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Farmer suicides reflect how fragile India’s agricultural economy is


By Moin Qazi*
"His speech is of mortgaged bedding,
On his kine he borrows yet,
At his heart is his daughter’s wedding,
In his eye foreknowledged of debt.
He eats and hath indigestion,
He toils and he may not stop;
His life is a long-drawn question
Between a crop and a crop."
— Rudyard Kipling, “The Masque of Plenty”
At least 217 farmers have ended their life in the month following Maharashtra Government’s farm loan waiver announcement on June 2 this year. This numbers for the month of June equal the average monthly figures in the past six months.
The number of suicides has now shot up to 1,327 this year. The number is only marginally lower for the same time period last year. In June 2016, the total number of cases had reached 1,541 in the first six months.
Farmer suicides are a wrenching and contentious issue and are surging upward even as the number of farmers in states is going down. It is a two decades-old national affliction that is as tragic as it is complex and is a serious threat to India’s most critical economic sector.
The roots of despair of the Indian farmer have been well researched and documented. They are a toxic blend of: livelihoods drained away by spiralling debt; soil tired on heavy doses of chemicals-fertilisers, crops and livestock destroyed by drought or unseasonable monsoon rains associated with climate change; plummeting water tables from relentless water mining; the loss of agricultural land to development; a collapse in cotton prices and dependence on expensive genetic-engineered hybrid seeds; penury and debt on account of dependence on predatory moneylenders, and near absence of rural mental health services and public awareness of mental health disease. . The sector has been the slowest-growing in India, with growth averaging around 2 per cent a year, exacerbating the crisis.
Farmer suicides are simply a reflection or a symptom of how fragile the farm economy is. Even a small aberration in the weather – unseasonal rains, high winds, dry weather and drought – multiplies the risk factor for farmers, taking it to unmanageable levels. Livelihood security for any farming family, therefore, hangs by a slender thread.
Small landholdings, large loans, failure to boost productivity, poor irrigation infrastructure and overuse of groundwater dependence on rain for water, have added to farmers’ woes. Perversely, bumper crops arising from a good monsoon can also lead to a surplus of produce, pushing down prices and hurting farmers’ ability to pay off their loans. According to an economic survey carried out last year for 17 Indian states, a farming family earns 20,000 rupees a year on average, or 1,700 rupees a month.
The suicide rate for farmers is 48 per cent higher than any other profession. In the 20 years since the Indian government first started keeping track of farmer suicides, about 3,00,000 farmers have ended their lives. Farmer suicides are a red stain of shame on the democratic pretentions of the Indian government as it continues to bungle the handling of its agricultural policies and programmes.
Nothing is simple about the farmer suicide phenomenon. In the farmers’ plight, all strands of an economy in transition intersect. To a degree, the suicides reflect the farmers’ bafflement at the gradual, and erratic, withdrawal of the state. They have felt the cost of reforms – but have yet to see the benefits.
The high rate of farmer suicides is often first traced to the trauma of the early 1990s – when India, devastated by financial crisis, embraced a raft of free market reforms, kickstarting the current era of economic liberalisation.
There are two triggers for the suicides. The first at the time of sowing, when the cash strapped farmer is pushed to buy seeds he can ill afford, so he takes credit. The next is at the time of harvest, when he arrives in the market and realises that he will not get the price that will enable him to repay the loan. That’s when the desolate fellow has no option but to consume pesticide.
A closer look would suggest that there is a broad pattern to farmer suicides. Most of these farmers had little appetite for risk earlier. They were happy with the modest yield that kept their home and hearths running. Lured by the promises of new foreign seeds, the farmers started availing big ticket loans to invest in expensive seeds, tagged with high yields, in what they saw a fair commercial risk.
If the math was right it was certainly worth it. But unfortunately we don’t have sophisticated financial risk-hedging instruments at the lower segment of farmers. Nor do we have super-efficient supply chains that should support this type of savvy ventures. 
While farmers, particularly those with small parcels of land, continue to work out strategies to keep their age-old bond with their land alive the new generation finds farming unsustainable. This is the key reason behind their influx to cities despite the hard truth that the new utopian world the migrants hope to discover is a vain chimera and is in reality just a another hard toil. This painful discovery will further add to the social stress.
The worsening woes of Indian farmers can hardly be neglected by the leaders of a country where two-thirds of people live in the countryside and many are being forced to head to cities to escape the wrath at their farms. Gandhi’s declaration that agriculture is the soul of Indian economy is as relevant as the man himself.
When India became independent, the contribution of agriculture to the economy was 50 per cent; it is now 15 per cent. Employment in the agro sector was to the extent of 88 per cent; now it is 66 per cent. Rural wages have fallen to their lowest.
For every Indian farmer who takes his own life, a family is hounded by the debt he leaves behind, typically resulting in children dropping out of school to become farmhands, and surviving family members themselves frequently committing suicide out of hopelessness and despair.
The Indian government’s response to the crisis – largely in the form of limited debt relief and compensation programmes – has failed to address the magnitude and scope of the problem or its underlying causes.
There are too many questions that seek quick answers. Some groundbreaking reforms are needed as the first steps in breaking the cycle of desperation and misery that so many Indian farming communities face. We must respect the ominous signs in the country’s farmlands which are claiming their debt in the form of lives of farmers who own them.
If the government is serious about reviving agriculture, it ought to act fast. We have the tools, but we need to summon the political will. This is the only way we can save thousands of farmers from the deadly noose.
*Development expert

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