How does one deal with a 42% spike in suicides by farmers/cultivators in a country where “development” has been the buzzword for the last couple of years? If the question isn’t creepy enough to send a shiver down one’s spine, consider that “Bankruptcy or Indebtedness” and “Farming Related Issues”, i.e. non-personal reasons, account for 58.2% of these suicides. No pretensions would be enough to hide the fact that the agricultural crisis has in fact deepened in the middle of all the brouhaha over India’s superpower dreams.
The giveaways from the recently released data on suicides in the farming sector by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the national record keeper, are alarming. And they are so despite the clear discrepancies hinting at the possibilities of either deliberate fudging to mask the extent of crisis or unconscious mistakes. Take the fact that the NCRB puts the numbers of farm suicides in Odisha in 2015 at 23, while the Odisha state Agricultural Minister had put the same number at 139 while replying to a question in the state Assembly.
Similar discrepancies in data from other states would not be surprising, and would mean the NCRB data reflects numbers lower than reality. The NCRB has some explaining to do here.
Also disconcerting is the difference between the major causes reported for suicides of farmers/cultivators and agricultural labourers.
As noted above, agricultural reasons, bankruptcy, debt, farming related issues, and poverty accounted for 59.3% of total suicides by farmers/cultivators. The situation changes inexplicably for the labourers. NCRB attributes 40.1% of total suicides for labourers to family problems and another 19% to illness. In other words, together, these two reasons alone caused 59.1% of suicides among agricultural labourers.
In a contrast to farmers/cultivators, bankruptcy/indebtedness was found to cause a mere 2.2% suicides amongst agricultural labourers, and poverty 3.9%. Lo and behold, farming related issues apparently caused no suicide according to the data.
Why is illness killing almost double the labourers than farmers? Could it have something to do with them not having any money to get treatment, because of farming crisis? Just asking.
Look at the family problems killing around 3-and-a-half times more agricultural labourers than their employers and the cause behind these family problems becomes an obvious question, albeit not for NCRB. Why are their families so troubled? Has it got something to do, again, with them not being able to fend for the family because of the (ahem) agricultural crisis?
Evidently, the figures are trying to hide more than they tell and yet end up betraying the real extent of the crisis. The crisis that killed “(a) total of 12,602 persons involved in farming sector (consisting of 8,007 farmers/cultivators and 4,595 agricultural labourers) have committed suicides during 2015, accounting for 9.4% of total suicides victims (1,33,623) in the country.”
A few of the findings state the obvious. The land holding status of the victims is one among them; the figures show that 45.2% of total farmers/cultivators who committed suicide were “Small Farmers/Cultivators” (3,618) and another 27.4% “Marginal Farmers/Cultivators” (2,195). Together they accounted for 72.6% of total farmers/cultivators’ suicides (5,813 out of 8,007). The figures are comprehensible as the small and marginal farmers are the ones who often have nothing other than their meagre land holdings to depend upon. State failure to support them in such circumstances, even a single crop failure, can push them into taking the extreme step.
To make more sense of the numbers, bankruptcy or indebtedness killed 38.7% (3,097 out of 8,007) farmers/cultivators; the corresponding figure for the same head in overall suicides in India is a mere 3.3%. Obviously disproportionately more farmers are indebted and bankrupt than those in other professions. Farming related issues killed another 19.5% (1,562 out of 8,007 suicides) in total with no corresponding figure in overall data.
Another notable takeaway from the figures is that a whopping 2,474 farmers out of the total 3,097, or 80% of the total who killed themselves because of indebtedness had taken loans from “Financial Institutions like Bank/Registered Micro Financial Institutions”, and a mere 302 from “Money Lenders” in 2015. The figure hints at unacceptable callousness of the formal banking system towards farmers despite the system being well aware of the aggravating farm crisis for decades.
It also debunks the myth of local money sharks being the main culprits behind pushing the farmers to death, while letting off the real ones, the banks and other formal finance institutions. In other words, the farmers are in fact falling prey to State hounding, not private individuals!
The figures are yet another wake up call for the State to stand up and get its act together before it is too late. It can begin with reining in finance institutions from harassing the farmers affected by crop failures and other such eventualities beyond their control.
Samar is Programme Coordinator – Right to Food Programme Asian Legal Resource Centre / Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong