By Dr Moin Qazi
Farmer suicides are a wrenching and contentious issue and are surging upward even as the number of farmers in each state is going down. It is a two-decades-old national affliction that is as tragic as it is complex, and is a serious threat to India’s most critical economic sector.
Maharashtra, which has been the epicentre of farmer suicides, has reported 852 farmer suicides in the four months between January and April this year. Overall, the figures are lower than the 1,023 cases reported during the same span last year, when the state was in the grip of a severe drought and water crisis. However, considering that it has been a good harvest period supported by a good monsoon, the figures are quite alarming. The numbers of farmer suicides were 3,228 (in 2015) and 3,500 (in 2016).
The seed of the problem
Currently, the government does little more than grant compensation to the families of the farmers who take their lives; in some cases, the compensation might even be an incentive. While the cash compensation does help them tide over the immediate problem of feeding the family, there is some politics involved. The compensation can be denied if ownership of the land is disputed or if the death is not judged to be linked to indebtedness or agricultural crisis.
Farmer suicides are a reflection, as well as a symptom of the fragility of the farm economy. Livelihood security for any farming family, therefore, hangs by a slender thread. The sector has been the slowest-growing in India, with growth averaging 2 percent a year. This has further exacerbated the crisis.
Lives in distress
The roots of despair of the Indian farmer have been well researched and documented. Farmers’ lives are characterised by spiralling debts, soil tired by heavy doses of chemicals and fertilisers, crops and livestock destroyed by drought or unseasonable monsoon rains associated with climate change, plummeting water tables from relentless water mining. The loss of agricultural land to development and a collapse in cotton prices and dependence on expensive genetic-engineered hybrid seeds increase the problem. Adding to this is the penury and debt on account of dependence on predatory moneylenders, the near absence of rural mental health services, and the lack of public awareness on mental health diseases.
According to a survey carried out last year for 17 Indian states, a farming family earns 20,000 rupees a year on average, or 1,700 rupees a month. The suicide rate for farmers is 48 percent higher than that of any other profession. In the 20 years since the Indian government first started keeping track of farmer suicides, about 3,00,000 farmers have ended their lives. Farmer suicides are a complicated phenomenon and involve various aspects of the changing economy. To a large degree, the suicides reflect the farmers’ bafflement at the gradual, and erratic, withdrawal of the state. They have felt the cost of reforms – but are yet to see the benefits.
Abounding risks to homes and lives
There are two stages in agriculture which can trigger suicides. The first is at the time of sowing when the cash-strapped farmer is pushed to buy seeds he can ill afford, and hence is forced to take credit. The next is at the time of harvest when he arrives in the market and realises that he will not get the price that will enable him to repay the loan. At this point, the farmer is left with no options and starts considering taking his life.
A closer look would suggest that there is a broad pattern to farmer suicides. Earlier, most farmers had little appetite for risk. They were happy with the modest yield that kept their home and hearths running. Lured by the promises of new foreign seeds, the farmers started availing big ticket loans to invest in expensive seeds, which were tagged with high yields and were seen as a fair commercial risk. With time, the yields from tired soils, abused by chemical fertilisers and water drainage, declined and government protection on markets was also withdrawn. That set the farmers on a journey into a deep, dark abyss.
A need for serious action
The worsening woes of Indian farmers can hardly be neglected by the leaders of a country in which two-thirds of the people live in the countryside. It is important to remember that Gandhi’s declaration of agriculture being the soul of the Indian economy is relevant even today.
The Indian government’s response to the crisis – largely in the form of limited debt relief and compensation programmes – has failed to address the magnitude and scope of the problem or its underlying causes. If the government is serious about reviving agriculture, it ought to act fast. We have the tools, but we need to summon the political will. This is the only way we can save thousands of farmers from the deadly noose.
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