With an ongoing petition in the Supreme Court on farmer suicides , and a growing clamour for farm loan waivers across several states of the country, the debate on farm suicides in India seems to be heating up once again.
Several commentators and researchers have claimed for long that farmers are the most distressed group in the country as their suicide rates are higher than that of others, based on their analysis of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. Other researchers have claimed—based on demographic surveys—that farmers are not the most suicide-prone group in the country, and that those who do commit suicide need counselling rather than economic palliatives.
As often happens in a sharply polarized debate, the truth perhaps lies in the middle. And it is possible to get a better handle on it thanks to changes in the way NCRB now provides data on suicides.
Earlier, NCRB used to provide data on farmer suicides, without specifying whether this included agricultural labourers or just cultivators. Most analysts assumed that the farmer suicide data referred only to cultivators and used population figures of cultivators to arrive at the suicide rates. However, in 2014, NCRB began publishing statistics for both agricultural labourers and farmer-cultivators, and it showed that they had so far been including suicides by both groups in their classification of farmer suicides. The old estimates had overestimated farm suicides because of the faulty assumption, it now turned out.
A reconstruction of the suicide rates by economists Deepankar Basu and Kartik Misra of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Debarshi Das of IIT-Guwahati published last year in the Economic and Political Weekly showed that except for Maharashtra and Kerala, the ratio of suicide rates (or the suicide mortality rates, as the researchers describe the rates) for farm-related workers and non-farm-related workers was less than one in all states between 1995 and 2011. Basu and his co-authors used these findings to argue that farmer suicides are a regional problem, not a country-wide phenomenon.
The overall trend of farm-related suicides being lower than non-farm suicide rates seems to hold for the post-2011 period as well, if one normalizes the latest NCRB figures (available till 2015) with estimated population figures. The estimated population figures are based on Central Statistical Organisation’s (CSO) 2016 projection for overall population growth, and on the occupational distribution figures provided by the 2011 census for the distributional split. The latest NCRB figures seem more robust than earlier years, when non-reporting (or zero reported rates of farmer suicides) was a major problem.
From 2015 onwards, NCRB also began publishing the reasons for farm suicides. And it shows a stark difference between farmers and non-farmers. While only a minority of suicides by non-farmers are due to economic distress, an overwhelming majority of farmers commit suicides because of economic distress, the data shows. Across states, economic factors such as poverty, bankruptcy, or farming-related issues (crop failures, inability to sell etc.) are the key drivers of farm-related suicides.
The evidence seems to suggest that although farm distress may be present in several parts of the country, the problem of farmer suicides—an extreme manifestation of such distress—seems concentrated in a few regions of the country.