Do falling farmer suicides mean less rural distress?
The number of farmers committing suicide has been decreasing for four consecutive years. A look at why this may be.
The number of farmers committing suicide has been decreasing for four consecutive years and last year it was the lowest in 25 years. Farmer suicides are often seen as an indicator of economic distress among farmers. But these numbers do not show us the full picture. A look at four reasons why this may be.
1. Total suicides going down
At least 10,281 people engaged in farming committed suicide in 2019, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which works under the ministry of home affairs. This is the lowest figure since 1995, the earliest year for which the number is available. The decline in the number of farmers’ suicides marks the continuation of a trend since 2016.
Farmers’ suicides have often been seen as the most macabre reflection of what many believe is a growing crisis of viability in Indian agriculture. India’s farms employ more than 40% of its 400 million plus workforce, while its share in Gross Value Added (GVA) has fallen below 15%. GVA is the value of goods and services produced by the country minus the cost of inputs and raw materials ,
Do the falling farmers’ suicide numbers capture an improvement in the material well-being of India’s farmers? Activists and experts believe that the official numbers suffer from underreporting. The fact that the NCRB has discontinued the practice of giving the share of farmers’ suicides because of economic distress has only added to the confusion.
2. Suicides among cultivators did not decrease in 2019
The headline farmer suicide numbers includes both farmers who cultivate crops on their owned or leased land as well as agricultural labourers who work on farms for a wage. The NCRB started giving this break-up in 2014. Except in 2014, the number of suicides by cultivators has always been greater than the number of agricultural workers. Also, most of the fall in headline farmers’ suicide numbers has happened because of a fall in the number of suicides by agricultural workers. Suicides by cultivators actually went up from 5,763 to 5,957 between 2018 and 2019.
Even as the number of suicides by agricultural labourers has shown a decreasing trend over the last six years, suicides among daily wage earners – the main difference between the two is that the former work in agricultural fields – has been constantly increasing in this period, from about 15,700 in 2014 to nearly 32,600 in 2019.
3. States underreport data
Many large states report no farmer suicides, according to the NCRB data. In 2019, for instance, 5,957 farmer (cultivator) suicides were reported from 17 states and union territories while 19 others did not report any. At least a third of the farmer suicides were reported by just three states – Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Nine states have not reported a single suicide by cultivators in last six years. These include states such as Bihar and West Bengal. On the other hand, 12 states have reported farmer suicides every year in the last six years.
4. Reason of suicides not known
There has always been a debate on whether farmers’ suicides are the result of economic distress or something else. For example, a 2015 Rajya Sabha reply by the then agriculture minister, Radha Mohan Singh, listed love affairs and impotency along with economic distress as the reasons driving farmers’ suicides; expectedly, his reply triggered a huge controversy (https://bit.ly/3h9C1Kn).
This debate was somewhat settled when NCRB published data on reasons for suicides among farmers in 2014 and 2015. The 2014 and 2015 numbers showed that farmers were more likely to commit suicide due to economic reasons than others. Of the cultivators who killed themselves in 2015, an overwhelming 59% did so for reasons such as poverty, farming-related issues and bankruptcy or indebtedness. Among agricultural labourers, only about 9% killed themselves for these reasons. Among all persons who committed suicide, 4.5% killed themselves for these reasons.
NCRB has stopped giving data on the reason of suicides among farmers since 2016.
Vijoo Krishnan, leader of the All India Kisan Sabha, the farmers’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said the organisation has details of farmers who killed themselves in several states that have officially reported no farmer suicides in recent years. “Actually there is a gross underreporting. Comrades in Bengal and Bihar informed us that many farmers committed suicide there last year but the official data shows no suicide,” he said, adding: “Even in states which have reported a large number of suicides, the actual number of suicides is higher.”
Krishnan said it was also possible that some of the farmers were being classified as daily wage earners in the NCRB reports. “When poor farmers are in extreme distress, they work as agricultural workers or as daily wage workers.”
Agriculture specialist Devinder Sharma said many farmer unions have been contesting the data reported by the states. “States want to present a good image that they are actively taking steps to address agrarian distress,” he said, adding: “A lower number of farmer suicides officially reported by states gives an impression that things are improving in the states.”