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Debt Trap Or Suicide Trap?

By RM Vidyasagar and K Suman Chandra

20 June, 2004

About 3,000 Andhra Pradesh farmers committed suicide in the past five years owing to debt trap, drought and crop failure. After the government of Y S Rajashekhar Reddy announced free electricity for agriculture , waiver of electricity dues and a Rs.150,000 financial assistance for the relatives of the farmers who committed suicide , there is a spate of suicides, on an average 70 farmers a week.

Desperate farmers are committing suicide with the hope of getting the relief package. Here is a study conducted by RM Vidyasagar and K Suman Chandra for Centre for Social Development, National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad, "Farmers’ Suicides in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka". Here we produce excerpts from its Chapter IV, ‘Summary, Conclusions and Suggestions for Future Interventions’

This study has identified a suicide belt consisting of districts in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka states where instances of farmers’ suicide continues unabated for last five to six years. This belt falls mainly in the arid and semi-arid zones of the Royalaseema region and in certain other districts in northern Karnataka that are contiguous to Royalaseema region. Within this region, farmers’ suicides have become a persisting feature for last five years in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Certain districts adjoining Anantapur but falling in Karnataka are also taken up where it is observed that suicides are taking place or have taken place.

Government’s perspective on farmers suicide in India (well articulated by Veeresh Committee report) has been critically analyzed in this study to argue that farmers’ suicides cannot be reduced to personal problems but related to the context of agrarian crisis.
There is also a view that ex-gratia payment to the suicide victims will encourage suicides.
Though ex-gratia payment is made during the earlier bout of farmers’ suicides in Warangal district of AP, suicides have stopped at present when the farmers are able to tide over the crisis at least temporarily. However, even though such payments are not made in the case of Anantapur, suicides continue unabated in this region for last five years. Thus, it is an erroneous view that ex-gratia payments to the suicide victims’ families will encourage suicides.

Agrarian Background of the Suicide Belt

The northern districts of Karnataka bordering to Royalaseema region share the same agricultural background as Anantapur district. Drought condition is not something strange to Anantapur as this is one of the two districts in the country having lowest rainfall. Thus, low rainfall and drought conditions alone do not explain why farmers should take recourse to such extreme step while the farmers have already built enough resilience to drought conditions.

One of the striking features of changes in cropping pattern is that over a period of time Anantapur district has almost become a mono-crop district. It is seen that the area under groundnut has tremendously increased during last two decades, from a mere 16% of the gross cropped area 1930-31 to 70% in 1999-2000. The increase is sharper from late 1980s.

Local varieties of cereal crops (coarse grains) were also drought resistance to a greater extent and dependency on market for inputs was not much. But at present the mono-culture of groundnut has completely transformed socio-economic life of people. This is the crucial factor in understanding the phenomenon of farmers’ suicides. Resilience to drought is broken due to mono-culture of groundnut.

A recent study done by the Govt. of Andhra Pradesh reported that more than 55 percent of the farmers are not getting the Minimum Support Price (MSP). This is true in the case of Anantapur also. Most of the farmers are tied to the traders and middlemen who are dealing in agricultural inputs. This depresses the price that farmers are to get for their output. The cost of cultivation is increasing manifold in the 1990s.

Available data (1995 Agricultural Census) on land holdings in Anantapur district shows that about 90% of the holdings are small and marginal holdings. They are under great pressure owing to their dependency on vagaries of market and non-institutional forces that control input, credit and output markets.
Karnataka in general has a vast tract of drought-prone area … It is said that the state has a disproportionate share of drought-prone areas in the country. The northern districts of Karnataka are considered backward compared to other parts of the state.

The crop pattern is tilting in favour of commercialization and hence the risk of crop loss increased due to higher proportion of purchased inputs and technology. There is also a tendency to adopt mono-culture and consequent over-exploitation of land. Marginal lands are being brought under cultivation and this puts pressure on the inputs as well as on farming practices. Technology available is lumpy in nature and therefore failure of one component can lead to a severe aggregate crop loss. The cash component in the package of inputs has increased substantially and has necessitated higher cash needs. In the districts that are identified for high incidence of farmers’ suicides, the area under irrigation is low and in most cases the source of irrigation is private wells.

Average operational holding in Karnataka has been reducing from 3.20 hectares during 1970-71 to 1.95 hectares during 1995-96. Number of marginal and small holdings almost doubled during this period. During 1995 marginal and small holdings accounted for 42% and 27% respectively of all the holdings in the state. In the districts selected for the study in Karnataka, marginal and small holdings predominate.

Socio-Economic Profile – Findings from the field study

* The incidence of suicides has been very high during 2001 as many farmers have sustained loss in agriculture owing to erratic monsoon during 2000. Farmers’ suicides in Anantapur district at present indicate that the incidence is again very high during 2002-03 due to severe drought conditions and crop failure.
* Farmers’ suicides cannot be attributed to any specific social/caste phenomenon.
* About 95% of the sample cases among suicide victims are males.
* About 55% of the victims in Anantapur are in the age group of 31-45 years. It is almost similar in the case of sample cases in Karnataka.
For many young people there are no adequate employment opportunities outside agriculture.
This compels them to remain in the village and somehow improve their income. Traditional subsistence farming not being more income yielding, there is a tendency among young people to shift for commercial farming and … many of them are caught into the quagmire of mono crop.
* Our data indicates that there is no correlation between education levels and suicides.
* The data clearly show that victim farmers were more caught in the debt trap of non-institutional sources of credit compared to control cases.
* In many cases extreme step of suicide was taken recourse due to heavy pressure and humiliation from the private moneylenders.
* This is mainly because of the tie up that the farmers, especially the small, marginal and medium level farmers, have with the traders who also act as input suppliers, moneylenders and traders in agricultural commodities.

Reasons for committing suicides

Our study reveals that the debt trap is the main cause of certain farmers taking the extreme step of committing suicide. Debt trap is getting tightened up because of the agrarian crisis on the one hand and inaccessibility of institutional credit on the other. No institutions are forthcoming to lend money to farming community for the same purposes for which they lend money to urban middle class. Thus the farmers have to depend on non-institutional credit.

Alcohol related problem is cited as a high probable cause of farmers’ suicide in Veeresh Committee Report. Crop failure got less value than alcoholism in the probability analysis of the Committee. During the late 1990s, hundreds of farmers committed suicides in Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh. This was associated with heavy loss they suffered in cotton cultivation and the resultant debt trap. There were some interventions and the situation has improved with regard to cotton cultivation for the time being. As the conclusion of Veeresh Committee goes about attributing alcoholism as the main cause for suicides, the cases of suicides would not have stopped in Warangal district as no alcoholism still continue there but not suicides.

Land Reforms

The fact is that inspite of all crisis the peasants are clinging on to their land and also leasing in small parcels of land for cultivation. On the one hand land is seen as the basic line and on the other peasants are not left with any other option but to depend on agriculture. Thus the issue is to protect the interest of these resource poor farmers. However, Veeresh Committee has recommended almost to doing away with small farming that is considered as uneconomical. One of the important recommendations of this Committee is to bring radical changes in the existing Land Reforms Act. As the tenant farmers are leasing in land on contractual basis, they are not eligible for institutional credit and crop insurance. They have to depend on private sources of money lending at high rate of interests. The Committee has therefore recommended for "appropriate amendments to the Land Reforms Act so that the consolidation of small holdings and leasing operations of land are facilitated for a gainful employment without sacrificing the interests of farmers. Such amendments should be pro-active in attracting private investment and to prompt contract farming by groups, corporate sector and individuals can take lead on lease basis. Further such activities should also be declared as eligible for availing institutional finances and MSP." In essence, this step would only strengthen the corporate sector to lease in vast tract of lands as they have the needed resources. Peasants who are already under crisis cannot imagine to leasing in lands to the extent that it would be economically viable. For example, Karnataka Govt. has already identified certain districts in the state to be covered under the Agri-Export Zones where the corporate sector would be provided a package of service. An MOU has already been signed with Gherkins Production. There are moves by the Tamil Nadu Govt. inviting corporate sector to lease vast tracts of the so-called ‘waste lands’. Instead of making the small and marginal farms more viable with appropriate supportive measures, the suggestions for so-called radical changes in the land reforms would only push the resource poor farmers out of their own land adding to their misery. Experiences in other countries like China, South Korea, etc. should be taken into account for strengthening the small forms instead of eliminating them.

Response of the farmers’ movement

During 1998, when farmers’ suicides were reported from different parts of the country, the "Forum of Farmers Organizations on Globalization and agriculture" held a workshop at New Delhi and passed resolutions demanding safeguards for small and marginal farmers from the onslaught of WTO. This was not followed by any active mobilization of peasants at the field level. However, in Ananthapur district the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) associated with CPI has organized protest marches and voiced concern about farmers’ suicides in different forums. During the Asian Social Forum meet at Hyderabad during January 2003, a public hearing on farmers’ suicide was organized by the AIKS. The issue of farmers’ suicide has been raised in the legislative assemblies of the respective states by the opposition parties. In fact in Anantapur district, the Congress Party mobilized resources and paid compensation to the families of the victims (it is another issue that the Congress which is a ruling party in Karnataka refuses to pay any such ex-gratia payments to the families of the victims). Beyond these, active mobilization of farmers who are caught in the debt trap is not taking place.


Suicide of farmers in such phenomenal scale cannot be just dismissed as personal and psychological problems or mass hysteria. This would amount to psychological reductionism. The central issue of farmers’ suicides is the debt trap. Small and marginal farmers, especially those, who lease in land from others, are not eligible for availing institutional credit and crop insurance. Thus they land at the doorsteps of the usurious moneylenders. This debt trap is tightening because of the drastic shifts in the cropping pattern that is market driven. Government policies like removal of QRs under WTO regime have created havoc and exposed the farmers to the volatility of international market and prices. This situation has helped in strengthening the merchant capital and the traders cum moneylenders have their fortunes in the absence of supportive institutional mechanisms. Market driven mono cropping has damaged the fertility of the soil and created ecological imbalances. All these factors along with the usual social pressure have made many small and marginal farmers to throw up their hands. This process is intensifying during the last decade under the regime of liberalization and globalization.


(Centre for Social Development, National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad published the study "Farmers’ Suicides in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka" by RM Vidyasagar and K Suman Chandra in April 2003)






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