Why do farmers commit suicide?
By the time the Madhya Pradesh Government admitted that police indeed shot eight protesting farmers, 24 hours had passed. And in that time, 34 farmers must have committed suicide in the country due to high debt and other agriculture-related issues. Is there any difference between farmers getting killed while demanding loan waiver or committing suicide to escape the burden of increasing debt?
Notwithstanding the wild public statements by ministers in charge of agriculture that attribute suicides to dominantly personal reasons, the fact remains that between 2014 and 2015 there has been a 42 per cent increase in the number of suicide by cultivators, according to the recently released report, State of India's Environment 2017: In Figures. And 91 per cent of farmer suicides in India is recorded in six states that include Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Chhattisgarh. This date is sourced from the National Crimes Records Bureau.
Debt and crop failures are the reasons for 58 per cent of the suicides among cultivators, says the new report published by the Centre for Science and Environment and Down To Earth magazine.
While looking at the level of debt of an Indian farmer, it is very evident that the income from farming would never enable him/her to be out of the debt trap. To be an agricultural household in India means more debt than a non-agricultural household.
"The incidence of indebtedness was about 31.4 per cent among the rural households and 22.4 per cent among the urban households. Indebtedness in cultivator households was higher (by about 9 percentage points) than non-cultivator households, whereas the difference among occupational categories of urban area was less (about 4 percentage points). It is also evident that debt levels of cultivator indebted households were much more than that for non-cultivator indebted households," according to the 2013 National Sample Survey Office report on debt in India. According to this report, the average household debt of a cultivator household is Rs 103,457 when the average annual household income from farming is around Rs 73,000.
Reporting about farmers and farming across the country for the last two decades, I can argue that farmers don't commit suicide but make a sacrifice for their families. The debt cycle is fatal. And how?
Farmers take loans from formal or informal sources to sustain farming. This is an annual affair. But as the above data shows, a farmer household has already debt to serve. They usually borrow with the hope that earnings from crops would be adequate to pay back. But erratic weather, less earning from agriculture due to various reasons and other emergency financial commitments for other reasons usually result in farmers not paying their loans and thus, further accumulating interests. This process often leads to a situation where a farmer is never able to pay back: for most of the indebted farmers, the average annual income is less than half of the loan amount to be paid back.
But the pressure to pay back and fear of loan recovery agents hounding a member also impacts the whole family. To get loans, often farmers mortgage their principal property, the land and the house. According to the NSSO assessment, 91 per cent of assets of a rural household is the land and home. The fear of losing these properties is enormous as it would impact the future livelihood security of the family as well.
Speaking to family members of many farmers who committed suicides it becomes evident that a farmer commits suicide to insure his/her family against the debt burden, and also to ensure that his/her loan non-payment doesn't result in loss of the prime family assets. Only in the case of death, the loan is waived off by the credit granting agencies. This is the end of the debt cycle of an Indian farmer.
(The writer is Managing Editor, Down To Earth. Views expressed are strictly personal.)