New Delhi: Abject poverty, high levels of indebtedness, crop failures and pressure to repay loans are among the leading causes behind farmer suicides, according to the preliminary findings of a study commissioned by the Union agriculture ministry.
The broad findings of the study conducted by the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru, has been included in an affidavit submitted by the Centre to the Supreme Court on 28 April, in an ongoing Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on farmer suicides.
The court will hear the case on Monday.
The PIL was filed by Citizens Resource and Action and Initiative, a Gujarat-based non-profit, seeking higher compensation for families affected by farmer suicides and for crop loss in Gujarat. In January the Supreme Court made all state governments, Centre and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) party respondents in the case, noting that the issue is of wider public interest.
Based on interviews of 528 families affected by farmer suicides in 13 states, the study highlighted a trend among young farmers—of less than 30 years—taking their own lives.
“It is very unfortunate that farmers who were not even 30 years’ old with less than a decade of farming experience had lost their hopes and committed suicide," the study said.
While the Centre in its affidavit listed schemes designed to check farm distress, such as crop insurance, credit and market reforms, it also said that their implementation is in the hands of states as agriculture is a state subject.
“The Centre cannot pass the onus to states as major reasons behind suicides are under its own remit, as per the study’s findings," said Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (Asha), a collective of farm organizations.
“These include insurance and compensation to address crop failures, credit policies responsible for indebtedness, and non-remunerative prices due to procurement and trade policies—all decided by Centre," she added.
According to the study, over two-third of the victims had below poverty line (BPL) or Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) ration cards that are meant for the poorest households to help them avail subsidized foodgrain.
Victims who held BPL or AAY cards ranged between 78% and 93% of victims in states like Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh—states that also reported a high number of suicides.
The annual income of sample households were a paltry Rs73,000 during 2015-16, with agriculture contributing 70% to family earnings, the study said. These incomes, about Rs6,000 per month, are even lower than the Rs6,426 monthly income of agricultural houses reported by the National Sample Survey report in 2013.
Despite their poverty and dismal earnings, farmer suicide households were heavily indebted. Average borrowing per household was a staggering Rs7.2 lakh, over half of it in informal loans mostly from local moneylenders. Many of the victims did not inform the families of their credit history, the study said.
The study listed alcoholism (Kerala and Tamil Nadu), worries about the expenses involved in a daughter’s marriage (Andhra Pradesh) and fall in social reputation (Punjab) as among the reasons for farmers taking the extreme step. Among causes directly related to farming were: unmet expectations of more credit (87% of respondents in Tamil Nadu), failure to get better crop prices (64% in Telangana) and indebtedness (85% in Karnataka).
The study also showed that in states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana victim families were under more pressure from banks to repay loans, compared to non-institutional sources like moneylenders.
The study recommended higher enrolment under crop insurance schemes as crop failure was a leading cause of suicides.
As farmers also committed suicides after failing to get remunerative prices, the study urged the government to strengthen price support operations. Among its other suggestions were regulating the informal credit market by fixing interest rate norms, and setting up of district-level welfare cells to mentor, counsel and provide emergency financial assistance to distressed farmers.