It is interesting to note how farm suicides are made into a public debate every now and then – whether it is YS Rajasekhar Reddy who took out a padayatra mainly on this issue and then got elected to power or Chandrababu Naidu picking up the same issue years later as his poll plank; about the criticism heaped on Siddaramaiah now, or the controversy over farmer Gajendar Singh Rajput’s death during an AAP rally in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. It is also interesting to see how no medium and long term issues are ever addressed even if a debate does take place with some concern towards farmers and their livelihoods. Meanwhile, even as the Karnataka government is desperately acknowledging the increasing spate of farm suicides under the relentless glare of media coverage day after day, the real game that all governments play is that of discounting of the phenomenon of farm suicides. Acknowledging farm suicides is political suicide for any government.
In several states, for instance, the committees that go to inquire into particular cases of suicides, make it an express point in categorising as few cases as possible into this strange category called “genuine” suicides. Traveling in Yavatmal in December 2014, I came across a widow and her son in a dilapidated house in a village which has been partially relocated with only some families continuing to live in a dying, ruined village – the husband had committed suicide but they were not paid any ex-gratia essentially because the farmer has been good with his repayments of loans in the bank! The records said that he used to repay regularly – the Committee concluded therefore that his suicide had nothing to do with agrarian distress and was a “non-genuine” suicide!!
The latest changes in the annual reporting of Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI) by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) appears to be another such attempt at doctoring the data by presenting it in newer categories of data (capturing and) presentation, and obfuscating the real picture. The NCRB process of capturing the data makes a distinction between farmers / cultivators and agricultural labourers. Farmers include those who own and work on field (viz. cultivators) as well as those who employ/hire workers for field work/farming activities. It excludes agricultural labourers. The farmer suicides being reported are therefore only of cultivators in 2014.
What this sort of classification misses out on is the seamless connections between these two categories of people in agriculture: if the economy of a farmer is affected in any way, would not the economy of the agricultural labourer be affected, the employment prospects, the wage payments etc.?? Are we not familiar with the fact that most marginal holders are also agricultural labourers? Will natural disasters and losses in farming not leave their impact on agricultural labourers? Do we not know that agricultural labourers also lease in land and take up cultivation sometimes only seasonally? Where do women fall in all of this, given that land ownership is not in their name and very often, they are de-facto workers in their spouse’s land? While this is the issue with this broad categorisation of farmers vis-a-vis agricultural labourers, when it comes to classifying the suicides along different reasons for the suicide, the NCRB again misses out on the fact that the reasons are not water-tight and isolated; the proximal cause when reported is also sometimes contradictory between the family’s reporting and the neighbors’ or panchayat’s reporting. Indebtedness and Farming Related Issues are related, of course; when “farming related issues” remain, can debt be dealt with effectively by a farm household? Won’t family problems increase when there is debt? Importantly, won’t health get impacted when there are farming related issues? What about “Other Causes” and what gets classified there? How can all these be exclusive categories of ‘reasons’??
With the number of farmer suicides pegged at just half of the number of farmer suicides in 2013, this ADSI 2014 report states that farmer suicides accounted for just 4.3% of total suicide victims in the country. This is of course something that a ruling party will take credit for, whereas this is just jugglery with data.
The ADSI findings themselves have to be understood in a context where not all suicides are actually reported and recorded. Therefore, these numbers are not an accurate picture of actual number of suicides that take place in the country, but are good enough as indication of the extent of incidence and prevalence of suicides in different age groups, regions, sexes, professions etc.
The NCRB announced that in this year’s (2014) report, instead of 12 proformae that were being used to present findings, 24 newly developed proformae have been used. Based on this, the report concludes that “a total of 5650 farmers have committed suicides during 2014“. Out of 5,650 farmers’ suicides, 5,178 were male farmers and 472 were female farmers. The highest incidents of 2,568 farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra, followed by 898 suicides in Telangana and 826 in Madhya Pradesh were reported during 2014, accounting for 45.5%, 15.9% and 14.6% respectively of total such suicides. ‘Bankruptcy or Indebtedness’ and ‘Family problems’ are major causes of farmer suicides, accounting for 20.6% and 20.1% respectively of total farmer suicides during 2014. The other prominent causes of farmer suicides were ‘Farming Related Issues’ (17.2%), ‘Failure of Crop’ (16.8%) and ‘Illness’ (13.2%). Percentage share of farmers as per land holding status revealed that 41.8% marginal farmers, 25.2% medium farmers, 22.5% small farmers and 2.3% large farmers have committed suicides in country during 2014. Small farmers and marginal farmers together accounted for 72.4% (4,095 out of 5,650) total farmer suicides.
Farmers belonging to 30 years – below 60 years of age group have accounted for 65.7% of total farmer suicides during 2014.
Amongst the suicide victims, 24.6% in Maharashtra, 14.3% each in Jammu & Kashmir & Sikkim, 14.0% in Telangana, 13.3% each in Chhattisgarh & Madhya Pradesh and 10.4% in Andhra Pradesh were self-employed in agriculture activities. However, a total of 4,004 such persons have committed suicides in Maharashtra followed by 1,347 in Telangana, and 1,198 in Madhya Pradesh during 2014.
While the above are numbers for suicides amongst “self employed in agriculture”, a total of 2,568 farmers’ suicides were reported in Maharashtra followed by 898 such suicides in Telangana and 826 suicides in Madhya Pradesh, accounting for 45.5%, 15.9% and 14.6% respectively of total farmer suicides during 2014. Chhattisgarh (443 suicides) and Karnataka (321 suicides) accounted for 7.8% and 5.7% respectively of the total farmer suicides reported in the country. These 5 States together accounted for 89.5% of the total farmer suicides (5,056 out of 5,650) reported in the country during 2014.
While only 4.3% of suicides are classified as farmers’ suicides by NCRB, 12360 persons ‘self-employed’ in Agriculture committed suicide. This is then 9.4% of total suicides being in Agriculture in terms of profession. It is not clear what another category called “Daily Wage Earners” consists of with NCRB explaining this as one excluding agricultural labourer (with 12% of all suicides), but amongst all other professions, ones in Agriculture account for 9.4% which is the highest.
It is worth noting that in the overall incidence of suicides in 2014, “bankruptcy or indebtedness” constituted only 1.8 per cent share amongst various causes of suicides (which it was 20.6% when it comes to farmer suicides). That itself is a major statement on the agrarian distress.
Like discussed above, recording the proximal causes is problematic, and the various “reasons” chosen to be listed by NCRB are actually inter-connected and not water-tight.
What would actually help is if each case of suicide under the profession “Agriculture” triggers an inquiry process by a team which also includes civil society representatives and sociologist/social worker. Rather than classify each case as “genuine” and “non-genuine” for selecting “eligible” cases for ex-gratia, the government should acknowledge all cases of agricultural suicides to begin with.
In terms of immediate interventions, property titles that are due to the spouse should be transferred in her/his name and all loans written off against a given farmer’s name in case of suicide. For ensuring that the successors’ enterprise of farming is viable, agricultural credit and marketing support should be arranged for all such cases, in addition to disaster insurance. Education of children, especially of girl children should be supported.
In terms of preventive measures, banks and other lenders should be pulled up for sending notices to farmers repeatedly and the assessment of the economic situation of a whole set of farmers can be made the responsibility of a facilitated gram sabha. The assessment so arrived at can be communicated to a bank so that they can desist from pursuing and pressurising farmers – after all, banks are not drawing their profits from agricultural credit and we are familiar with how “priority sector” lending is actually manipulated to give credit to others other than farmers. Similarly, no procurement agency can be allowed to get away without paying the farmer promptly and this includes sugar mills/factories as well as jaggery making units.
In terms of medium and long term measures, for preventing suicides and addressing agrarian crisis, ASHA has evolved a Kisan Swaraj Neeti – the need for guaranteeing minimum living incomes for all farm households is one of the key demands here. Low risk, low investment, low-external-input agriculture holds great promise in mitigating indebtedness and distress of farm households. There is an urgent need to revamp crop insurance and disaster relief systems in Indian farming and we need innovative solutions on this front which cover all farmers and not just the insured.