Why Suicides by Farmers?


It was in the year 1997 that the phenomenon of suicides by Indian farmers emerged. Since then it has assumed frightening proportions and till now more than 25,000 farmers have taken their own lives. Only the other day a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly threatened to immolate himself in the house itself and a few days later, the news came that farmers in a particular village near Nagpur were preparing their own funeral pyres to immolate themselves

These suicides have occurred mostly in prosperous regions of India, namely, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The farmers committing suicides have come not only from land owning strata but from the fold of the landless too. Undoubtedly, these suicides are symptoms of a deep agrarian crisis. What is the nature of this crisis? Why has the spate of suicides been witnessed only from 1997 onwards and witnessed mainly in the four agriculturally prosperous states? Does this phenomenon have anything to do with the opening up of the Indian economy and the process of liberalisation going on since 1991 under the aegis of the Structural Adjustment Programme of the World Bank? These are some of the questions that the Tata Institute of Social Sciences was asked by the Bombay High Court to look into and submit a report. This order was passed by the High Court on a petition from the All India Biodynamic and Organic Farming Association.

In 2004 as many as 644 farmers took their lives in Maharashtra alone. Most of them were from three regions, namely, Vidharbha, Marathwada and Khandesh. The Institute for an in-depth study selected a representative sample of 36 suicides, though information was collected for all the cases of suicides.    

Certain important facts have emerged from the report. First, over the years the importance of agriculture has relatively declined. At present it accounts for only 25 per cent of the GDP, though 75 per cent of the population living in rural areas is dependent on it for livelihood. Second, 60 to 70 per cent of agricultural production comes from subsistence farmers. Third, public investment in agriculture has been continuously declining for many years. A rough estimate indicates that the extent of reduction is 60 per cent since 1985. The report has referred to a research study by R. X. Desai, which says: “Under the guidance of the IMF and the World Bank, successive Indian governments slashed their expenditure on rural development (including expenditure on agriculture, special areas programme, irrigation and flood control, village industry, energy and transport – the figures are for Centre and States combined) from 14.5 per cent of GDP in 1985 to 5.9 per cent in 2000-01. Rural employment growth now is flat; per capita food grains consumption has fallen drastically … the situation is calamitous. Were expenditure by the Centre and States on rural development to have remained at the same percentage of GDP as in 1985-90, it would not have been Rs 124,000 crores in 2000-01, but Rs 305,000 crores, or more than two and a half times the actual amount.”
The declining public investment in agriculture has led to poor maintenance of the existing irrigation works, not to speak of their extension. Consequently, the dependence on rains continues. It needs to be noted that there is a marked absence of irrigation facilities in the three areas of Maharashtra. The total failure or insufficiency and unseasonal rains push the farmers into a deep crisis.

Fourth, in 1998 when the BJP-led coalition was in power at the Centre, India was forced by the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies to open up its doors to global seeds vending corporations like Cargill, Monsanto, Syh genta, etc. Consequently, the input economy underwent a big change. Farm-saved seeds gave way to corporate seeds, which required relatively much more fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation.

Fifth, available data indicate a rapid decline in the fertility of land, which had to be arrested by increasing amounts of fertilizers and water. Slashing the subsidies on fertilizers, irrigation and electricity increased the costs of production and forced the farmers to mobilize more resources. The policy of liberalisation led to greater and greater space for private sector into the production of fertilizers and pesticides. Obviously, they have become more and more expensive. The report has found that most farmers do not have any access to extension machinery of the government for securing sound information as to how to tackle with the declining fertility of land and the menace of pests. Their only source of advice remains the agents of fertilizer and pesticide companies, who have their own axe to grind.

Sixth, in the nineties especially after 1995, there was a sharp rise in the costs of production because almost all inputs became more expensive. The increased costs of production were to be made up by a rise in crop yield that required more fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation besides an appreciable rise in the minimum support prices for various crops announced by the government. The report underlines that no support price during the last ten years reflected the rising costs of production. The average gap between the minimum support price and cost of cultivation was 38 per cent for paddy, 48 per cent for Bajra, 32 per cent for groundnut, 50 per cent for sunflower, 38 per cent for cotton, and 47 per cent for wheat.

Seventh, after the onset of new economic policies, job opportunities in non-agricultural sectors declined. Textile mills in particular downed their shutters. To quote the report, “Declining opportunities in non-farm employment have further aggravated the crisis. It seems that in areas where suicides have occurred, non-farm options are getting limited. There are also instances where members of families have returned to land after losing work in urban areas or have faced lack of opportunities in the non-farm sector outside the village…. Thus, declining non-farm opportunities together with repeated crop failures and indebtedness might have created acute conditions of distress for families in rural areas.” 

Last, frequent failures of crops, rising costs of production and the inability to sell the crops at remunerative prices throw the farmers into the clutches of moneylenders. While the farmers with a secure title over their landholdings are in a position to secure some loans from institutional sources like banks and co-operative credit societies, these are not available to the landless that lease in land. After they are entrapped in indebtedness, a number of them realize that committing suicide was the only way out of destitution and humiliation. To quote the report: “… there has been a sharp increase in the dependence on loans to enable cultivation. The tendency to take loans increased in the nineties. The farmers took their first loan from banks (banks gave loan only once, with a further loan possible only after the repayment of the outstanding loan). The later loans were from private parties to repay the bank loan…. Over 75 per cent of the farmers had loan commitments to non-formal sources.”

The report has stressed, “The opening up of Indian agriculture to multinational corporations and the withdrawal of GOI (Government of India) … has occurred simultaneously. Moreover, the internal markets have become unstable due to lowering of tariff barriers. Unfair terms of trade … have made matters worse for those who are engaged in and/or dependent on … agriculture.” It is obvious that the situation is serious.

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