This Article is From May 02, 2015

Calling Farmer Suicides A 'Tragedy' Fails India

The public suicide of a farmer at the AAP rally in Delhi earlier this month, while dramatic, is not an isolated incident. It is yet another grim addition to a staggering tally of nearly 3 lakh Indian farmers who have committed suicide in the last two decades according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. One farmer suicide is a tragedy, but more than 15,000 a year on average for the last two decades is a crisis. Just to give a sense of the magnitude, that is nearly twice the annual number of dowry deaths.

All political parties and the Prime Minister have expressed their grief. After routine lip service to "let's not politicize a tragedy", political parties have done precisely that. After all, what is politics if not making currency out of tragedy, resentment, and outrage? The main opposition party has criticized the current Land Bill, saying that it is anti-farmer, even though it is just a tweak of the Land Bill they introduced a few years ago, with stiff opposition from the current ruling party. There has been little systematic discussion of policies to address the problem of farmer suicides, other than a series of ad hoc short run measures like loan waivers or relief packages to alleviate farmer distress, or payments to the family in the event of a suicide.  

Suicide is first and foremost a tragedy, and I do not doubt the sincerity of anyone who expresses grief. However, calling farmer suicides a tragedy almost makes it a human condition that is universal and eternal, rather than a policy problem, absolving us from thinking hard about the causes and possible remedies.    

Even when it is accepted that a high rate of suicide is a problem worthy of attention, some have argued that farmers' suicides are part of a broader trend on suicide among all groups and an excessive focus on farmers may be misguided. Available evidence, imperfect as it is, does not support this argument. For example, if we take the latest statistics provided by the NCRB based on police records, India had 11 cases of suicides per lakh of population. For farmers, the corresponding number is 15, based on census estimates for 2011 of the total number of cultivators in the country, whose main occupation was farming. In 2001, the last year for which census figures are available, the corresponding figures are 11 for the general population, and 16 for cultivators whose main occupation was farming, according to this study. These are big differences, suggesting that farmers as an occupational group do have a higher rate of suicide nationally. To obtain suicide rates for farmers, all cultivators are often taken as the relevant reference group, including those for whom farming is a marginal activity, and this tends to lead to a downward bias, which is often used to argue that farmer suicide rates are similar to suicide rates for the rest of the population. Of course, if we look at more disaggregated state-specific numbers, as this study has done, then the gap between the suicide rates of farmers and the general population is much higher in the states that top the list for farmer suicides, such as Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

Not just that, there are reasons to believe that the existing data is likely to under-estimate farmer suicides.

Given that suicide is associated with social stigma for the family and is in fact a crime according to Indian law, NCRB statistics on suicides are subject to an under-reporting bias. Indeed, a recent WHO report as well as a study published in the Lancet suggests a considerably higher rate of suicides for India than the calculations based on the NCRB would suggest.

While these factors would tend to affect the reporting of all suicides, there are additional reasons why farmer suicide rates are under-reported. First, a suicide is classified as a farmer suicide only if the farmer's name is on the land title, which would tend to leave out tenants or those whose father's name is on the title. Second, some states have occasionally reported zero farmer suicides in recent years which is highly implausible (Chhattisgarh in 2011 and 2013, West Bengal in 2012 and 2013), given that these states have been in the past among the top states in terms of farmer suicides, presumably because of the politically sensitive nature of farmer suicides. 

Juxtaposed with the generally high growth rates of income in the last two decades, the phenomenon of farmer suicides, which began to attract attention since the late-90s, presents us with a genuine puzzle: why are farmers committing suicide while India is being celebrated for its growth performance and for lifting millions out of poverty over the last two decades (ignoring the economic slowdown in the last couple of years)?

The clue to the puzzle is our obsession with aggregate measures (like per capita income or growth) that obscures the great variation that exists across different parts of the country and across different groups of people.  Consider this: sticking to the major states in terms of population, the problem of farmer suicides in the country is particularly severe in Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Yet, Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are also amongst states with highest per capita incomes, and Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are in the list of top five states in terms of growth rates of income.

This indicates that prosperity is not equally distributed and not everyone is being lifted by the rising tide of growth. Indeed, if we look at the states that report the highest levels of inequality, then the top-five list overlaps almost perfectly with those that report the most farmer suicides:  Kerala, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.

A study that correlates incidence of farmer suicides to various characteristics of a state finds a strong positive correlation between farmer suicides and the following factors: proportion of farmers with marginal landholdings among all farmers, proportion of land used in the cultivation of cash crops, and proportion of farmers who are indebted. Small farmers who are cultivating cash crops need loans to cover their costs. Lack of institutional banking facilities means dependence on moneylenders and intermediaries, friends, and family members. Low rates of return in agriculture are compounded by the risk these small farmers face from crop failure (being rainfall dependent) as well as volatility of market prices. A whole set of case studies suggest that many farmers who committed suicide were tipped over the edge by a negative income shock, being already under pressure to pay off their existing debts.  

In my own field work talking to farmers in Singur, I found that the poorest farmers are the most keen to clutch on to their meagre landholdings since land to them is an insurance option, a credit line, and a substitute to old age pension.  This suggests a vicious circle - because of the  eagerness of small farmers to hold on to land, land becomes a constraint for infrastructure building or industrialization and that in turn depresses off-farm employment prospects and causes small farmers to continue with their precarious existence in agriculture.

The way out of the vicious cycle is a combination of the following measures: public investment in rural infrastructure (irrigation, roads), expansion of institutional credit to enable farmers avoid being exploited by moneylenders and middlemen, and a rationalization of the wasteful and regressive subsidy raj that helps the richest farmers (who in addition pay no income taxes), at the expense of the poor, to create a social safety net for smaller farmers.  But before we discuss the specifics of such policies, a first step would be to snap out of the growth-obsession that seems to pervade our media and policy discussions.

Growth was the magic mantra that was sold to the voters in the national election last year and anyone who questioned the obsession with growth and the neglect of other economic indicators (e.g., human development measures) was brushed off as a jholawalla or an apologist for the previous government. May be it is still early days, but unfortunately, beyond some natural corrections in tune with global trends, and some light statistical jiggle-juggle, not much has happened on the growth front. But I, for one, am happy not to harp on "Where is the double digit growth?" to the extent this leads to a renewed focus on the reasons why growth is potentially valuable: to improve the quality of life of all citizens. And, taking one's own life is the most negative statement a citizen can make about the quality of his or her own life.

(Maitreesh Ghatak is Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics, and his main area of research is development economics.)

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