Despite all efforts to paint a rosy picture, the latest compilation of farmer suicide statistics for 2014 by the National Crime Record Bureau clearly brings out the dark underbelly of Indian agriculture. With 12,360 farmer suicides recorded in 2014, it only shows that one farmer commits suicide somewhere in the country every 42 minutes.
Although the NCRB has made a valiant effort to segregate the farm suicides figures into two categories – farmer, and agricultural workers -- to show that farm suicides rate has fallen by 67 per cent, the fact remains that historically farm labourers have been counted as part of the farming category. Adding both the figures – 5,650 farmers and 6,710 agricultural workers – the death toll in agriculture for 2014 comes to 12,360, which is higher by 5 per cent over the 2013 farm suicide figures.
The serial death dance on the farm is a grave reflection of the terrible agrarian crisis that continues in farming for several decades now. While every successive government – both at the centre and in the States – have made tall promises to resurrect agriculture, the swing in farm suicide figures shows the callous and deliberate neglect of a sector that employs 60-crore people. Farmers have been very conveniently used for only two political purposes – as a vote bank and as a land bank.
Not showing any signs of petering off, a renewed spurt in suicides is now been witnessed in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana for the past few months.
In 2014, the NCRB data tells us that a third of the total suicides – 4,004 – took place in Maharashtra, followed by Telengana with 1,347 suicides. Reading between the lines, it becomes apparent that there is a visible effort to downplay the suicide figures by almost all states, including Punjab, the food bowl of the country. This follows a trend that Chhatisgarh started in 2011 when it started showing zero farm suicides. After record zero suicides for 2011, 4 in 2012 and again zero in 2013, Chhattisgarh now shows a sudden jump in farm suicides to 755 in 2014.
In Punjab, as per NCRB data, only 22 farmers committed suicide in 2014. Add agricultural workers, and the final suicide toll comes to 64. This is a gross under-reporting of the real situation that exists. Panchayat records in just four villages of Sangrur and Mansa districts in Punjab show 607 suicides in past five years, with 29 deaths recorded between November 2014 and April 2015. Similarly, in Maharashtra, the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti has contested the NCRB data. Several gaps in the counting methodology, including difficulty in putting women deaths in the farmer category since the in most cases the land is not in their names has time and again been brought out.
Indebtedness and bankruptcy (22.8 per cent) tops the reasons behind these suicides; followed by family problems (22.3 per cent) and 19 per cent because of farming related issues. Growing indebtedness of course has been considered to be the major reason behind the serial death dance being witnessed on the farm. According to a study conducted by Chandigarh-based Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) – the average farm debt has multiplied 22 times in the past decade in Punjab. From 0.25 lakh per household in 2004 it has gone upto Rs 5.6 lakh in 2014. Chhattisgarh tops the chart with an average debt of Rs 7.54 lakh, followed by Kerala with Rs 6.48 lakh household debt.
The total debt that farmers carry in Punjab is almost 50 per cent higher than the State’s GDP from agriculture. At the same time, another study by CRRID shows that 98 per cent of rural families in Punjab are indebted, and the average debt is 96 per cent of the total income a household receives. If this is the situation in Punjab, imagine the plight of farmers elsewhere in the country.
Why farm indebtedness has been steadily on a rise has never been studied beyond find out how much lending is coming from the moneylenders who are known to charge exorbitant interests. While lack of institutional finance is a limitation, it is the declining agricultural income that remains the major reason for growing indebtedness. Let me illustrate with a cost analysis of a typical farmers from Uttar Pradesh. As per the latest estimates of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), the net return from cultivating wheat in Uttar Pradesh has been worked out at Rs 10, 758. Since wheat is a 6-month crop, sown in October and harvested in April, the per month income for a farm family comes to Rs 1,793. If this is the level of income of a wheat farmer, I wonder what kind of livelihood security we are talking about when it comes to farmers.
I looked for more details. If the other crop farmer is growing is rice, the average net return for it has been computed at Rs 4,311. Add for rice and wheat, the total that a small farmer from a hectare earns is Rs 15, 669 or Rs 1,306 per month. With such meager incomes I can understand why a large number of farmers commit suicide at regular intervals. Those who are not so courageous either sell-off their body organs or prefer to abandon farming and migrate to the cities looking for a menial job as a dehari mazdoor.
This augurs well with the findings of the socio-economic survey which states that 67-crore people in the rural areas are surviving on less than Rs 33 a day. Several other studies have shown that roughly 58 per cent farmers go to sleep hungry, and close to 62 per cent hold a MNREGA card. Instead of pushing under the carpet the grave agrarian crisis that persists, the NCRB data should actually help the government to formulate policies to reverse the suicide trends. If 1,000 suicides in the armed forces could prompt the Defence Ministry to take a series of steps to ameliorate the situation, I wonder why a human toll of close to 3 lakh farmers taking their own lives in the past 20 years has failed to shake up the successive governments? #