This year, the barren fields of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have seen a glimmer of hope. After years of turmoil due to crop failure and mounting debt, farmer suicides have gone down considerably.
Surprisingly, the recovery comes in a drought year.
Experts attribute this to an aggressive farm credit policy. The last two years saw soft credit flow into stressed farmhands despite the global cash crunch, a loan waiver of Rs 60,000 crore - slightly more than what India spends for its military upgrade - and an almost 50 per cent hike in minimum support prices (MSP) of major commercial crops.
All this helped ease the burden on farms, the experts said.
MSP is the price set by the government for the grain it buys, which also serves as the base price for private traders.
The suicides haven't stopped entirely but government data suggests a progressive drop between 2007 and 2009 (see box). In Maharashtra, for instance, the number of suicides went down from 627 to 259 in just a year.
"Despite the recession, farm credit targets were met," said S. Mahendra Dev, who was a member of a committee set up by the Andhra Pradesh government to probe suicides by cotton farmers between 2001 and 2003.
Dev, who currently heads the Commission of Agricultural Costs and Prices that fixes MSPs, said that in the last two years, higher MSPs also played a key role. "Support prices increased by up to 50 per cent for all major cash crops," he said.
In Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, the incomes of cotton growers increased by Rs 8,000 for every 10 quintals of yield per acre after MSP was hiked from Rs 1,700 in 2007 to Rs 2,500 in 2008 for small variety cotton and from Rs 1,900 to Rs 3,000 for the long staple variety.
Then came the Agriculture Debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme, in 2008. According to agriculture ministry figures, 3 crore small farmers and 68 lakh "other farmers" benefited from it.
The government is disbursing funds to lending institutions in a phased manner, and has already released Rs 40,000 crore.
"Now the government has set up a task force to look into the matter of farmers who'd taken loans from private lenders and are not covered by the waiver scheme," a ministry official, who didn't want to be named, said.
According to government data, farm credit flow went up from Rs 86,981 crore in 2003-04 to Rs 2,87,149 crore in 2008-09.
From the 2006-07 kharif (summer) season, farmers have received loans up to Rs 3 lakh at 7 per cent interest. An additional subsidy of 1 per cent is being paid from this year as incentive to those repaying short-term loans on time.
Activists, however, greeted the government data with caution, saying the bulk of suicides are passed off as non-farm suicides.
"There is pressure on the administration to downplay suicides because of political, compensation implications. Suicides are continuing in Adilabad in Andhra," Kavitha Kurugnathi of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture said.
She said district revenue officials are briefed to attribute a majority of suicides to non-agrarian causes.
But Dev responded: "We think the thrust on farm credit has definitely helped bring suicides down."