Debt-driven suicides by farmers first hit the headlines in the early 1990s, starting in the then undivided Andhra Pradesh. Like a rash, the trend spread to Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and even the north-east. In the two decades from 1995 – 2015, more than 3 lakh farmers are estimated to have ommitted suicide. The 2015 figures (the latest available) show a jump of 41 per cent over the previous year.
The near-total failure of the north-east monsoon drove the farmers of Tamil Nadu to New Delhi, where they held a series of bizarre protests to highlight the devastating impact of drought on their lives. Most telling of all was the display of multiple skulls, said to be those of farmers from the state who had committed suicide.
Debt-driven suicides by farmers first hit the headlines in the early 1990s, starting in the then undivided Andhra Pradesh. Like a rash, the trend spread to Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and even the north-east. In the two decades from 1995 – 2015, more than 3 lakh farmers are estimated to have committed suicide. The 2015 figures (the latest available) show a jump of 41 per cent over the previous year. Few states – other than those in eastern India – can claim their farmers don’t resort to the ultimate solution.
In tandem with the statistics on the increasing incidence of farmers’ suicides are a host of other, related numbers. Rising food and agriculture subsidies, now hovering at Rs 3 lakh crore. Increasing power subsidies to the farm sector, spiralling credit outflow, rising rural debt, increasing farm input costs and falling ground water tables. At the same time, record sowing and bumper harvests of cereal crops are reported year after year. Yet, NSSO data reveals that most rural households live a hand-to-mouth existence, earning just enough to cover their basic expenses.
There is something very wrong with this picture. Put together, the data makes no sense. On the one hand, farm subsidies and farm outputs are increasing, but farm debt is increasing and incomes stagnating. Take Madhya Pradesh, for instance, a state where spectacular agricultural growth – 14.2 per cent in the five years from 2010-2015 – is matched only by the increase in farmers’ suicides. Why does agricultural growth not translate into farm prosperity? Why is the minimum support price (MSP) for key crops consistently higher than open market prices? Why are states like Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal less subject to agrarian distress than progressive ones like Punjab and Haryana?
From the above, one can only conclude that the food economy of India is severely skewed. The dependence of farmers on markets and the state both for inputs and procurement of output have rendered agriculture so risk-prone and farm incomes so fragile that farming in India – oscillating between crop failure and over-production – is now downright hazardous to health.
Certainly, access to the most important farm inputs – land, water, seeds – is a key determinant. Of these, water is the least assured. When the farmers of Tamil Nadu threatened to drink urine if the Prime Minister could not provide them with water, they weren’t kidding. With most river basins in India – Brahmaputra and Mahanadi being exceptions – suffering water scarcity through most of the year, farmers have no option but to rely on ground water for crop irrigation. As a result, ground water in the north, west and south is significantly to critically depleted, thanks largely to availability of free power. India is now the biggest net exporter of virtual water – that is, water embedded in agricultural commodities – in the world.
Solutions are at hand, but remain at the level of pilot projects. Micro-irrigation, studies have shown, reduces water input by 50 per cent and results in a 20 to 30 per cent higher yield for crops. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) increases output and decreases inputs phenomenally, even when adopted for crops other than rice. Non-pesticidal management (NPM) has liberated lakhs of farmers in Telengana from debt by eliminating the need for crop protection chemicals. Farm yard manure (gobar), easily available and easy to process, has long been known to be a panacea for poor soils and perhaps the only means of maintaining soil fertility in the long term. Crop diversification mitigates risk by introducing cultivars appropriate to soil and climate rather than for the market.
Misdirected subsidies and credit flow, fragmentation of land holdings, exploitation of tenant farmers, encroachment and degradation of pastures, health risks posed by agro-chemicals, archaic and anti-farmer laws on marketing of produce, lack of post-harvest infrastructure, climate change – the list of farmers’ grievances is virtually endless. That they parked themselves 200 metres from Parliament for 41 days doing everything possible to attract attention – streaking naked outside the PMO, chomping mice and snakes, painting slogans on their torsos, sporting freakish tonsures – is a measure of their desperation.
The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.