India’s shocking farmer suicides

  • A special mention to Telanagana state

Lata Jain

Indian agriculture sector is in a serious mess. Recent unseasonal rains, which caused serious damage to the crops & more serious damage to the nation in the form of tragic suicides by debt ridden poor farmers, have drawn the attention of the opposition, media to the issue. Farming is closely related to nature. Nature has a choice of being benevolent or end up in droughts. The mess we are in is man made and can’t blame nature completely for it.

Since the 1990s, farmer suicides in India have made headlines. The high number was first noticed in the state of Maharashtra and then the media began reporting it happening in other states. The state of Telangana is now making news with the numbers of suicides increasing by day. The dry spell so far in the state is adding to the worry.

lata jain

Lata Jain

With the monsoon rainfall for 2015 to be below normal, serious doubts were raised over the occurrence of yet another drought year like the last year, for which, too, the forecast of 93 per cent was made.

With the country’s reservoirs showing signs of drying up, farmers may have to deal with some tough months ahead.

With merely 50.92 billion cubic meters of water (BCM), the water storage of country’s 91 important reservoirs stood at just 32 per cent of their total storage capacity.

The current storage is even less than that of last year’s corresponding period, triggering concerns on the sowing of kharif crops, especially rice. In a season when unseasonal, intermittent rains from February to April have already damaged the rabi crops, especially wheat, the advent of a ‘below normal’ rain is bound to affect the kharif crops, too, particularly rice

Activist’s slam the suicides have been caused by food speculators manipulating cereal prices, and GM companies who are selling expensive seeds and pesticides.

They say that in order to buy GM seeds, some farmers get into unmanageable debt. Others are crippled by fluctuations in food prices. And when the going gets too tough some decide the only way out is to end their lives.

The suicides occurred overwhelmingly amongst cash crop farmers. Growers of cotton, sugar cane, groundnut etc.. Far fewer suicides occur amongst growers of paddy or wheat. Can we argue that drought kills cash crop farmers but not those cultivating food crops?

The monsoon does have a very real impact on agriculture. With the bulk of those suicides occurring amongst cash crop farmers, the issues of debt, hyper-commercialization, exploding input costs, water-use patterns, and severe price shocks and price volatility, come much more to the fore says Pasya Padma of the Rhythu sangam, CPI, Telangana. These factors are majorly driven by state policies and politicians play a major role in these policies.

I was interacting with the family of Rajappa, who committed suicide in Warangal last month. Like most of the farmers, he depended on an electrical pump or a ‘bore well’ to access the groundwater. The bore wells were expensive, around 70,000 rupees each, he said, while the companies that put the bore wells into the ground charged 150 rupees for each third of a meter they dug. The bore wells were usually financed through loans from seed dealers or moneylenders, and it was often the debt incurred from these loans, combined with poor prices for crops, that led to farmers killing themselves, as was the case with three men in the village who had committed suicide the previous year.

The lack of water the farmers say is one of the major grievances and it is borne out by studies like a recent report by the Planning Commission, which notes that the tanks that were once primary sources of irrigation in this dry region have largely been silted over, and that a tremendous increase in the use of bore wells by farmers is leading to a depletion of aquifers in the region.

An FIR filed at one of the  Police Station in Medak  last year stated that he “didn’t get returns for his agriculture and couldn’t pay back loans he incurred on account of agriculture so he drank pesticide (monocrotophos) and end his life” Uppalaiah owned three acres of non-irrigated land. His cotton crop had been hit badly by pests. Uppalaiah borrowed Rs. 27,000 from a local moneylender, at an interest rate of 3 percent a month. But although he pumped pesticides all over his fields, the crop failed. The next year, he chose to sow another cotton variety, but that crop failed as well. A few days later, he borrowed another Rs. 20,000, and when it seemed he would lose his third crop in a row, he drank the pesticide.

Similar stories repeated in the ten or so cases. In the Telangana region, where very little land was irrigated farmers looked for alternate farming. Farmers had begun growing cotton on a large scale only over the previous decade. Initially, the yields were good, leading more farmers to take to cotton farming. But attacks by pests, especially the larvae of the moth Heliothus, intensified with each passing year. Farmers started using excessive pesticides to fight these larvae to get a better yield than the other farmers. Soon, everyone was using high pesticide doses. When crops failed despite this, farmers who had borrowed money for sinking a well or buying pesticide found them in trouble. They failed year after year and the debts started increasing. Borrowing from private money lenders with a hope to return the money in a short period backfired and they were now in a debt trap.

The uneducated farmers have no great knowledge on the pesticide and they depended on shopkeepers and the ubiquitous representatives of seed and pesticide firms. These private firms and shop keepers exploited the gullible farmers to increase their revenue and in no case was the welfare of the farmers their interest.

The farmers who took this extreme step usually cultivated cash crops such as cotton and chillies, which are either not part of the government’s procurement system or are inadequately covered by it. They were usually marginal farmers working on small, unirrigated landholdings of their own, or on land they had leased. At least part of what they borrowed came from private sources, and they had almost no interaction with the state or central government’s agricultural departments. Even so, very rarely was suicide the result of the failure of a single crop. It was a result of failure of several crops over a period of time. Rather, it came at the end of a slow process, of mounting debt and paltry earnings, from which the farmer saw no way out.

Since 60% of India’s agriculture remains rain-dependent, crops that are grown on non-irrigated land like oilseeds and pulses may face upward price pressure. Vegetables become the victims of both excessive and scant rainfall. In the absence of any government machinery to procure and store vegetables, private traders invariably manipulates the pricing system.

Drought, unseasonal rains and the mechanism of compensation to farmers have created a mix that has exacerbated the plight of farmers in Telanagana. So far, 765 farmers have committed suicide in Telangana since 2 June 2014, according to Rythu Swarajya Vedika, a network of grassroots non-profit organizations—a toll that’s at vast variance with the official estimate of 82 deaths.

With 124 farmer suicides, Warangal is the district worst hit by agrarian distress, followed by Nalgonda (115) and Medak (86), according to the organization.

According to the latest National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) report, Key Indicators of Situation of Agricultural Households in India, released in December, over 89% of all farm households in Telangana, are indebted (compared to 52% for the country) with an average debt ofRs.93,500 (compared to Rs.47,000 for all India). The debt situation of farm households in Telangana is the second worst in the country, next only to Andhra Pradesh, where 93% farm households are indebted.

Details of farm suicides show an overwhelming number of farmers killing themselves are in the age group of 25 to 40 years. The death among the younger, newly married generation is surely a wakeup call for the TRS government.

Politicians should beware that a desperate farmer can resort to suicide, but he has greater incentive to resort to crime if hungry and jobless.

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