Science in Society Archive

A 12-Year Saga of Farm Suicides in India

In 2006-08, Maharastra saw 12 493 farm suicides, 85 percent higher than the 6 745 suicides it recorded during 1997-1999, and the worst three year period for any State at any time despite huge government debt relief packages
P. Sainath

Worsening trend since 2002

The loan waiver year of 2008 saw 16 196 farm suicides in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Compared to 2007, that's a fall of just 436. As economist Professor K. Nagaraj at Madras Institute of Development Studies in Tamil Nadu, who has worked in-depth on farm suicide data, says, “The numbers leave little room for comfort and none at all for self-congratulation.” There were no major changes in the trend that set in from the late 1990s and worsened after 2002. The dismal truth is that very high numbers of farm suicides still occur within a fast decreasing farm population .

Between the Census of 1991 and that of 2001, nearly eight million cultivators quit farming. A year from now, the 2011 Census will tell us how many more quit in this decade. It is not likely to be less. It could dwarf that 8 million figure as the exodus from farming probably intensified after 2001. The State farm suicide rates — number of farmers committing suicide per 100 000 farmers — are still pegged to the outdated 2001 figures.

Much worse than it appears

Looking at farm suicides as a share of total suicides in India is misleading. That way, it's “aha! The percentage is coming down.”

First, the total number of suicides (all groups) is increasing in a growing population. Farm suicides, however, are rising within a declining farm population. Second, an all-India picture further obscures the intensity. The devastation is concentrated in the Big Five (cotton growing) States (Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh), accounting for two-thirds of all farm suicides during 2003-08.

Taking just the Big Five, their percentage of all farm suicides has gone up. Worse, even their percentage of total all-India suicides (all categories) has risen. Poor States like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have been doing very badly for some years now. In the period 1997-2002, farm suicides in the Big 5 States accounted for roughly one out of every 12 of all suicides in the country. In 2003-08, they accounted for nearly one out of every 10.

The NCRB now has farm suicide data for 12 years. Actually, farm data appear in its records from 1995 onwards, but some States failed to report for the first two years. Hence 1997, the first year when all States began reporting their farm suicide data, is a more reliable base year. The NCRB has also made access much easier by placing all past years of “Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India” reports on its website. The 12-year period allows us to compare farm suicide numbers for 1997-2002, with how they turned out in the next 6-year period of 2003-2008. All 12 years were pretty bad, but the latter six were decidedly worse (see Table 1).

Table 1. Farm suicides in the ‘big five' cotton states compared with the rest of India

Year

Maharashtra

Andhra Pradesh

Karnataka

Madhya Pradesh & Chhatisgarh *

Farm suicides in

Big 5 states

yearly total

Farm suicides All-India yearly total

ALL suicides in India yearly total

Big 5 as % of all farm suicides

Big 5 as % of ALL suicides

1997

1917

1097

1832

2390

7236

13622

95829

53.1

7.6

1998

2409

1813

1883

2278

8383

16015

104713

52.3

8.0

1999

2423

1974

2379

2654

9430

16082

110587

58.6

8.5

2000

3022

1525

2630

2660

9837

16603

108593

59.2

9.1

2001

3536

1509

2505

2824

10374

16415

108506

63.2

9.6

2002

3695

1896

2340

2578

10509

17971

110417

58.5

9.5

TOTALS 1997-2002

17002

9814

13569

15384

55769

96708

638645

57.5

8.7

2003

3836

1800

2678

2511

10825

17164

110851

63.1

9.8

2004

4147

2666

1963

3033

11809

18241

113697

64.7

10.4

2005

3926

2490

1883

2660

10959

17131

113914

64.0

9.6

2006

4453

2607

1720

2858

11638

17060

118112

68.2

9.9

2007

4238

1797

2135

2856

11026

16632

122637

66.3

9.0

2008

3802

2105

1737

3152

10797

16196

125017

66.7

8.6

TOTALS 2003-2008

24402

13465

12116

17070

67054

102424

704228

65.5

9.6

TOTALS 1997-2008

41404

23279

25685

32454

122823

199132

1342873

61.5

9.1

* MP & Chhattisgarh now have separately recorded data for recent years (available on the NCRB website ). As the data for earlier years cannot be disaggregated we treat them as a single entity in this table, for convenience.

Source: Data for 1997-2005 derived by Prof. K. Nagaraj from NCRB reports (Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India) for those years (The Hindu , Nov. 12-15, 2007) and extended thereafter with NCRB ADSI data from years 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Maharastra the top suicide state despite huge government relief

Reading a ‘trend' into a single year's dip or rise is misleading. Better to look at 3-year or 6-year periods within 1997-2008. For instance, Maharashtra saw a decline in farm suicide numbers in 2005, but the very next year proved to be its worst ever. Since 2006, the State has been the focus of many initiatives. Manmohan Singh's visit to Vidharbha that year brought the “Prime Minister's Relief Package” of Rs3 750 crore for six crisis-ridden districts of the region. This came on top of Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's Rs1 075 crore “CM's relief package.” Then followed the nearly Rs9 000 crore that was Maharashtra's share of the Rs70 000 crore (US$15.18 bn) Central loan waiver for farmers; to which the State government added Rs 6 200 crore for those farmers not covered by the waiver. The State added Rs.500 crore for a one-time settlement (OTS) for poor farmers who had been excluded from the waiver altogether because they owned over five acres of land. In all, the amounts committed to fighting the agrarian crisis in Maharashtra totalled Rs20 525 crore (about US$ 4.35 bn) from 2006 to 2008. (And that's not counting huge handouts to the sugar barons.) Yet, that proved to be the worst three-year period ever for any State at any time since the recording of farm data began.

In 2006-08, Maharashtra saw 12 493 farm suicides; nearly 600 more than the previous worst of 2002-2005 and 85 per cent higher than the 6 749 suicides recorded in the three-year period of 1997-1999 (see Table 2). The average suicides per year in the period 1997-2002 is 2834 compared to 4067 in the period 2003-2008, an increase of 43.5 percent. The same government was in power, incidentally, in the worst six years. Moreover, these higher numbers are coming from a shrinking farm population. By 2001, 42 per cent of Maharashtra's population was already urban. Its farmer base has certainly not grown.

Table 2. Farm suicides Maharashtra: four 3-year periods

1997-1999

1999-2002

2003-2005

2006-2008

1917

3022

3836

4453

2409

3536

4147

4238

2423

3695

3926

3802

6749

10253

11909

12493

So was the loan waiver useless? The idea of a waiver was not a bad thing. And it was right to intervene. It could also be argued that but for the relief the waiver brought to some farmers at least, the suicide numbers of 2008 could have been a lot worse. The waiver was a welcome step for farmers, but its architecture was flawed. A point strongly made in “ Oh! What a lovely waiver” ( The Hindu , March 10, 2008). It dealt only with bank credit and ignored moneylender debt. So only those farmers with access to institutional credit would benefit. Tenant farmers in Andhra Pradesh and poor farmers in Vidharbha and elsewhere get their loans mainly from moneylenders. So, in fact, farmers in Kerala, where everyone has a bank account, were more likely to gain. (Kerala was also the one State to address the issue of moneylender debt.)

The 2008 waiver also excluded those holding over five acres, making no distinction between irrigated and non-irrigated land. This devastated many struggling farmers with eight or 10 acres of poor, dry land. On the other hand, West Bengal's farmers, huge numbers of small holders below the 5-acre limit, stood to gain far more.

Commercialisation of agriculture and high debt to blame

Every suicide has a multiplicity of causes. But when you have nearly 200 000 among farmers, it makes sense to seek broad common factors within that group. As Dr. Nagaraj has repeatedly pointed out, the suicides appear concentrated in regions of high commercialisation of agriculture and very high peasant debt. Cash crop farmers seemed far more vulnerable to suicide than those growing food crops. Yet the basic underlying causes of the crisis remained untouched. The predatory commercialisation of the countryside; a massive decline in investment in agriculture; the withdrawal of bank credit at a time of soaring input prices; the crash in farm incomes combined with an explosion of cultivation costs; the shifting of millions from food crop to cash crop cultivation with all its risks; the corporate hijack of every major sector of agriculture including, and especially, seed; growing water stress and moves towards privatisation of that resource. The government was trying to beat the crisis with a one-off waiver; leaving in place all its causes.

P. Sainath is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu and author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought ; this article is based on a report that first appeared in The Hindu 25 January 2010

Article first published 09/02/10



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There are 8 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Rory Short Comment left 9th February 2010 17:05:00
There is definitely something that has gone awfully wrong in agriculture in India, especially for cash croppers. The last paragraph in the article probably correctly lists the ostensible reasons for this state of affairs. However in my view the reasons listed are actually the consequences of a deeper problem in societies in general and that is the ongoing destruction of the organic relationship between us humans and the rest of creation. This destruction has come about because in the past this relationship existed unconsciously at societal level and hence by default. Now that commercial agricultural interests, because they are ignorant of the relationships existence and the need for its maintenance, operate in all sorts of ways as though it does not exist with the unfolding consequences that lead to farmer suicides.

Prof. Joan Mencher Comment left 10th February 2010 15:03:34
Clearly things have gone wrong for those farmers who have been influenced by state and national government pressures to only grow cash crops, especially those that have a large export potential. In this context, it is also useful to look at those farmers who do not commit suicide. On the whole they tend to have not taken such large loans for chemical pesticides, herbicides, seeds etc. They tend to continue to grow food crops to be eaten not only by their own families but also for local markets and nearby cities. They inter-crop, rotate their crops and have a backup in case one particular crop fails. They also tend to have begun to make use of water conservation measures including the digging of small ponds (1/10 acre or even less) to save water so that if they have a flood or drought at one point in time, they can grow something in the next season. They grow crops that mature at different times during a given season, and which need different ecological niches. Excessive commercialization as noted by other commentators usually means growing for distant markets and ignoring soil regeneration.

adam breasley Comment left 9th February 2010 13:01:33
the un committee on economic social and cultural rights in 2008 issued a decision ensuring the indian government promotion of gm cotton seeds to poor farmers worsening the widespread suicide problem. The committee recommended the indian government provide generic shareable saveable seed.

Dr. Joseph Makkolil Comment left 9th February 2010 10:10:33
If the state and central government can close all the agriculture universities,institutes and departments,this may be the better solution.

sunil Tambe Comment left 9th February 2010 10:10:04
Western Maharashtra--from Nasik to Kolhapur including Ahmednagar, is the belt where one finds excessive commercialization of agriculture, be it horticulture, dairy or sugarcane. This is the belt which is comparatively advance in industrialization as well. So far commercialization of agriculture, since British period, Vidarbha has been one of the top producer of cotton.

Bar Comment left 1st September 2010 09:09:16
I'm interested by indian farmers suicides by states, from 1997 to 2007 and I can't find these data on NCRB.

jacques Fremy Comment left 12th February 2010 10:10:09
figures are too big not to be carefuly analysed to be followed by proper action programs. Uncle jacques.

Policetti Comment left 13th February 2010 21:09:19
No use of blamimg anybody for the pathetic condition of the farmers in India.Of course we need to sympathise with the families of the farmers commiting suicides.One of the major solution for these problems is,organise the farmers into smaller groups(like women self help groups,SHGs,a different cooperative structure other than the existing ones in India) These groups or cooperatives must be owned the farmers themselves without political involvement.They must do the following...briefly: Try to motivate and educate the farmers to change their atittudes. Train the farmers in agricultural aspects like soil conservation, seed production pest management etc. Train them in smaller cooperatives managed by themselves without political involvement......(like the german cooperatives). Create a situation where they can market their products..the cooperative should take care of this.. The farmer must be responsible for his problems and solving them within the cooperative.The group should support him.The principle is 'One for all,all for one' In order to achieve these the state and central governments,the NGOs,the social organisations etc, must work selflessly until the farmer gains the self confidence and attains the purchasing capacity.

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