Home >Opinion >Online-views >Opinion: An attempt to understand and contextualise farmer suicides

There is much discourse on both the issue of agrarian distress and farmer suicides. However, there have been some arguments that seem to paper over the problem and get into comparisons—that the people who committed suicide just happened to be farmers; that they were not poor; that (as argued by Shamika Ravi of Brookings India) the suicides of housewives are higher than that of farmers; and that, as argued in a recent article in Mint, the idea of debt-driven suicide was popularised by those opposed to genetically modified crops.

These arguments are clever. On the one hand, they question the rigour of attributing causality, breaking up the triggers to smaller bits and putting them on a statistical significance like (a) poverty is not a significant reason (b) smaller farmers are not committing suicides (c) indebtedness is not a significant reason or (d) bankruptcy is not a significant reason.

On the other hand, they bring out alternative narratives— more lovers are committing suicide or a larger number of housewives are committing suicide. Similarly, people like Shamika Ravi have argued that farmers in better-off states (like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh) are committing suicide while those from economically backward states (like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) are coping.

How does one counter these clever arguments? Or are the arguments made by people other than “activists"—scholars like Srijit Misra, K. Nagaraj, Ajay Dandekar, Davuluri Venkateswarlu, A. Vaidyanathan or journalists like P. Sainath, Jaideep Hardikar and Kota Neelima —to be ignored? What have these people who have worked on the phenomenon of farmer suicides done to bring credibility to the obfuscating grand statistics and how do they establish causality?

The credibility of the scholars and authors named above does not come purely from comparing the data at the meta level that compares suicides by lovers to those of farmers. No, they are not writing a chapter for books like Freakonomics where the fun-fact is that drunken walking is more dangerous than drunk driving. Instead each of them is focusing on the data about the reported farmer suicides.

In most of the cases, the journalists and scholars have followed up on reported suicides and interviewed the families to ascertain whether the reporting was accurate and unbundled the death by trying to establish the events that triggered the death. Therefore, when one talks of farm suicides, it is usually backed by years of data that has been independently verified and given meaning through real-life stories, unlike the arguments provided purely on metadata.

What could be the reasons for these suicides? A large part of the literature seems to indicate that indebtedness is the prime reason not only for suicides, but also for the non-poor slipping back into poverty. We need to understand that indebtedness is not the same as bankruptcy and that people could feel vulnerable even before they declare themselves bankrupt. Indebtedness also includes loans from the formal and the informal sector.

Therefore, not only is the nature of indebtedness nuanced, the reasons for getting into debt are also nuanced. The lifetime work of scholars like Anirudh Krishna has been in understanding this phenomenon where he argues that getting into debt is predominantly on account of health events, agrarian distress and social expenses.

Unlike the entrepreneurial life of people in the formal sector, where the firm is distinct from the owner and people might have the safety nets of limited liability clauses, the entrepreneurial life of a farmer does not have these insulations. A bad health event coupled with volatility in agriculture could be killing. A good crop with prices depressed may lead farmers to depression.

One just needs to look at the rich literature on farmer suicides to understand the shades of distress that a farmer household goes through before dismissing that as fake news.

The questions that we need to ask is not about whether the suicides are fake or not. The question is deeper. Is there a crisis-like situation in Indian agriculture? The answer seems to be obvious and evident. What are the issues?

The issues (even from metadata) are well known. The farmholding size is going down due to fragmentation, the average number of loans given out by the formal sector for agricultural operations is going down, the average ticket size is going up. Just this data indicates the informalization of formal credit (not in terms of actual amounts dispensed, but number of farm households covered). The prices are not remunerative and less than substantial quantities are being cleared in the market at the minimum support prices.

The farmers who are regularly marching either to Mumbai or Delhi are the ones who are sending the warning signals of their distress. They want to live and we should not be pushing them to become another suicide statistic. And the best response is to engage and not dismiss this as one more fake statistic or fake news.

M.S. Sriram is a faculty member at the centre for public policy, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore

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