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Every 12 hours, one farmer commits suicide in India

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In the 1990s India woke up to a spate of farmers suicides. The first state where suicides were reported was Maharashtra. Soon newspapers began to report similar occurrences from Andhra Pradesh. The government appointed a number of inquiries to look into the causes of farmers' suicide and farm-related distress in general. The despair has deepened over the past year with 18 of the 28 states reporting more suicides. The farmer suicide graph has been steadily rising.

The numbers are stark and in your face: According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data from 2009, more than 216, 000 farmers have killed themselves since 1997. Add the figures for 1995, 1996 and 2010 and the total crosses 250,000. That is, two farmers a day for the past 15 years.

Veteran journalist and The Hindu Rural Affairs editor P. Sainath says: "We have been undergoing the largest catastrophe of our independent history — the suicides of nearly a quarter of a million farmers since 1995. We are talking of the largest recorded rate of suicides in human history.”

Sainath was speaking at the Third Michael Sprinker Lecture on “Death on the Farm: Agrarian crisis and inequality” at the Institute of Development Studies in Kolkata.

Bringing to light several stark contrasts in India, where the average CEO earns 30,000 times more than the average worker, Sainath said: "While labor productivity rose 84 percent, real wages of laborers dropped 22 percent. The country imports wheat from Australia, which was importing wheat nine years ago from Punjab. It exports 20 million tonnes of grain at Rs. 5.45/kg, whereas the same grain is sold to the poor at Rs. 6.15/kg."

And there lies the problem, which UPA 2 calls systemic. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, whose state has the worst figures for the 10th consecutive year, has stopped quoting NCRB figures since 2007.

In 2009, more than 17,000 farmers committed suicide, the worst count since 2004.

But the figures could be worse, says Sainath, who first published the story. He explains the actual numbers could be beyond a quarter million people.

"The numbers are from the annual report of the government of India's own National Crime Records Bureau. Their yearly total for farmer suicides from 1995 to 2009 brings us to a total of 240,000. So 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," says  Sainath.

If you haven't woken up yet, now is the time.

For the 10th year on the trot, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar's home state has had the worst record with 2,872 farmers committing suicide, despite the much hyped Prime Minister's relief package.

Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh follow, with two-thirds of farmer suicides being reported from these states.

In fact, according to a written reply, MP's Home Minister, Uma Shankar Gupta, as many as 5,838 farmers ended their lives during the period from 2006 to 2010. Surprisingly, the Minister maintained that only six of the 5,838 farmers killed themselves due to being overburdened with debt. Prior to this, replying to Congress Party legislator Ramnivas Rawat's query, the Home Minister said that 89 farmers had committed suicide in 87 days since November 6, 2010. However, Gupta added that only three of them took the extreme step due to debt.

Sainath emphasizes: "Farmer suicide is not the crisis, it is the outcome of the crisis."

And here's how it all started.

In the 1990s India woke up to a spate of farmers suicides. The first state where suicides were reported was Maharashtra. Soon newspapers began to report similar occurrences from Andhra Pradesh.

The government appointed a number of inquiries to look into the causes of farmers' suicide and farm-related distress in general. Subsequently Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Vidarbha and promised a package of Rs. 110 billion (about $2.4 billion) to be spent by the government in Vidarbha.

The families of farmers, who had committed suicide were also offered an ex gratia grant to the tune of Rs.100,000 (about $2,000) by the government. This figure kept varying, depending on how much criticism the government was facing from the media and the Oppo-sition parties for being uncaring towards the farmers' plight. But the suicides kept happening.

Initially, the suicides that began to be reported out of Vidharbha (a cotton-growing region) were attributed to the farmers' indebtedness to money-lenders because of the shift to the of Bt Cotton.

Farmers had to borrow money to buy the more expensive seeds. And committed suicide when they could not pay back the money.

However, the Bt Cotton theory was soon sidelined. The major causes that were identified were this: India was transforming rapidly into a primarily urban, industrial society with industry as its main source of income; the government and society had begun to be unconcerned about the condition of the countryside; moreover, a downturn in the urban economy was pushing a large number of distressed non-farmers to try their hand at cultivation; in the absence of any responsible counseling either from the government or society there were many farmers who did not know how to survive in the changing economy. Such stresses pushed many into a corner where suicide became the only option for them.

The problems that plagued the farmers 15 years ago are still glaringly present today: There is little credit available. What is available is very expensive. There is no advice on how best to conduct agriculture operations. Income through farming is not enough to meet even the minimum needs of a farming family. Support systems like free health facilities from the government are virtually non-existent.

Traditionally, support systems in the villages of India have been provided for by the government.

However, due to a variety of reasons best known to Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and the rest of our leaders, the government has either withdrawn itself from its supportive role or plain simple misgovernance has allowed facilities in the villages to wither away.

The despair has deepened over the past year with 18 of the 28 states reporting more suicides. The farmer suicide graph has been steadily rising.

"I believe the issue is more systemic. Because if you are talking about 15 years, you are talking about one and a half decades. There is a need to hold our horses, study the report and then comment," said Congress spokesperson Manish Tewary.

In 2007, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha, had said that there were more than 149,000 farmer suicides between 1997 and 2005. However, he has not quoted NCRB numbers ever since. Nor has he openly acknowledged the distress.

But the first step towards resolving a crisis is conceding that one exists.