Exploring the Roots of Farmer Suicides in India

India is an agrarian country with nearly 70% of its people depending directly or indirectly on agriculture. And yet data from 2017 indicates that there is at least one Indian farmer committing suicide every thirty minutes due to several reasons. Farmer suicides is an issue that has plagued India since 1995, and one that continues to increase rapidly every year.

Farmer suicides account for 11.2% of all suicides in India. More than 1000 farmers commit suicide every year. With each new case, the threat of policymakers remaining apathetic intensifies. The situation is so grim that several warnings from the Ministry of Agriculture alarm that India might soon gain the infamous title of  being ‘Farmer Suicide Capital of the World’.

According to Jan 2020 data released  by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), nearly 10655 people involved in the agricultural sector committed suicide in India in 2017. 5955 among these were farmers, while the remaining were agricultural labourers. This constituted a shocking 8.2% of all suicide cases reported in the country in 2017.

The highest number of farmer suicides in 2017 was reported in the state of Maharashtra at 34.7 percent. Following this was Karnataka at 20.3 percent, Madhya Pradesh at 9 percent and the southern states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh at 8 percent and 7.7 percent respectively. Punjab, a state that greatly benefited from the green revolution, also portrays a tragic picture of the number of farmer suicides. Ironic to the benefit gained, the state has reported 4687 farmer suicides from 1995-2015.

An important yet scarcely reported matter is the number of suicides committed by Indian women farmers. According to NCRD reports, nearly 50,188 female farmers have ended their lives from the period between 1995 and 2018. Telangana reported the highest number of female farmer suicides as reported by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. This was followed by the states of Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal. Besides this, women often inherit the burden of massive debts after their husbands’ death.

Certain factors are responsible for this grim situation.

Often, scholars do not provide a single factor responsible for this widespread phenomenon — A combination of economic, environmental and social issues is generally regarded as the cause behind the suicides. High debt burdens, unpredictable monsoons, government schemes and policies, mental health, are the usual causes.

Various other factors such as the monetary value of seeds, an increase in the costs of fertilizers and pesticides have been attributed. Farmers often tend to borrow loans and try to farm with this borrowed money and other limited resources. A reduction in their farming wage would add to the burden of their debts. No profits from cultivation is another concerning factor. Most farmers face the heavy burden of various economic downfalls which then leads to the act of suicide as a form of escape.

One of the major causes of the suicide of farmers is the economic burden they experience. Farmers encounter high amounts of stress and financial difficulties. They are constantly under the pressure of cultivating a high yield of the crops and receiving the necessary income needed from the sale of these crops to repay the informal loans that they had borrowed to yield these crops. A lack of institutionalized credit thus contributes as one of the leading factors behind farmer suicide in India. According to a report published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCCB), indebtedness is the single largest cause of farmer suicide in India. When farmers are denied access to institutional credit, they tend to move towards borrowing from informal moneylenders. These greedy and unscrupulous money lenders demand unreasonably exorbitant interest rates from the farmers which they are often unable to repay thus leaving them with huge debts. Besides borrowing for reasons associated with farming, they also borrow for personal reasons including social ceremonies and health expenses, which further contributes to the debt.

Another serious problem is the lack of control and independence that the farmers have over the environment around them. A number of aspects such as diseases, weather, and government policies are not under their control. Farmers are thus prone to a number of diseases and health problems due to unhygienic and unsatisfactory living conditions at farms.

Lack of mental health care services available in rural areas is another pressing issue. It is a major problem that needs to be addressed at the earliest. Losses endured by farmers often gives rise to psychological disorders, mental illness, and depression. The depression that farmers face could also be due to the constant exposure to various agricultural chemicals and pesticides that may increase the risk of mental and mood disorders which eventually lead to an increase in the number of suicide rates.

With each passing day, India loses yet another food soldier. These men and women are the primary providers of the food we consume on a daily basis. The inefficient intervention by the responsible authorities is an area of grave concern.

Several measures can be implemented to combat the crisis. For instance, the case of MSP. Government procurement at the MSP is supposed to be a beneficial security measure for the farmers, but mostly only benefits large scale traders. More than 70% of the farmers in India do not receive the benefit surrounding the minimum support price. It is important for the government to mend this roadblock. Corporate Social Responsibility must be encouraged to contribute to the agricultural sector in skill development, capacity building, etc. The government should implement policies that will aid the needs of the farmers. Increasing the farmer wage, lowering fertilizer costs and precision farming techniques must be promoted. A structured and efficient plan needs to be formulated and then implemented in order to salvage India’s agrarian sector.

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