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 stage—proceeded to hang himself. It was a horrifyingly effective means of bringing the scope of the problem to the attention of India’s political class.

Indian officials, however, must have long been aware of the suicide epidemic—and the staggering figures that accompany it. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a branch of the Ministry of Home Affairs, maintains statistics on farmer suicides. Tallies from other sources are less dependable because they vary so wildly. When a Times of India investigation in February sought figures for farmer suicides in the state of Gujarat, the prime minister’s office bizarrely said that there had been only one between 2003 and 2012. The agriculture ministry said there had been more than 600—over just a two-year period in 2013–14.

In fact, according to the NCRB, more than 300,000 farmers took their own lives between 1995 and 2014, which equals approximately one farmer suicide every 30 minutes. In 2014—the most recent year for which full-year figures are available—nearly 12,400 committed suicide, a five percent increase from 2013. (This figure combines total suicides of landholding cultivators and landless agricultural laborers; the NCRB lists figures for each of these categories separately, and refers to the former category only as “farmers.”) More recently, there were 124 suicides through mid-February 2016 in Maharashtra, and at least several dozen in the state of Telangana in January.

cotton farmer

Farmer Darshan Singh plucks cotton from his damaged cotton field on the outskirts of Bhatinda in Punjab, India, October 28, 2015.

According to a University of Massachusetts study published in January, the number of Indian farmer suicides per 100,000 farmers has been on an upward trajectory for decades, nationally and in almost every Indian state. By contrast, the number of suicides per 100,000 people for non-farmers has remained flat. (According to the World Health Organization, India’s number of suicides per 100,000 people is the world’s tenth highest.)

To be sure, farmer suicides are not a uniquely Indian phenomenon; they occur in many countries, including in the United States. Still, it’s hard to find any documented cases of other countries with numbers so high, and over such a long period. And even NCRB figures may understate the vastness of the problem. Suicide is a crime in India, so it is safe to assume that many cases are never reported by families, and especially not to the police. NCRB figures are based entirely on police reports.

IN DEBT

According to the conventional wisdom, it is usually crippling debt—triggered and exacerbated by a range of factors from extreme weather to a lack of state support—that compels farmers to take their lives. To some extent, the conventional wisdom is correct, and has been for years. In 2008, one of us (Kanchwala) interviewed farmers’ widows in the state of Andhra Pradesh. From this fieldwork emerged a consistent narrative of desperate farmers driven to suicide by debts they could not clear. More recent research—such as that conducted by the Human Rights Law Network in Uttar Pradesh—comes to similar conclusions.

That said, 300,000 self-afflicted deaths can’t possibly be attributed to a single cause. Debt, in fact, may not be as common a cause as is often assumed. Indeed, many farmers who commit suicide own substantial amounts of land—and those owning land are less likely to have high debt. Additionally, one can assume that the impoverished are particularly indebted. However, Bihar and Orissa—two of India’s poorest states—have some of the lowest numbers of farmer suicides in the country.

Some blame the microfinance industry for charging prohibitive rates of interest and employing aggressive money lenders that literally hound farmers to death. (In part, this problem results from the fact that the poor often can’t afford institutional loans and must instead depend on more informal and predatory lenders.) An Associated Press report in 2012 suggested that one large microfinance group, SKS, could be linked to suicides (not just those of farmers) across India. It cited cases of SKS debt collectors harassing and threatening people who later killed themselves.

Others, including, most famously, Prince Charles, have implicated genetically modified cotton seeds, which require high levels of inputs, ample irrigation, and complicated cultivation techniques—all challenges for impoverished and poorly educated small farmers. Studies have indeed found that heavy use of GMO seeds can increase the risk of bankruptcy for Indian farmers. Critics, including the Indian government, have accused Monsanto, which has a virtual monopoly over GMO seed supply in India, of charging prohibitively high prices for the product. Yet farmer suicides in India long precede the formal introduction of GMO crops in India in 2002.

Bhinder Kaur, widow of Kuldeep Singh, a cotton farmer who committed suicide, weeps at her residence during an interview with Reuters on the outskirts of Bhatinda in Punjab, India, October 28, 2015.

Bhinder Kaur, widow of Kuldeep Singh, a cotton farmer who committed suicide, weeps at her residence during an interview with Reuters on the outskirts of Bhatinda in Punjab, India, October 28, 2015.

Another potential driver is climate change. Farmers depend on predictable weather patterns for successful harvests. Unanticipated droughts and torrential rains can ruin their crops, their livelihoods, and their lives. Global warming is thus a nightmare for Indian farmers because it precipitates such unpredictable and extreme weather patterns. Tellingly, the farmer who hanged himself at the New Delhi political rally last year stated in a suicide note that heavy rains had destroyed his family’s crops.

One more possible explanatory factor—as plausible as it is delicate—is illness. According to the NCRB, nearly 40 percent of farmer suicides in 2014 can be attributed to “illness” or “other causes” (possible euphemisms for mental illness). A 2015 Brookings India report finds that in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh—two of the states most hard hit by farmer suicides—illness or poor health are more common reasons for suicides overall than are bankruptcy or other financial problems. Additionally, one U.S. study finds that frequent contact with pesticides (which certainly applies to Indian farmers) can contribute to depression. Kanchwala’s interviews found that suicidal farmers often kept their stress to themselves and didn’t share their debt problems with their wives—behavior that could conceivably strain mental health.

The Brookings India report also highlights another provocative possible driver—media coverage of farmer suicides. It asserts that sensationalistic reportage, particularly coverage that glamorizes victims, may provoke copycat suicides. Researchers have also suggested that in India, prominent coverage of the compensation sometimes awarded to widows and families could amplify for some desperate farmers and their families the perverse financial incentives offered by suicide. Families have even tried to pass off farmer deaths from natural causes as suicides; in one case, according to one researcher’s anecdotal account, a woman placed a pesticide bottle into her dead husband’s mouth.

All of these factors likely contribute to the suicide epidemic. Ultimately, however, there’s no one single explanatory factor for such a complex and widespread tragedy.

NO CURE

Similarly, there is no magic pill to cure the problem.

Greater state support has long been a default corrective. Indian officials have sought to help farmers by offering insurance programs with more favorable terms, facilitating better access to loans and credit, proposing partial loan waivers, and bringing reliable irrigation to more agricultural land. In this sense, the government’s new budget measures are merely continuing the policies of the past. So far, these policies have proved insufficient to solve the problem.

Other possible interventions—many already proposed in academic studies and government-appointed panels—include providing training to farmers to teach them how to get better crop yields; improving technologies for managing water and forecasting weather; and promoting more organic farming (which requires fewer inputs).

Going further, more judicious natural resource governance could help ease India’s water and energy shortages, and thereby relieve farmers’ burdens. Subsidizing drip irrigation instead of more water-wasting flood irrigation, for example, would conserve water—as would making repairs to old canals, rusting transmission lines, and other leaky water infrastructure that worsen India’s water woes.

Yet perhaps the most important corrective to India’s farmer suicide epidemic is conceptual rather than material. In an era of impressive urban-led growth and splashy “smart cities” initiatives, it’s important not to forget that India remains a largely agricultural nation—and a struggling one at that. A relatively well-off caste, the Jats, recently staged violent protests in Haryana state because of their inability to secure farming jobs. The breadbasket state of Punjab is suffering from a crippling drug epidemic, with more than two-thirds of rural households having at least one addict.

In effect, India should embrace modernization and urbanization, but not at the cost of neglecting its struggling rural citizenry—of which suicidal farmers are but one tragic manifestation. In this regard, India’s farmer-friendly new budget, simply by bringing attention anew to the perilous plight of Indian farmers, is a welcome development.

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