It is tempting to relate the decline in the number of farmer suicides in 2018, as reported by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), to an abatement in rural distress. Such a temptation should, however, be tempered. There have been periods of crop failure in specific regions during which farmer suicide rates have spiked locally. Yet, on a broad national level, there is a very loose link between rising farm income levels and falling suicide rates. The incidence of farmers taking their own lives has been declining over the years, with an occasional spike in rainfall-deficient years, such as in 2015, which marked a second consecutive year of below-average monsoon rains. In 2018, according to NCRB data, self-inflicted deaths on farms accounted for 4.3% of all suicides reported in India. This was the same share as in 2014 and bears no relation to agricultural output in the intervening years. In general, suicide is much too complex a phenomenon to be slapped with reductionist causes. A financial crunch can, at best, be one of several determinants. More people kill themselves in India’s relatively prosperous cities than in the countryside, where two-thirds of our population resides.
Yet, farm suicides serve to draw attention to the sorry state of Indian agriculture, which has lagged industry and services in productivity gains for decades. Disguised unemployment on farms remains high. Fragmentation of land holdings has left far too many farmers with farms that are too small to be remunerative. Low access to credit, irrigation and technology worsens their ability to make a comfortable living. A tenth of our farmers are landless. They use rented land, but the inadequacies of land-leasing mechanisms make it difficult for them to raise production. Outstanding agricultural credit amounts to more than half the sector’s output, but institutional credit is accessed by only 61% of farm households, which means a big chunk of farm lending is still in the hands of usurious moneylenders. Irrigation reaches less than half of India’s overall farmland, a picture that has not changed much over the past decade, and more than 60% of our farmers are susceptible to rainfall anomalies. Rain-fed farming yields are typically less than half those of irrigated farmland. Though India has caught up with global levels of fertilizer use, this is neither efficient nor environmentally sustainable. Both add to the cost of cultivation. Research on high-yielding crops has plateaued after an initial burst during the Green Revolution and farmers are having to resort to patented seeds to draw more out of their scanty acres.
The future, though, need not resemble the past. Information technology promises to improve weather forecasting, crop identification as well as damage control, soil health monitoring, and mapping of available water resources. Productivity gains could also be found between the farm and the fork. Improvements in marketing and logistics can significantly raise the share that cultivators get of the money people pay for their food. The Centre is using technology to connect farmers to a nationwide e-market, but the states need to amend their antiquated farm produce marketing laws that have squeezed farmers’ earnings. We also need cold chain networks to preserve perishables. For urban commerce to uplift rural India, cross-sectoral links are needed. An old problem of price signals failing to adjust demand and supply may also need fixing. For agricultural incomes to rise, reforms, rather than cash transfers, loan waivers and the like, are the way ahead.