Home >politics >policy >Did the number of farmer suicides really halve last year?

New Delhi: Between 2013 and 2014, the number of farmer suicides halved.

That’s what the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) which tracks farmer suicides would have us believe.

It isn’t an improvement in India’s agricultural economy or a programme aimed at bettering the lot of poor farmers that has achieved this. Instead, it is a change of definition.

India recorded 12,360 farm-related suicides in 2014—of these 6,710 were agricultural labourers and 5,650 were farmers. Previous NCRB reports—the bureau has been reporting on farm suicides since 1995—do not make the distinction between farmers and farm hands.

The report defines farmers as those who own land, cultivate on leased land or hire farm hands, while agricultural labourers are those who do not own land but are dependent on farm-related wage labour.

The report has a separate chapter on farmer suicides that lists causes like indebtedness, family problems and crop failure, but excludes agricultural labourers from this analysis.

Figures by NCRB are the most widely quoted numbers on farmer suicides. In 2013, the number of farmer suicides was 11,772 under the self-employed farming and agriculture category. In 2014, the number of suicides by farmers was just 5,650, according to the report; if suicides by farm hands are kept aside, it means farmer suicides more than halved within a year.

This isn’t reflected in reality. India’s agrarian crisis peaked in 2014 due to a poor monsoon, crop loss, lower prices of key crops such as rice, wheat and cotton (as global prices crashed) and slower growth in rural wages.

In the past few years, farmer suicides have become a political issue and the easiest way to avoid blame is by dressing up the data, said Himanshu, associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and a Mint columnist.

“So states seem to have shifted the farm deaths from the self-employed farmer category to the agricultural labourer category," he said.

“The details of suicides are reported by police stations and it is easy to mark a farmer as a labourer instead. Who is going to verify it?" Himanshu, who uses only one name, asked.

But NCRB categorizes farm hands as self-employed persons—agricultural labourers—unmindful that self-employed and wage-dependent labour do not go together.

The 2014 NCRB report shows several states reported far more deaths in the agricultural labourer category than the farmer category. For instance, West Bengal reported 230 suicides by farm labourers and none by farmers, Jharkhand reported 373 suicides by farm labourers and none by farmers. The numbers are equally divergent for other states—827 and 68 in Tamil Nadu, 472 and 160 in Andhra Pradesh, 555 and 45 in Gujarat, 700 and 107 in Kerala, 97 and 5 in Odisha, 447 and 321 in Karnataka, and 129 and 63 in Uttar Pradesh.

If a person is dependent on wage income from agriculture, he is more likely to migrate than commit suicide in times of distress, but a farmer is more attached to the land and cannot move like labour does, said Sudhir Panwar, a farmer leader from Uttar Pradesh and member of the state’s planning commission.

“In reality, if more labourers are killing themselves, that means they don’t have the option to migrate, that farmers are unable to employ them, and also, that (the government’s) employment guarantee scheme has failed to provide any relief," said Panwar.

In a situation where farming is unviable, a farmer is also a labourer and a temporary migrant, said G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, former scientist at Indian Council of Agricultural Research and director of Hyderabad-based non-profit Centre for Sustainable Agriculture.

“Can we expect a farmer owning less than an acre of land to survive solely on it? Moreover, leases in India are informal and a farmer renting out land is likely to be classified as a landless labourer," added Ramanjaneyulu.

A series of government reports released in the last one year—the Situation Assessment Survey of Farm Households (December 2014) and the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (July 2015)—show farm households have multiple sources of income and are not solely dependent on agriculture. In such a situation, states may have reported farmers as agricultural labourers, added Ramanjaneyulu.

Census data shows that between 2001 and 2011, India had 9 million fewer farmers but added 38 million agricultural labourers and this could partially explain the higher number of suicides by farm labourers.

“All the reports point to increasing landlessness, unemployment and economic distress," said Ramanjaneyulu. “Agriculture is in a crisis and the government’s unwritten policy is to create cheap labour supply for the industry. This is bound to affect farmers and labourers."

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