“Suicide rates among Indian farmers were a chilling 47 per cent higher than they were for the rest of the population in 2011. In some of the States worst hit by the agrarian crisis, they were well over 100 per cent higher. The new Census 2011 data reveal a shrinking farmer population. And it is on this reduced base that the farm suicides now occur. [...]
“‘The picture remains dismal,’ says Prof. K. Nagaraj, an economist at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. Prof. Nagaraj’s 2008 study on farm suicides in India remains the most important one on the subject. ‘The intensity of farm suicides shows no real decline,’ he says. ‘Nor do the numbers show a major fall. They remain concentrated in the farming heartlands of five key States. The crisis there continues. And the adjusted farmers’ suicide rate for 2011 is in fact slightly higher than it was in 2001.’ [...]
“At least 270,940 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1995, NCRB records show. This occurred at an annual average of 14,462 in six years, from 1995 to 2000. And at a yearly average of 16,743 in 11 years between 2001 and 2011. That is around 46 farmers’ suicides each day, on average. Or nearly one every half-hour since 2001.”
“Here is the statistic. No less than 14,004 farmers committed suicide in 2011 as per the data of the National Crime Records Bureau. That is more than 10.3 per cent of the total number of suicides in India through the year. Factoring the issues like huge underreporting of cases and the practice of never counting women as ‘farmers’, the actual number of incidents must be much more. [...]
“The corresponding figures for the year before were pegged at an even higher 15933. Unfortunately, there was not much to rejoice in the ‘decline’ as the Times of India, a leading English daily, pointed out. It has asserted that the ‘dip’ could as well be explained by the curious assertion of the Government of Chhattisgarh claiming that no farmers in the province committed suicide in 2011 as against 1412 of them who had taken the extreme step in 2010! [...]
“Unmistakably, it is not merely the worst of the times that Indian peasantry has undergone but in fact is, as P. Sainath puts it ‘the worst-ever recorded wave of suicides of this kind in human history.’ The numbers substantiate the claim. With more than 15,000 farmers committing suicide annually and the total number has marked a quarter million mark two years ago, the situation warrants a response at war footing. The government, on its part, has chosen to do not even as much as acknowledging the situation and paying lip service to it. [...]
“These suicides, murders in fact, are almost never sudden. They follow a pattern that begin with and remains entwined with the cropping cycle that dominates in their area. They have to take loans for buying seeds. For they do not have anything to ‘guarantee’ the payback, banks treat them as ‘unreliable’ and refuse to give them any loans. That brings them to the local, and illegal, moneylenders who charge exorbitant rates beginning with 10 per cent per month to 60 per cent per month! Sowing seeds, however, does not guarantee anything as they are then forced to wait for the monsoons. And if the monsoons fail even by a few weeks, it signals the end of the road for the farmer. Unable to pay back even the interest, forget the principal, the farmer gets inhumanely insulted and hounded by the moneylenders who more often than not are the strongmen of the area. The shame, the crippling sense of losing honour set in slowly and ends in the suicide.”
The Census data, however, do not convey the harshness and pain of the millions trapped in “footloose” migrations. That is, the desperate search for work driving poorer people in many directions without a clear final destination. Like Oriya migrants who work some weeks in Raipur. Then a couple of months at brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh. Then at construction sites in diverse towns in Maharashtra. Their hunger, and contractors, drive them to any place where there is work, however brief. There are rural migrations to both metros and non-metro urban areas. To towns and smaller cities. There are also rural to rural migrations. There are urban-urban migrations. And even, in smaller measure, urban to rural migrations.[...]
Between 1991 and 2001, over seven million people for whom cultivation was the main livelihood, quit farming. That is a mind-boggling figure. It suggests that, on average, close to 2,000 people a day abandon farming in the country. Where do they go? Nothing in employment data suggests they get absorbed in decent work in bustling cities.
“[U]ltimately, the proximate cause for a number of these suicides is farmer indebtedness. What lies behind that indebtedness is two decades of market liberalization in India, which have resulted in two simultaneous processes. First, the government has withdrawn significantly from the agricultural sector. It has reduced subsidies. It has decreased access to rural credit. Irrigation is insufficient and doesn’t reach most farmers who need it. And at the same time, it has encouraged a switch over to cash crop cultivation, of which cotton is one example.
“Simultaneously, the market has been opened up to global competitors, which makes Indian farmers extremely vulnerable. And at the same time, foreign multinationals now dominate industries, such as the cotton industry, including dominating the key inputs that are needed for cotton. In the case of cotton, in particular, the genetically modified Bt cottonseed has been promoted so effectively in India that it now dominates the entire sector, and between its cost, quality and availability, has an enormous impact on farmer costs and profits and yields to the point that it’s landing them in enormous debt. And many of them, ironically, are actually consuming the very pesticide that they went into debt to purchase, to kill themselves when they can’t escape that cycle of debt.”
“At least 17,368 Indian farmers killed themselves in 2009, the worst figure for farm suicides in six years, according to data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). This is an increase of 1,172 over the 2008 count of 16,196. It brings the total farm suicides since 1997 to 2,16,500. The share of the Big 5 States, or 'suicide belt' — Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh — in 2009 remained very high at 10,765, or around 62 per cent of the total, though falling nearly five percentage points from 2008. Maharashtra remained the worst State for farm suicides for the tenth successive year, reporting 2,872. Though that is a fall of 930, it is still 590 more than in Karnataka, second worst, which logged 2,282 farm suicides.
“Economist K. Nagaraj, author of the biggest study on Indian farm suicides, says, ‘That these numbers are rising even as the farmer population shrinks, confirms the agrarian crisis is still burning.’ [...]
“Things will get worse if existing policies on agriculture don't change. Even States that have managed some decline across 13 years will be battered. Kerala, for instance, saw an annual average of 1,371 farm suicides between 1997 and 2003. From 2004-09, its annual average was 1016 — a drop of 355. Yet Kerala will suffer greatly in the near future. Its economy is the most globalised of any State. Most crops are cash crops. Any volatility in the global prices of coffee, pepper, tea, vanilla, cardamom or rubber will affect the State. Those prices are also hugely controlled at the global level by a few corporations.”
“There were at least 16,196 farmers’ suicides in India in 2008, bringing the total since 1997 to 199,132, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
“The share of the Big 5 States or ‘suicide belt’ in 2008—Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh—remained very high at 10,797, or 66.6 per cent of the total farm suicides in the country. This was marginally higher than it was in 2007 (66.2 per cent). Maharashtra remains the worst state in the nation for farm suicides with a total of 3802. (This is just 40 short of the combined total of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.) The all-India total of 16,196 represents a fall of 436 from 2007. But the broad trends of the past decade reflect no significant change. The national average for farm suicides since 2003 stays at roughly one every 30 minutes.”
“Every suicide has a multiplicity of causes. But when you have nearly 200,000 of them, it makes sense to seek broad common factors within that group. Within those reasons. As Dr. Nagaraj has repeatedly pointed out, the suicides appear concentrated in regions of high commercialisation of agriculture and very high peasant debt. Cash crop farmers seemed far more vulnerable to suicide than those growing food crops. Yet the basic underlying causes of the crisis remained untouched. The predatory commercialisation of the countryside; a massive decline in investment in agriculture; the withdrawal of bank credit at a time of soaring input prices; the crash in farm incomes combined with an explosion of cultivation costs; the shifting of millions from food crop to cash crop cultivation with all its risks; the corporate hijack of every major sector of agriculture including, and especially, seed; growing water stress and moves towards privatisation of that resource.”
"[T]he neoliberal model that pushed growth through one kind of consumption also meant re-directing huge amounts of money away from rural credit to fuel the lifestyles of the aspiring elites of the cities (and countryside, too). Thousands of rural bank branches shut down during the 15 years from 1993-2007.
"Even as incomes of the farmers crashed, so did the price they got for their cash crops, thanks to obscene subsidies to corporate and rich farmers in the West, from the U.S. and EU. Their battle over cotton subsidies alone (worth billions of dollars) destroyed cotton farmers not merely in India but in African nations such as Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali, and Chad. Meanwhile, all along, India kept reducing investment in agriculture (standard neoliberal procedure). Life was being made more and more impossible for small farmers.
"As costs rose, credit dried up. Debt went out of control. Subsidies destroyed their prices. Starving agriculture of investment (worth billions of dollars each year) smashed the countryside. India even cut most of the few, pathetic life supports she had for her farmers. The mess was complete. From the late-’90s, the suicides began to occur at what then seemed a brisk rate.
"In fact, India’s agrarian crisis can be summed up in five words (call it Ag Crisis 101): the drive toward corporate farming. The route (in five words): predatory commercialization of the countryside. The result: The biggest displacement in our history."
"Most of the farmers in Maharashtra, who are engaged in cotton cultivation, had committed suicide owing to crop failures and falling prices.
"Although the national total represented a slight fall from 17,060 in 2006, the broad trend remained unchanged, the report said, adding that the total farmer suicide toll in the country since 1997 stood at 182,936.
"Besides Maharashtra, southern Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and central Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states report nearly two-thirds of the farm suicides in the country.
"According to Indian Agriculture Ministry officials, the main cause of the suicides is indebtedness. Many farmers who work on small land holdings have taken loans from private lenders who charge up to 120 per cent annual interest from the farmers."
"But what has driven the huge increase in farm suicides, particularly in the Big Four or 'Suicide SEZ' States? 'Overall,' says Professor [K.] Nagaraj [of the Madras Institute of Development Studies], 'there exists since the mid-90s, an acute agrarian crisis. That's across the country. In the Big Four and some other states, specific factors compound the problem. These are zones of highly diversified, commercialised agriculture. Cash crops dominate. (And to a lesser extent, coarse cereals.) Water stress has been a common feature - and problems with land and water have worsened as state investment in agriculture disappears. Cultivation costs have shot up in these high input zones, with some inputs seeing cost hikes of several hundred per cent. The lack of regulation of these and other aspects of agriculture have sharpened those problems. Meanwhile, prices have crashed, as in the case of cotton, due to massive U.S.-EU subsidies to their growers. Or due to price rigging with the tightening grip of large corporations over the trade in agricultural commodities.'
"'From the mid-'90s onwards,' points out Professor Nagaraj, 'prices and farm incomes crashed. As costs rose - even as bank credit dried up - so did indebtedness. Even as subsidies for corporate farmers in the West rose, we cut our few, very minimal life supports and subsidies to our own farmers. The collapse of investment in agriculture also meant it was and is most difficult to get out of this trap.'"
"Mr Kelkar [a cotton farmer who hung himself out of despair over debt] had often talked farmers out of taking their lives in the state's cotton growing belt of Vidarbha where, on average, one farmer commits suicide every eight hours.
"In other words, three women become widows here every day.
"Mr Kelkar's wife, Indira, is now one of them.
"She is left with the mammoth responsibility of paying off his debt while looking after their four children."