Action must to check farmers' suicides

Central and state governments need to take more seriously the wave of distress that is sweeping rural India.

According to the ‘Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India 2015’ report, brought out by the National Crime Records Bureau, farmers’ suicides surged from 5,650 in 2014 to 8,007 in 2015, a 42% increase in a span of a year. Crop failure and indebtedness appear to have prompted these farmers to take their lives, the report says. The distress hit smaller farmers the hardest; 73% of those who took their lives were small or marginal farmers, owning two acres of land or less. The statistics indicate a geographic concentration in the farmer suicides; 87.5% occurred in seven states including Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. While the number of farmers who committed suicide soared in 2014-15; the number of farm labourers who took their lives dropped to 4,595 in 2015 from 6,710 the previous year. Economists attribute this difference to wage labourers having more options. Faced with distress in the agricultural sector, they moved to non-farm work. Farmers, tied as they are to their land, were unable to do so and were stuck with falling incomes and mounting debt. Trapped in their difficult and hopeless situation, they saw suicide as the only way out.

Farmers’ suicides are often blamed on failed monsoons. Officials attribute the spike in suicides in 2015, for instance, to the fact that 2014 and 2015 were drought years. However, failed monsoons are at best aggravators of an already difficult situation. Agriculture has become linked to multi-national corporations and global markets. Rising cost of seeds, pesticides and fertilisers is accompanied by falling prices of agricultural produce. This has devastated farmers, leaving them with mounting debts and no means to pay back their loans. Under pressure from money lenders, they commit suicide.

The Narendra Modi government has announced some programmes to alleviate the problems of farmers. For instance, its Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, a crop insurance scheme that was announced in January 2016, is likely to provide them with some respite. However, such initiatives, like the loan waiver scheme of the UPA government, tackle the symptoms and not the problem itself. With this year likely to see a surge in farmers’ suicides on account of the impact of the demonetisation of high denomination bills, the Modi government must take the problem sweeping rural India seriously. While a symptomatic approach to farmers’ suicides is useful in reducing the sting of rural distress, it will not tackle the agrarian crisis that is driving the suicides. A comprehensive approach that takes into account agrarian reforms, rural credit, agricultural insurance, crop changes, etc is needed.

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