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Bengaluru: More farmers have killed themselves in the last four months than in each of the last two full years in Karnataka, government data shows.

The data can be interpreted as a tacit admission that the state is gripped by an agrarian crisis, as about 60 farmers have committed suicide between April and the first half of July, whereas the number was 58 and 48 for the whole of 2013 and 2014, respectively.

These figures were compiled by chief minister Siddaramaiah’s office in the second week of July to gauge the agrarian crisis gripping the state as the ongoing assembly session witnessed heated debates on the topic.

An analysis of the data shows that both the scale and spread of farmer suicides have increased rapidly in Karnataka since April. The suicides have increased from four in April to 32 in the first half of July, or, in other words, from one farmer ending his life a week to two farmers every day.

The suicides aren’t restricted to a few districts. The data shows farmer suicides in both southern and northern districts, with Mandya and Mysore recording the highest rates.

Even when they are current, agricultural experts suggest that the government data on farmer suicides is hopelessly conservative, and the ground reality is far worse.

According to journalist P. Sainath, the official figures are a gigantic understatement as in 2013 alone, when the government said there were 58 farmer suicides, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recorded more than 1,200 farmer suicides.

“Every one of the figures is an underestimate. The figures can be so widely and dramatically different, based on how each arm of the government defines a farmer," said the Magsaysay award-winning journalist, who has written extensively about the agrarian crisis and farmer suicides in the country.

He added that suicides of tenant farmers, women farmers, the Scheduled Caste/Tribe population and tribals is not counted in farmer suicides as they do not hold land. According to NCRB data, he said, Karnataka has the second-highest farmer suicide rate in the country, with 30,000 farmers killing themselves in the state in the last two decades, but it has never been reflected in state data.

“Farmer suicides is not the crisis. Farmer suicides is only a manifestation of the fallout of a crisis. For every farmer who commits suicide, there are ten thousand miserable ones who don’t," Sainath said.

Karnataka’s sugarcane farmers, who form a major proportion of the 60 suicides, are reportedly caught in deep debt because of the long due arrears from factories that purchased their cane, and face repayment pressure from moneylenders.

Many of the 66 sugar factories in the state—run by politicians like in other sugar-growing states such as Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh—reportedly owe farmers 2,500 crore for the cane purchased in the last crushing season, apart from 1,000 crore in dues from 2013-14.

Although it has assured action, the state government says it is unsure about how to tackle the issue.

“We have released 450 crore towards the first instalment of 100 a tonne as incentive to each farmer. Apart from this, we are cracking down on moneylenders and have asked banks to not serve repayment notices to farmers for now," said agricultural minister Krishna Byre Gowda.

“We are puzzled why farmers continue committing suicide despite these measures. I have asked deputy commissioners in each district to monitor farmer suicides in their respective districts on a case-by-case basis," he said.

In the assembly, there was talk of “setting up a committee to study farm suicides". The last time it took such a step was in 2001, when a committee chaired by G.K. Veeresh, former vice-chancellor of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru, submitted a report which said farmers are committing suicide mostly because of “bad habits" such as drinking and gambling.

This time around, the government is planning to bring on board agricultural expert M.S. Swaminathan to chair a fact-finding committee.

Any measures to tackle the issue are bound to fail, said D.P. Kumar, director of the University of Agricultural Sciences, unless farmers get at least their cost of production and institutional credit.

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