Unabated, unchecked

Unabated, unchecked

Adverse climatic conditions, inadequate irrigation, debt-trap and mono-cropping contribute to failure of agriculture and the suicides.

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has much to worry about with around 321 farmers’ suicides over the past year in the state. Recently, four farmers committed suicide due to debt burdens in Dharwad and Davanagere districts. The political implications of farmers’ suicides are evident from Maharashtra’s example.

Arguably, the Congress-NCP government lost the 2014 state elections to the BJP, among other reasons, due to distress in the farm sector. Accordingly, agriculture is a politically sensitive issue and, therefore, has the potential to impact Siddaramaiah’s political fortunes too in the forthcoming elections.   

Maharashtra suffers from the highest number of suicides in the country at 2,568 deaths over the past year which suggests that agriculture is an unviable sector in the state. Albeit the country’s richest state, it tops the grim list of farmers’ suicides for the 12th year in a row. The state alone has accounted for an ala-rming 60,750 farm suicides since 1995.

Senior journalist P Sainath known for his scholarship on farmers’ suicides opines that, “Most farm suicides have been linked to debt, a sharp rise in input costs, serious water crises, price volatility and crop failure due to pest attacks and disease. A total of 2,96,438 farmers have killed themselves in India since 1995”. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, 5,650 farmers, both male and female, committed suicide in 2014.

Adverse climatic conditions, inadequate irrigation infrastructure, debt-trap and mono-cropping contribute to failure of agriculture which manifests through farmers’ suicides. The newly formed Telangana state experienced 898 farmers’ suicides which makes it the second highest in numerical terms nationally. The state which witnessed the third highest farmers’ suicides is Madhya Pradesh with 826 deaths, while Chattisgarh accounted for 443 deaths. Karnataka has the fifth highest farmers’ suicides rate in the country.  

The highest number of Karnataka’s farmers who committed suicide cultivated sugarcane followed by those who grew cotton and paddy. The major reason for their suicides was delayed payments by mill owners to whom they had sold their crops. In turn, this led to the farmers getting into debt traps due to lack of money to manage their livelihood expenses. While these would explain the immediate triggers for farmers killing themselves, the larger issues pertain to lack of adequate irrigation infrastructure and mono-cropping.    
 
In several cases, farmers’ deaths which occur due to old age or ill-health besides other non-agriculture related reasons are often passed off as suicide linked to agriculture issues. Similarly, when farmers commit suicide due to crop failure or inability to clear debts on time, the police refuse to register the deaths on these grounds but attribute it to other extraneous reasons. These causes of death could be shown as family feuds, extra-marital relations or love affairs.   

Professor K Nagaraj, a Chennai-based economist who has researched farmer suicides in the country says, “Clearly, massaging of the data continues. When you want to play down very bad numbers in one column, you cannot just erase them. You have to fit them into some other category. Shoving unwanted numbers into ‘Others’ is the common route to data massaging.” And that is exactly the trend in the data that India's states submitted to the NCRB.

Today, Goa and Puducherry have no farmers’ suicides simply because these economies are not solely dependent on agriculture. Goa has emerged as an agro-eco tourism destination which enables farmers to avail alternate sources of income. Also, fisheries and tourism have been developed to support their economies. Earlier, Puducherry had suffered the highest number of farmers’ suicides among the federally-governed Union territories. In 2009, its figure was at 154 farm suicides while in 2010, it claimed only four suicides. However, it has boasted of a zero figure in years 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Alternative livelihood choices
Tamil Nadu experienced a severe agrarian crisis during the late 1990s which witnessed 932 farmers’ suicides. Thereafter, between 1997 and 2012 the figure nearly halved to 499 suicides. Sainath writes that the state strengthened its rural-urban linkages with a good road network and public transport system creating alternative non-farm liveli-hood opportunities in nearby towns for peasants.

While south Indian states suffer from widespread farmer’s suicides, the 12 north Indian states are known to be free of suicides. These include Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttarakhand, National Capital Region and Rajasthan. Does this mean that agriculture in north India is economically viable? Clearly, compatible climatic conditions in terms of rainfall, temperature, besides superior soil conditions and easy availability of water for irrigation, make life relatively convenient for farmers in this region. 

Among the north Indian states UP, however, registered the highest number of farmers’ suicides at 63 deaths which could be attributed to extreme climatic conditions in the state. Similarly, Sikkim recorded 35 suicides, Himachal Pradesh had 32 suicides and Punjab 24 suicides, which could be also linked to a harsh climate detrimental to the farm sector.

How does the government deal with farmers’ suicides? How effective are Central and state subsidies in supporting farmers? The government provides farmers free water and power while levying no tax on agriculture. Considering the fact that 5,650 farmers’ suicides have occurred across the country, the Centre should allocate budgetary support of Rs 56.5 crore to the state governments at the rate of Rs one lakh paid to each deceased farmer’s family. This is apart from what the state governments pay as compensation to suicide victim’s families.

(The writer is an Assistant Professor at the School of Law, Christ University,
Bengaluru)
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