher rate of suicides for India than the calculations based on the NCRB would suggest.

While these factors would tend to affect the reporting of all suicides, there are additional reasons why farmer suicide rates are under-reported. First, as has been pointed out, a suicide is classified as a farmer suicide only if the farmer’s name is on the land title, which would tend to leave out tenants or those whose father’s name is on the title. Second, some states have occasionally reported zero farmer suicides in recent years which is highly implausible (Chhattisgarh in 2011 and 2013, West Bengal in 2012 and 2013), given that these states have seen relatively high numbers of farmer suicides in the recent past and their overall suicide rates are in line with their record in the recent past. The politically sensitive nature of farmer suicides would be another reason for under-reporting of farmer suicides. This also makes assessing the trend in overall farmer suicide rates relative to general suicide rates difficult. One study concludes that there was a generally rising trend from the mid-90s, reaching a peak in 2004, and then again spiking in 2009 and there is a drop since 2010 but concludes that this is likely to be driven by certain states abruptly reporting zero farmer suicides.

Prosperity is not equally distributed

Juxtaposed with the generally high growth rates of income in the last two decades, the phenomenon of farmer suicides, which began to attract attention since the late-90s, presents us with a genuine puzzle: why are farmers committing suicide while India is being celebrated for its growth performance and for lifting millions out of poverty over the last two decades (ignoring the economic slowdown in the last couple of years)?

The clue to the puzzle is our obsession with aggregate measures (like per capita income or growth) that obscures the great variation that exists across different parts of the country and across different groups of people. Consider this: sticking to the major states in terms of population, the problem of farmer suicides in the country is particularly severe in Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Yet, Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are also amongst states with highest per capita incomes, and Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are in the list of top five states in terms of growth rates of income.

This indicates that prosperity is not equally distributed and not everyone is being lifted by the rising tide of growth. Indeed, if we look at the states that report the highest levels of inequality, then the top-five list overlaps almost perfectly with those that report the most farmer suicides: Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.

A study that correlates incidence of farmer suicides to various characteristics of a state finds a strong positive correlation between farmer suicides and proportion of farmers with marginal landholdings among all farmers, proportion of land used in the cultivation of cash crops, and proportion of farmers who are indebted. Small farmers who are cultivating cash crops need loans to cover their costs. Lack of institutional banking facilities means dependence on moneylenders and intermediaries, friends, and family members. Low rates of return in agriculture are compounded by the risk these small farmers face from crop failure (being rainfall-dependent) as well as volatility of market prices. A whole set of case studies suggest that many farmers who committed suicide were tipped over the edge by a negative income shock, being already under pressure to pay off their existing debts. It is true that in terms of leading cause of suicide indebtedness does not figure very highly, but as this study convincingly argues, attributing a unique cause to a suicide is ad hoc, often reflect the opinion of the police officers whose veracity can be questioned, and, even when there is reasons to believe such data are credible, the causes listed would tend to over-emphasise individual motivations and behavioural patterns and not the larger socioeconomic factors.

In my own field work talking to farmers in Singur, I found that the poorest farmers are the most keen to clutch on to their meagre landholdings since land to them is an insurance option, a credit line, and a substitute to old-age pension. This suggests a vicious circle - because of the eagerness of small farmers to hold on to land, land becomes a constraint for infrastructure building or industrialisation and that in turn depresses off-farm employment prospects and causes small farmers to continue with their precarious existence in agriculture.

Way out

The way out of the vicious cycle is a combination of the following measures: public investment in rural infrastructure (irrigation, roads), expansion of institutional credit to enable farmers to avoid being exploited by moneylenders and middlemen, improving access to insurance products, and a rationalisation of the wasteful and regressive subsidy raj that helps the richest farmers (who, in addition, pay no income taxes), at the expense of the poor, to create a social safety net for smaller farmers. But before we discuss the specifics of such policies, a first step would be to snap out of the growth-obsession that seems to pervade our media and policy discussions.

Growth was the magic mantra that was sold to the voters in the national election last year and anyone who questioned the obsession with growth and the neglect of other economic indicators (example, human development measures) was brushed off as a jholawalla or an apologist for the previous government. May be it is still early days, but unfortunately, beyond some natural corrections in tune with global trends, and some light statistical jiggle-juggle, not much has happened on the growth front. But I, for one, am happy not to harp on “Where is the double-digit growth?” to the extent this leads to a renewed focus on the reasons why growth is potentially valuable: to improve the quality of life of all citizens. And, taking one’s own life is the most negative statement a citizen can make about the quality of his or her own life.

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