Since the beginning of February, a group of farmers have been protesting in Delhi, demanding that the government provide a guarantee on Minimum Support Price (MSP) for crop production. While the protest is creating waves across the country, data shows that the average monthly income of a farmer household was as low as ₹10,218 in 2019. This is based on the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) ‘Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holding, 2019’ survey, which was released in 2021.

Punjab, Haryana, and Kerala have the highest average monthly income among farming households in the country - ₹26,701, ₹22,841 and ₹17,915, respectively. Historically, the northern regions like Punjab and Haryana were the primary beneficiaries of the late 1980s ‘green revolution,’ improving crop yield, whereas Kerala had undergone a land reform movement in the late 1950s that benefited farmers through the equitable distribution of land.

On the other side of the spectrum are States like Jharkhand, Odisha, and West Bengal with the lowest household incomes among farming households in India. An average agricultural household in these States earns ₹4,895, ₹5,112 and ₹6,762, respectively.

Neck deep in debt

The survey data shows that around half of the agricultural households in India are in debt, with the percentage fluctuating over the years – 48.6 per cent in 2003, 51.9 per cent in 2013, and a slight decrease to 50.2 per cent in 2019.

Coming down heavily on the government’s policies for trapping the farmers in debt, Development economist Venkatesh B Athreya said, “The government’s neo-liberal policies have squeezed the availability of investment funds for small and marginal farmers, forcing them to turn to money lenders and other non-institutional sources, leading to a high burden of debt. With rising input costs, subsidy declines in real terms, and failure of government to ensure procurement at reasonable prices, millions of farmers have been forced into debt traps.”

All South Indian States top the list, with most of their agricultural households in debt. This includes Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Kerala, with percentages of 93.2 per cent, 91.7 per cent, and 69.9 per cent, respectively.

The author of the book ‘GATT and India: The Politics of Agriculture,’ Devinder Sharma, points out a primary reason for southern States topping the list in most debts, “The southern States are primarily dry lands, and the lack of rainfall in these States makes the farmers prone to invest in other means that cost them more money, unlike States such as Punjab, which primarily receives better rainfall and has an assured irrigation system.”

Amid this, Maya Kant Awasthi, who teaches Food and Agribusiness Management at IIM Lucknow said that the Centre is focusing on policies to boost agricultural productivity. “It is primarily focusing on enhancing technology, irrigation, and providing credit at a cheaper rate to the farmers for the wellness of the farming sector.”

Maharashtra leads in suicide cases

Additional data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh recorded the highest number of farmer suicides in India, with 2,708, 1,323, and 369 cases, respectively.

The Indian Journal of Psychiatry suggests that Maharashtra is the epicentre of farmer suicides, and multiple factors such as bankruptcy, the debt cycle, crop failure, and less focus on mental health could be reasons for the rising number of suicides among farmers. Hence, the State needs to take the initiative to address the main problems that farmers face and work towards resolving them.