Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Understanding farmer suicides

New Delhi: According to a recent edition of the DNA newspaper, two heavily indebted farmers committed suicide on the eve of President Pranab Mukherjee’s maiden visit to the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra—taking the suicide toll in Vidarbha to 176 this year alone.

A staggering statistic that has left most people confounded, especially since the numbers seem to be increasing. What makes the narrative even more compelling is the fact that both farmers were less than 35 years of age, a demographic category that makes up 65% of India’s 1.2 billion population.

Often, the rhetoric that ensues in the wake of such a tragedy drowns out any meaningful discourse on this phenomenon; consequently, the debate is mired either in the veracity of the statistics or is an exaggeration of the tragedy. Instead, the question that should worry us is why these young farmers are being driven to such an extreme measure; mercifully, unlike in the media, considerable academic research is being undertaken to fathom the nature of the beast.

It is my case that farmer suicide is the symptom of a larger structural problem that has come to take root in Indian agriculture, particularly over the last few decades. Most palliatives offered so far—like the record farm loan waiver by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ahead of the 2009 general election—work to alleviate the symptom and not the underlying problem. That’s akin to treating fever instead of the infection.

To understand this, we must appreciate that Indian agriculture, despite its diminishing share of gross domestic product (GDP) and visibility in public policy, has been structurally transformed in the last three decades. From a simple two-crop cycle largely dominated by foodgrains like wheat and rice, farmers have begun to branch out into cash crops like high-yielding cotton and some in coastal areas have even moved into inland fish farming.

The new crops offer, on the face of it, more lucrative returns. And since most of them are high-yielding varieties, the farmers are obviously able to generate more from the same piece of land. The more adventurous even look for more than two crop cycles in a year.

Take inland fish production, most of which is made up of fish farming, for instance. In 1980-81, of the total fish production in the country of 2.44 million tonnes (mt), inland fish production accounted for only 887,000 tonnes. In 2000-01, of the total production of 5.6 mt, inland fish production accounted for 2.85 mt. A decade later, in 2010-11, total fish production in the country was estimated at 8.42 mt and of this inland fish production aggregated 5.20 mt—just under two-thirds, compared with one-third in 1980-81. Similarly, the introduction of high-yielding varieties of cotton have sent the yield per hectare (ha) through the roof, serving up a temptation that most young farmers find difficult to resist. Yield per ha rose from 152 kg per ha in 1980-81 to 190 kg per ha in 2000-01, before zooming to 491 kg per ha in 2011-12. Not surprisingly, the area under cultivation of cotton has grown from 8.53 million ha in 2000-01 to 12.18 million ha in 2011-12—an increase of 42% in 11 years.

What is missed here is that nothing comes without a price. Just as fish farming and use of high-yield cotton improve the financial prospects for the farmer, they also entail a substantial increase in risks—particularly of yield and price.

Yield is not only vulnerable to the vagaries of weather but also to pests, besides the fact that the input costs can also go up dramatically. Obviously, farmers cannot cope with such a situation by digging into their own savings; instead, they have to borrow money. This is over and above the debt burden that is often handed down over generations. The last study on farmer debt conducted in 2003 by the government revealed that one in two farmer households had accumulated debt.

The problem here is two-fold. One, there is a sharp increase in risks to the farmer. Second, there are no existing institutions in the rural landscape that either understand or have the capability to price this risk.

So, if the farmer turns to a moneylender, then the risk is linearly proportional to the sum that is borrowed—ergo, the likelihood of failure to repay has gone up not just a tad bit, but substantially. Clearly, the farmer community has moved on, but the institutions, both public and private, have failed to keep pace.

And if you look at the pattern of farmer suicides, this theory bears up anecdotally. In general, farmer suicides have taken place mainly in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka; of these, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra are among the states where farmers have embraced both cotton and inland fish farming in a big way.

As they say, if the glove fits, then convict.

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