New Delhi: There is little doubt that 2016 was replete with positive data on agriculture sector—a normal monsoon, record production of grains and perishables, and a rebound in the farm sector growth after consecutive years of drought-induced dismal performance. However, this positive data failed to lift farmers’ sentiment because of the collapse of agricultural markets. For several months now they have been protesting, demanding loan waivers and better crop prices.

The latest to join the league of positive data is a number provided by agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh to Parliament on Wednesday. Citing a to-be-released National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, Singh said that 11,458 farmers and agricultural labourers took their lives in 2016. He said that even a single death is a matter of concern but argued that the rate of growth of suicides in the farm sector is falling. (Read more)

Indeed, the number of suicides in the farm sector is the lowest since 1996.

But does this mean farmers’ suicides are on the wane? While a clearer picture will emerge when NCRB publishes its annual report a few weeks from now—giving out numbers separately for farmers and agricultural labourers—one way to explain the lower suicides is that a normal monsoon and a record harvest may have brought down the all India numbers due to lower deaths in usually troubled regions such as Marathwada, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

The lower number could also be on account of underreporting by states (the state police collates the data and supplies it to the Union home ministry) which has happened in the past with some states tending to report suicides by farmers under other heads.

For instance, on 19 July, the Madhya Pradesh government told the state assembly that 599 people engaged in agriculture sector committed suicide in 2016 (a normal monsoon year), marginally higher than the 581 suicides in 2015 (a drought year), but substantially lower than 2014 (826 suicides) which was a drought year and even lower than 2013 (1090 suicides) which was a normal monsoon year. The data doesn’t add up. The overall lower number in 2016 contrasts oddly with frequent reports of suicides in states such as Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Since 2014, NCRB has split the data on farm sector suicides into farmers and farm hands which allows for better analysis on causes behind the deaths. The 2015 data, for instance, showed that while overall suicides rose 2% to 12,602 deaths, suicides by farmers went up by 42% but that of agricultural labourers fell by 32%. This means lower suicides by farm hands in a crippling drought year—it is easier for the landless to migrate and find work compared to the landed farmer—kept the numbers low.

It remains to be seen whether a similar trend—rising suicides by farmers and falling suicides by farm hands—continues in 2016. The disaggregated data will also show what prompted farmers and labourers to commit suicide in a bumper crop year. During the drought years of 2014 and 2015, the leading cause behind suicides was indebtedness and bankruptcy.

Will it be lower crop prices in 2016?