Kamal Kishore / Reuters An Indian agricultural worker walks in a paddy field in Naxalbari, in the northeastern state of West Bengal, September 3, 2004.

Down on the Farm

Indian Farmer Suicides—And What Modi is Doing About Them

Last month, India unveiled its latest federal budget. To the surprise of many, it includes a strong emphasis on farming, with plans to double the incomes of Indian farmers within the next six years, to release $16 billion from the budget for rural development projects that include farmers’ welfare initiatives, and to allocate some $2.5 billion to speeding up delayed irrigation projects.

These measures are all the more striking given that the current government came to power in 2014 promising not to uplift India’s agrarian masses but, rather, to modernize and urbanize the country. Until this point, its signature economic reform measures have angered more than assisted farmers. Particularly unpopular was an unsuccessful attempt to pass a land acquisition act that would facilitate corporate purchases of private farmland.

So what gives? Politics is undoubtedly part of the story. Last year, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party was trounced in local elections in the agricultural state of Bihar. This year, polls will be held in other farming states, including West Bengal. Further, 40 percent of Indian families depend on farming and about 55 percent of Indian laborers are in the agriculture sector, which makes it the country’s largest employer. In short, a pro-farm budget makes for good, even necessary, politics.

Malkit Kaur, mother of Kuldeep Singh, a cotton farmer who committed suicide, holds his portrait as Kuldeep's father Thana Singh (R), his brother Hardeep Singh (2nd R) and his widow Bhinder Kaur (L) sit on a cot at their residence on the outskirts of Bhati

Malkit Kaur, mother of Kuldeep Singh, a cotton farmer who committed suicide, holds his portrait as Kuldeep's father Thana Singh (R), his brother Hardeep Singh (2nd R) and his widow Bhinder Kaur (L) sit on a cot at their residence on the outskirts of Bhatinda in Punjab, India, October 28, 2015.

That said, there are also compelling economic reasons for a farming-focused budget. A cycle of drought and debt has brought great suffering to millions of Indian farmers. “Agrarian distress,” as Indian commentators often describe it, has come with a variety of consequences—from violent protests to urban migrations.

It has also exacerbated an alarming epidemic of farmer suicides—a decades-long national affliction that is as complex as it is tragic and is a major threat to the country’s most critical economic sector.

EPIDEMIC

Last year, at a New Delhi rally held by the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) against the BJP’s land acquisition bill, a farmer from Rajasthan state climbed a tree and—to the shock of AAP leaders speaking below on a nearby

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