Home > News > India > The geography of farmer suicides

New Delhi: The ultimate sign of distress is suicide. Amid the ongoing rural distress, reports of farmer suicides are often used to highlight the plight of rural India. However, new data and research suggest that farmer suicides may not have increased in recent years and may have more complex causes than falling incomes or rising indebtedness.

According to the 2018 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, the rate of farmer suicides in India has decreased over the last few years. This decrease comes even as overall suicide rates remained fairly constant and rural poverty shot up. In 2018, there were 10.2 suicides for 100,000 Indians, largely in line with the World Health Organization’s estimates of global suicide rates, but 3.6 suicides for 100,000 farmers and farm labourers.

National figures, though, mask the significant variation in farmer suicide rates across states. Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Kerala reported the highest suicide rates in 2018, as per NCRB data. A 2014 study of farmer suicides between 1997-2012 had placed these three states among those with a major problem regarding farmer suicides. The study also classified a group of states that have had little problem with farmer suicides historically. This group included Punjab but that seems to have changed in recent years. Among the major agrarian states, Punjab has experienced a sharp jump in farmer suicides with more than a five-fold increase.

Some states seem to barely have a farmer suicide issue, the NCRB data suggests. In 2018, six states, including Bihar, Odisha, and West Bengal reported zero farmer suicides. However, for states such as Odisha and West Bengal the claim of zero suicides seems implausible. In Odisha, ground reports of farmer suicides, including data presented in the assembly, do not match NCRB data.

A better way to understand farmer suicide data is to compare it with the overall suicide rate in the states. In some states, such as Karnataka and Maharashtra, both general suicides and farmer suicides seem to be more common. Conversely, other states, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, have tended to report both lower overall suicide rates and farmer suicide rates in recent years. But there is a significant gap between overall suicide rates and farmer suicide rates in a few states. For instance, West Bengal reported a high overall suicide rate and has a history of farmer suicides, but reported zero farmer suicides in 2018. Punjab and Mizoram are the only states where the farmer suicide rate actually exceeded the overall suicide rate.

All this data is also likely to be underestimates of India’s suicide problem. Suicide data is collected by state police forces and then compiled by NCRB. This process is prone to underreporting errors, according to researchers. For instance, a 2012 study used field survey data to estimate that NCRB underreports suicide deaths in men by at least 25% and women by at least 36%.

Another way to analyse farmer suicide trends is to examine its share in total suicides in the country. In 2014, around 9.4% of all national suicides were classified as farmer suicides. By 2018, this figure had fallen to 7.7%. One group that has seen a sharp rise in suicides is daily wage earners. In 2014, daily wage earner suicides accounted for just 12% of all of India’s suicides, but by 2018 this had risen to 22%. This was the biggest increase among all the professions tracked by NCRB.

Suicides, especially farmer suicides, are commonly attributed to a single issue such as an agrarian crisis or rising indebtedness. Research suggests that explanations are more complicated. In the analysis of farmer suicides between 1997 and 2012, the researchers argue that farmer suicides are a result of three broad factors, including existing vulnerability in a region, agrarian crisis, and lack of alternative opportunities. There could also be social factors. In his book Unraveling Farmer Suicides in India, Nilotpal Kumar argues that patriarchy in societies makes farmer suicides an act of patriarchal honour. Successfully tackling farmer suicides will require comprehensive, multifaceted policies that address all these issues.

Sneha Alexander contributed to this story.

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