Financial distress, lack of timely help and crop failure have often been blamed for the spiralling numbers in farm suicides in India. Now, a US study has added climate change as another significant factor that is driving the disaster northwards.

Just a degree rise in temperatures above 20 degrees during the crucial crop growing season (June-September) could push up the number of suicides by 70. In the last 30 years, a total of 59,000 farmer suicides in India have been attributed to the direct cause of rising temperatures by the study published by the University of California, Berkeley researchers.

The striking correlation between the rising temperatures — dropping yields — suicides established by the researchers in the 13 States studied (1956-2000) is both disturbing and could be critical in formulating preventive strategies in future. Maharashtra (especially Vidarbha region), Telangana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu clearly demonstrate that when temperatures rise, crop yields drop and higher number of suicides are reported.

Drought impact The researchers evaluated crop yield data from all the 32 States and Union Territories.. Further, district level yield data from the 13 states was intensely studied to the response to climate change factors. They found a dip in annual yields with a rise in temperature and increase in suicides.

In contrast, an increase of a one cm of rainfall during the growing season led to a fall of around 7 per cent average in the rate of suicides in these regions.

Clearly, drought is precipitating the matter, while a good monsoon, cheers up the lives of farmers in most of the rainfed agriculture areas.

The researcher Tamma Carleton says in the paper published in PNAS online ( Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ) that the suicide rates in India have virtually doubled since the 1980’s. The Berkeley researchers analysed data sourced from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for the period 1967-2013.

The Bureau captures all kinds of deaths and is the main source for information on farm suicides. In the last couple of years an average of over 12,000 suicides of farmers or farm hands have been reported as per the Bureau statistics. Most deaths are due to pesticide consumption and hanging and consequences of indebtedness and bankruptcy.

Economic factors The authors say the relationship between economic shocks and suicide is controversial and, in India, the effect of income-damaging climate variation on suicide rates is unknown. Though, the Centre has announced a $1.3 billion climate-based, crop insurance scheme motivated as suicide prevention policy, evidence to support such an intervention is still lacking. Previous studies of income variability affecting suicide are mostly anecdotal or qualitative and do not attempt to identify and synthesise quantitative relationships between climate, crops and suicides, they claimed.

Farm loan write-offs by Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh recently and even by the UPA government have been resorted to as means to alleviate the problems, help farmers distress and in a way gain political mileage. Even subsidies on inputs like fertilisers and easy loans have not halted the growing demands from farmers for more soft loans and better minimum support price for the crop.

Daunting task With Indian agriculture continuing to be dependent on timely rains, landholdings being small and farmers struggling for finances, the challenge to face the consequences of the growing impact of climate change is indeed daunting. Forecasts predict a temperature rise of atleast 3 more degrees by 2050.

This implies urgent and increased measures to improve rural farmers credit, crop insurance cover and preventive strategies both at policy and ground level to avoid disastrous consequences in the long-term.