The rising spate of farmer suicides in different parts of India is not a new phenomenon. According to the recently released Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India (ADSI) report, 10,349 farmers committed suicide in 2018. This amounts to approximately 28 suicides per day. The total number of farmer suicides per million rural population exhibited a decelerating trend till 2014, after which there is a marked.
The incidence of average suicides among male farmers per million rural population is considerably higher as compared to that among female farmers. A total of 3,32,603 farmers (2,84,008 males and 48,595 females) committed suicide between 1995 and 2018 (see chart). According to the ADSI report, 11 States and Union Territories reported no case of farmers’ suicide in 2018.
However, if we consider the State-wise data on average farmer suicides per million rural population per year for 1995-2016 (see Table), it is revealed that around 56 farmer suicides occurred in Karnataka and Chhattisgarh, followed by Maharashtra (54), Kerala (49), Andhra Pradesh (32), Madhya Pradesh (31). . Interestingly, northern States such as Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Bihar have reported low average number of suicides, with Bihar (1) being the lowest. Every year, on an average, the suicide rate is around 19 farmers per million rural population in India. Seven States reported higher numbers than this average (see Table).
What are the reasons behind these suicides? According to the ADSI-2015 report, around 39 per cent of farmers committed suicide due to debts, followed by crop failure due to natural calamities (19 per cent), family problems (12 per cent), illness (11 per cent), drug abuse or alcoholic addiction (4 per cent), marriage-related issues (2 per cent), poverty and property disputes (1 per cent each) and other unknown causes (11 per cent). Also, 8 per cent of farmers committed suicide because of loans taken from money-lenders or non-financial institutions. Between 2014 and 2015, farmer suicide increased by 18 percentage points due to bankruptcy or indebtedness, and by 2 percentage points due to crop failure caused by natural disasters. Moreover, States with higher indebted-farmer households experienced a higher incidence of farmer suicides (Table).
Apart from these reasons, there are various other internal factors that are also responsible for increasing farmer suicide in India. For instance, the relative share of agricultural output in the Gross State Domestic Products and employment in agricultural sector have declined in all States. This has adversely affected the income of the farmers. Furthermore, factors like inadequate irrigation facilities, changing cropping patterns, low return from the farm sector, inadequate agricultural infrastructure, poor agriculture-related marketing policies, and insufficient public investment for agrarian development exacerbated farmer suicides.
Additionally, external factors such as excessive economic liberalisation, low import tariffs, widening disparities between agriculture and non-agricultural sectors, dumping of agricultural goods in global markets are also to blame.
Apart from these factors, farmer suicides in a particular region are directly linked to the vulnerability of that region to extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods (Table). These extreme climatic events increase the risk of crop failure. States like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat, that reported relatively higher numbers of farmer suicides, have a higher percentage of drought-prone areas and lesser flood-prone ones.
However, higher crop damage due to floods has also increased incidence of farmer suicide. A 2017 conference paper presented in the Indian Statistical Institute by Yashobanta Parida shows empirically that damage due to floods reduce agricultural wages. In addition, latest research by Joyita Roy Chowdhury on ‘Natural Disasters and Rural Labor Markets’ at the University of Utah empirically confirms that frequent floods reduce employment opportunities and affect household income . This also directly contributes to farmers’ distress.
According to a 2018 article in the Economics of Disasters and Climate Change by Yashobanta Parida, Devi Prasad Dash, Parul Bhardwaj and Joyita Roy Chowdhury, droughts and moderate floods lead to a higher incidence of farmer suicides, especially in States that have a higher level of rural poverty. The agriculture and allied sectors have become highly susceptible to the vagaries of the weather in the last two decades. Scanty rainfall leads to drought and excess rainfall causes flood, adversely affecting agricultural output and rural employment. This creates downward pressure on income and wages, leading to a rise in rural poverty levels.
The incidence of farmer suicides is also higher in cotton-producing States, which experience frequent drought-like conditions.
To end this agrarian crisis, it is pertinent that the government devise suitable agriculture-related policies that reduce agrarian distress. First, every State government should create a proper database and identify farmers eligible for availing agricultural input subsidies and direct transfer benefits. For example, according to local media reports, more than 50 per cent of paddy crop is produced by the landless farmers in Odisha, but they are unable to receive benefits from any government schemes in the case of crop failure because these benefits are availed by landlords. Such faulty policies increase farmer distress.
Second, the State and Central governments should take adequate steps to ensure that the small, marginal, and landless farmers are able to avail the benefits of loan-waiver schemes. Generally, big farmers and landlords benefit relatively more from these kind of schemes. Political parties should not politicise crop loan-waiver schemes winning elections.
These schemes, largely, help landowning farmers and hence are not very effective at reducing farmers’ distress. Third, the dependence of agriculture on the vagaries of monsoon should be reduced by introducing minor and major irrigation facilities and alternative cropping pattern.
This should be coupled with increasing agrarian investment in the areas of flood control, irrigation management, and agricultural research and development. A compulsory crop insurance should be implemented and agricultural marketing policies should be revamped to improve farm income.
Fourth, local weather-forecasting authorities should jointly work with social media to provide inputs related to extreme weather conditions.
Finally, alternative employment opportunities in agriculture and allied sectors (particularly in the dairy sector) can also potentially arrest the rising incidence of farmer suicides.
Parida is research fellow, Verghese Kurien Centre of Excellence, Institute of Rural Management Anand. Saini is Assistant Professor in Economics, University of Delhi, Views are personal
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