By Dr Moin Qazi
At least 217 farmers have ended their lives in the month following Maharashtra government’s farm loan waiver announcement on June 2 this year. The numbers for the month of June equal the average monthly figures in the past six months. The number of suicides has now shot up to 1,327 in 2017. The number is only marginally lower for the same time period, last year. In June 2016, the total number of cases had reached 1,541 for the first six months.
Plight of our providers
Farmer suicides are a contentious issue and are surging even as the number of farmers in states 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. Nothing is simple about the farmer suicide phenomenon. In the farmers’ plight, all strands of an economy in transition intersect. To a degree, the suicides reflect the farmers’ bafflement at the gradual, and erratic, withdrawal of the state. They have felt the cost of reforms, but have yet to see the benefits.
Setting the wheels in motion
There are two triggers for the suicides. The first at the time of sowing, when the cash strapped farmer is pushed to buy seeds he can hardly afford, hence, he is forced to take credit. The next is at the time of the harvest when he arrives in the market and realises that he will not get the price that will enable him to repay the loan.
A closer look would suggest that there is a broad pattern to farmer suicides. Most of these farmers had little appetite for risk earlier. They were happy with the modest but sustainable 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, tagged with high yields, in what they saw a fair commercial risk.
In all fairness, it was certainly worth it. Unfortunately, we don’t have sophisticated financial risk-hedging instruments at the lower segment of farmers. Nor do we have super-efficient supply chains that should support this type of savvy ventures. Any adverse development can send the farmer into a tailspin.
The vicious cycle
The roots of despair of the Indian farmer have been well-researched and documented. They are a toxic blend of livelihoods drained away by spiralling debt and soil tired due to heavy doses of chemicals and fertilisers. Other factors include the destruction of crops and livestock by drought or unseasonable monsoon rains; plummeting water tables from relentless water mining; the loss of agricultural land to development; a collapse in cotton prices and dependence on expensive genetic-engineered hybrid seeds; penury and debt on account of dependence on predatory moneylenders, and near absence of rural mental health services and public awareness of mental health disease.
Anoop Sadanadan, a professor of Political Science based at Syracuse University, has argued that farmer suicides should be attributed, not to agricultural practices, but financial ones. In a paper, he says that farmer suicides were concentrated in five of India’s 28 states—and that those five offered the least institutional credit to farmers, leaving them to take loans from predatory moneylenders at stratospheric interest rates.
The mighty have fallen
The primary sector has been the slowest-growing in India, with growth averaging around 2 per cent a year, exacerbating the crisis. When India became independent, the contribution of agriculture to the economy was 50 per cent; it is now 15 per cent. Employment in the agricultural sector was to the extent of 88 per cent; now it is 66 per cent. Rural wages have fallen to their lowest.
For every Indian farmer who takes his own life, a family is hounded by the debt he leaves behind, typically resulting in children dropping out of school to become farmhands and surviving family members themselves committing suicide out of hopelessness and despair.
The worsening woes of Indian farmers can hardly be neglected by the leaders of a country where two-thirds of those people live in the countryside and many are being forced to head to cities to escape the wrath at their farms. Gandhi’s declaration that agriculture is the soul of Indian economy is as relevant as the man himself.
Failure of the government policies
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.
There are too many questions that seek quick answers. Some groundbreaking reforms are needed as the first steps in breaking the cycle of desperation and misery that so many Indian farming communities face. We must respect the ominous signs in the country’s farmlands which are claiming their debt in the form of lives of farmers who own them. 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.
Featured Image Source: Pixabay
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius