Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | Is ‘farmer suicide’ fake news, but of the good folks?

The perception is deeply rooted and wide that India's farmers commit suicide because of debt and poverty

One measure of human misery in India is a state secret. The government has not released a figure—how many farmers or farm workers in India killed themselves every year since 2015. This suicide demographic is important to activists who have successfully developed a phenomenon called “farmer suicides" to promote the fiction or half-truth that India’s farmers and landless farm labourers kill themselves because of debt and poverty.

It is odd, at first glance, that the government should be secretive about the latest statistics of “farmer suicides". The data, last published by the National Crime Records Bureau in 2015, actually shows that India’s farmers and other agricultural workers are less likely to kill themselves compared to other sections of society. Also, the poorest agricultural workers in India are less likely to kill themselves compared to more fortunate farmers, challenging the correlation between poverty and suicide. In fact, India’s rural poor are less likely to commit suicide than far more affluent citizens of most advanced economies. However, the perception is so deeply rooted and wide that India’s farmers commit suicide because of debt and poverty, that the government is probably scared of revealing any figures that can help its political opponents.

Historically, people have projected their favourite ideas on suicides. Poets thought it was a philosophical act. Nationalists thought it was a patriotic act. The romantics thought it was the ultimate act of passion.

Mainstream scientific opinion today has a dry view—suicide is primarily a mental health issue, which is influenced by a person’s neurological make-up, genes, circumstances, diseases, even gut bacteria, and environment.

A recent paper, ‘The Lancet Commission on global mental health and sustainable development’, shows a correlation between poverty and mental health. However, contrary to the picture activists paint, it appears that the state of poverty is not a monolithic neurological profile.

In the transmission of the idea of “farmer suicides" activists have exploited a naive aspect of journalism—to assign causes to suicide depending on who has committed the act. In a student preparing for an engineering entrance exam, the “cause" of suicide is “stress"; in a Dalit student it is “oppression", and in a farmer it is “agrarian distress".

“Farmer suicide" has the qualities of stupendously successful fake news. It is not an outright lie, but not a fact either, and those who want to believe it, do so because it corroborates something else. But then, so what if it is fake news? This is an exceedingly important question which guides several people who can see through the falsity of the propaganda, but believe propaganda from good folks is not a bad thing. The reasoning is that, after all, the exaggeration and the excessive extrapolation of a phenomenon is to help the poor in a cruel nation. How else can the good fight evil if they are not a bit cunning?

This is a flawed reasoning. The hypothesis of ‘farmer suicide’ is, in fact, dangerous.

If people are willing to believe that poverty is a trigger of suicide they should accept a far more powerful trigger, whose evidence, too, is far more substantial than the poverty angle. The trigger is in the news of suicide itself, in the very transmission of the idea that a type of person in a specific circumstance is very likely to commit suicide.

This is why a recommendation for journalists prepared in 2015 by a global network of organizations, including the largest scientific organisation in the world, the National Institute of Mental Health, states that the news media should “avoid reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event, such as a recent job loss, divorce or bad grades. Reporting like this leaves the public with an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide". The note also discourages “describing recent suicides as an ‘epidemic,’ ‘skyrocketing’, or in other strong terms". In short, how activists transmit the news of “farmer suicides" and how most of Indian media report the phenomenon is exactly what some of the most respected institutes in the world that study suicide suggest we should not do.

The news media comes up with several new “causes" for suicide. We have read about an online game called “Blue Whale Challenge" that sent adolescents to obedient deaths. Tibetan monks immolated themselves, peacefully, to protest against China. Such “causes" did not last long. If they were indeed “causes" they should have endured, but they faded away soon after the news cycle ended. These “causes" were fanned by the media. Many other “causes" have become extinct as the world has moved on. “Farmer suicide" has endured because it is politically useful to ideologues and journalism has not had the conviction to reject the “causes" that the activists have promoted.

Also, the propaganda of “farmer suicide" benefits activists more than farmers. The idea of debt-driven suicide was popularised by the activist Vandana Shiva in her attempt to create public opinion against genetically modified crops. Now, the idea is used by various activists who wish to flog their own agendas.

Also, a nation that is trained to react to suicides as a social, economic and political phenomenon, may become a society that will not be moved by the living anymore. “How can you be so miserable," the rich may ask the poor one day, “If people like you are not killing yourself?"

Manu Joseph is a journalist and author, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous’.

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