The number of suicides by farmers continues to rise countrywide with Maharashtra topping the list for the tenth consecutive year. Even as food prices soar, farmers in India do not seem to be profiting. The National Crime Record Bureau’s most recent figures reveal that more than 17,000 farmers committed suicide in 2009, the worst year since 2004.That takes the total number of recorded farmer suicides since 1997 (when all states had to compulsorily record farm suicides) to 216,500.
Maharashtra, the country’s second most industrialised state and the home state of the country’s agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, recorded the highest number of farmer suicides for the tenth consecutive year.
P Sainath, rural affairs editor of The Hindu, who has been relentlessly pursuing the subject of agrarian neglect and distress, says that if the numbers from 1995 to 1997 as well as 2010 are taken into account, the total number of farmer suicides would be even more shocking.
“The numbers are from the annual report of the Government of India’s own National Crime Records Bureau. Their yearly total for farmer suicide from 1995 to 2009 brings us to a total of 240,000. Even if we assume that 2010 saw far fewer suicides than the average of the last decade, it still takes the figure past 250,000 or a quarter of a million farmer suicides,” Sainath says.
The worst affected states are Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. These account for two-thirds of all farmer suicides during 2003-08.
Since the issue of farmers committing suicide surfaced, governments both at the centre and state have announced all sorts of ‘packages’ to help relieve the situation. But throwing money at the tragedy has clearly not stopped it from occurring. In 2008, the government declared that farm loans over a certain amount would be waived. There were 16,196 farmer suicides in the country that year, just 436 less than in 2007 (NCRB figures).
Maharashtra got Rs 3,750 crore from the Prime Minister’s Relief Package in 2006 for six crisis-ridden districts. This was followed by the chief minister’s relief package of Rs 1,075 crore. Nearly Rs 9,000 crore was waived in farm loans as part of the Rs 70,000-crore central loan waiver; the state government added another Rs 6,200 crore for those farmers not covered by the waiver and another Rs 500 crore for a one-time settlement for poor farmers who had been excluded from the waiver altogether because they owned more than five acres of land.
Writing in The Hindu (January 25, 2010), Sainath points out that, in all, the amounts committed to fighting the agrarian crisis in Maharashtra exceeded Rs 20,000 crore across 2006, 2007 and 2008. ‘Yet, that proved to be the worst three-year period ever for any state at any time since the recording of farm data began.’ There were 12,493 farmer suicides in 2006-08, 85% higher than the 6,745 suicides it recorded during 1997-1999, ‘and the worst three-year period for any state, any time’.
It is generally accepted that indebtedness of farmers trying to survive on an income that is clearly inadequate is driving them to suicide. The government is reluctant to admit that its entire agrarian policy is at fault and instead seizes on isolated causes such as high interest rates charged by moneylenders, extravagant family wedding expenses, and crop failure due to the weather to explain the phenomenon.
Sainath writes that while the loan waiver and other financial aid were necessary, they have been wrongly structured. For example, only those who had taken loans from institutions like banks were eligible for the waiver though many farmers take loans from moneylenders. Kerala, where all farmers have bank accounts, profited. Again, the 2008 waiver was only for those with less than five acres of land, which left indebted farmers with more land out in the cold.
Analysis by economist Professor K Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, who has worked intensively on farmer suicide data, shows that the suicides appear concentrated in regions where there is high commercialisation of agriculture and very high peasant debt. Cash-crop farmers appeared far more vulnerable to suicide than those growing food crops.
Whatever the pros and cons of the loan waiver, ‘the basic underlying causes of the crisis remained untouched’ writes Sainath. He identifies these as ‘the predatory commercialisation of the countryside; a massive decline in investment in agriculture; the withdrawal of bank credit at a time of soaring input prices; the crash in farm incomes combined with an explosion of cultivation costs; the shifting of millions from food crop to cash crop cultivation with all its risks; the corporate hijack of every major sector of agriculture including, and especially, seeds; growing water stress and moves towards privatisation of that resource’.