Skip to main content

"Politics" of rural votebank: Farmers 60% of India's population, account for 15% suicides

By Mohan Guruswamy*
The suicide of an indebted farmer has now become a nauseating stage drama by politicians and journalists of all hues. They see votes, viewerships and readerships in farmer suicides. Few of them seem to understand the reality that has overtaken farming in India. Though almost 60% of the population is still dependent on it, agriculture’s share of the Gross Domestic Product has declined to just 13% and is falling fast. Very simply, it means that farming only ensures greater relative poverty.
To make farming profitable, two things need to happen. One is that fewer people are involved in it and the other is that farm produce gets higher prices. Only rapid industrialisation will ensure the first, and it will take a drastic reduction in the cross web of state interference to curb prices for urban people. Neither is happening in India. This is a huge challenge and politicians being politicians will always take the easy way out – be it Narendra Modi or Sonia Gandhi or Mulayam Singh Yadav or Arvind Kejriwal. It is so much easier for them to simply visit the homes of the suicide victims.

A reality check

But are farmer suicides a more recent phenomena or have they grown recently? Suicides have been a part of our life since time immemorial. People from all walks of life kill themselves for various reasons. And clearly some people are more predisposed to killing themselves than most. The incidence of farmer suicides is actually not as high as the protesting decibels would suggest. In fact, the incidence of suicides among farmers is far less than the general trend.
The Opposition, led by the recently invigorated Rahul Gandhi, and the ignorant electronic media, ever in pursuit of bytes and eyeballs, suggest that the government is underplaying farmers’ suicides. They miss the well-established psychological truism that suicide is more a consequence of genetic traits than the environment. We seem to be swayed by the emotional appeal of the situation and have forgotten that it is always sensible to rely on empirical data.

Suicide rates

The National Mental Health Association of the USA states that “no matter the race or age of the person; how rich or poor they are, it is true that most people who commit suicide have a mental or emotional disorder”. There is a suicide baseline that exists in good times or bad – suicide is not a matter of economics. This is well supported by the data released by the World Health Organization in 2011: while the suicide rate in India, an agrarian economy, was 13 per 100,000, the rate in industrialised, rich countries was often higher or comparable – South Korea: 28.5, Japan: 20.1, Russia: 18.2, France: 14.7, Germany: 13.5, USA: 12.6, Australia: 12.5, Sweden: 12.0, UK: 11.8. Even Bhutan, with its Gross National Happiness index, was at number 20, with 16.2. Compared to women, men usually are two or three times more prone to kill themselves.
In India, after examining the profiles of suicide victims by profession, one finds that farmers, who form 60% of the population, account for 15.3% of suicides, while those in the secure service industry (including the government and public sector undertakings) form 9.8% of the cases.
Suicide rates indicate that while poorer states such as Bihar have a per 100,000 rate of 1.85 and Uttar Pradesh 3.02, some richer states such as Gujarat (9.62) and West Bengal (18.45) are more prone. Clearly there is no correlation between suicide rates and incomes, and if any at all, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the farm or non-farm sectors; it is more to do with how people respond and succumb to a social or economic adversity. It’s in their inherited genes.

Structural problems

We cannot deny the grim reality of the countryside, but our politicians tend to overplay the emotional quotient of economic adversity. This comes through as a gimmick for winning votes. In no respect can suicides be used as an index for lagging economic performance. In some regions of Andhra Pradesh and Vidarbha where suicides are reported, there exist millions of other farmers who are in the same or possibly worse situations. Most of them cope up with their adversity and suicide is not the chosen option. Clearly, the issue to grapple is not suicides by farmers, but the economic plight of farmers who have been affected by crop failure and drought.
The problem thus should be analysed using a more holistic approach, keeping in mind a larger perspective. The agricultural sector as a whole is facing major structural problems. We are witness to the falling share of agriculture in the country’s GDP (from 35% in 1990 to 13% in 2015), the increasing burden on land (267 persons per sq km in 1991 to 324 persons in 2001), and also the “low productivity, low purchasing power, poor infrastructure, a gross inequality of state conferred benefits and a perceptible withdrawal of the state from the agricultural sector”. Considering the fact that agriculture is still the mainstay of the Indian economy, employing around 60% of the total workforce, this does not bode well for the country.
The main proportion of the government’s outlay on agriculture goes towards subsidies, which contribute little to growth today. They benefit the rich farmers the most, while the marginal ones continue to live on the fringe. These need to be done away with to arrive at a long-term solution. There is also a need to promote watershed management and increase the acreage under irrigation – currently only about 35% of total agricultural land is irrigated. This would reduce their susceptibility to drought and avoid crises.

Market interference

A move towards free market and an end to the government’s attempt to jawbone producer prices are required. The frequent resort to the import of wheat at higher prices, only to keep domestic prices low, is proof of this interference. While a kilogram of wheat retails for Rs 13-15 in India, the same goes approximately for the equivalent of Rs 40 in the US, Rs 35 in Brazil, Rs 50 in Indonesia and Rs 30 in China. The same trend is noticed for rice. Low prices of agricultural produce ensure that the farmer’s profit margin is reduced. Unless agriculture is made a more profitable business, neither the poverty nor the indebtedness of the farmer will ebb.
There are other infirmities, which keep most farmers at subsistence levels. The fragmentation of holdings is a major cause, with about 83% of farmers considered small or marginal with less than 2 hectares each. This implies that over 80% of the farmers in India hold about 35% of the total cultivated land. To compound matters, hardly any new irrigation potential has been created by the state in the last 25 years. All the additional irrigated holdings of the past two decades have come from private tubewells. Two-thirds of our farmlands are still rain-fed. This clearly makes any commercial-scale farming impossible and the majority of farmers dependent on the rain gods and governmental lords.
To reiterate, suicide is a matter of psychology, not of economics – no matter how tempting that may be to exaggerate an issue. Few can deny that there is a crisis looming over the agricultural sector. To be able to act purposefully we must rely on facts instead of emotions. The true indicators of the economic conditions are objective measures such as the sectoral share in the GDP, availability of cheap credit, increase in area under irrigation, etc. and not farmer suicides. It is unethical to use this as an economic index. But tell that to the politicians and mediapersons?
---
*Well-known public policy expert. Source: Author's Facebook timeline

Comments

TRENDING

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

By Our Representative
Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book, "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Contempt of court? UP CM taking 'personal vendetta' against Dr Kafeel Khan: Activists

Counterview Desk
Demanding that the Uttar Pradesh government immediately release well-known paediatrician Dr Kafeel Khan, a group of more than 100 academicians, activists, researchers, doctors and lawyers have said in an open letter that he is being “targeted at the behest of the chief minister”, wondering, “When is an act of challenging the government a threat under the National Security Act (NSA)?”

ASI has 'no funds' to protect five centuries old Goa church, a World Heritage Site

Counterview Desk
The century-old All-India Catholic Union (AICU), the largest Laity movement in Asia, has blamed the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) for neglecting the historic Bom Jesu church by keeping its ceilings  open to the vagaries weather, with no steps  taken to protect the five century old monument from damage on account of impending rains on the lame excuse that there are "no funds". In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, AICU simultaneously asks the Government of India to devise a "comprehensive" national social security safety net, universal health Insurance and medical Infrastructure so that the “calamity” that has befalenl millions of migrant labour and jobless rural and urban poor in “the Covid pandemic-driven lockdown is “never repeated.”

Withdraw sedition charges against three young women activists: 1100 feminists

Counterview Desk
About 1,100 feminists from all over India – organisations and individuals across religion, class, caste, ethnicity, ability, sexuality and genders – have issued a solidarity statement condemning what they have called “the targeted crackdown on Muslims and women activists in Delhi”, who were at the forefront of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and National Population Register (NPR).

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam*
RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

Will Govt of India, ICMR end 'perverse' practice of extracting profits from ill-health?

By Asmita Verma, Surabhi Agarwal, Bobby Ramakant*
The Epidemics Act, 1897 gives the central and state governments authority to impose any regulations which may be necessary to contain the outbreak of a disease. Some state governments such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh have already used this power to bring private healthcare facilities in their state under government control.

Tablighis or Namaste Trump? Rupani must 'clarify' on origin of Covid-19 in Gujarat

By Mujahid Nafees* In his video communication on April 24, 2020, chief minister Vijay Rupani informed us that in the month of March the Gujarat government had quarantined 6,000 people returning from abroad in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19 pandemic. He further asserted that the spread of Covid-19 was caused by the tablighis returning from Nizamuddin in Delhi. His statements were widely publicized and given front page coverage by some local dailies.

Coping with Covid-19? Options before small, marginal farmers of rainfed regions

By Biswanath Sinha, Kuntal Mukherjee*
The global crisis due to Covid-19 has hit after reaching in western Europe. India’s response to curtail the spread of the disease was quite decisive. It announced a Janata curfew on the March 22, followed by a complete national lockdown from the midnight of March 24.

'Violation' of migrant workers' human rights: Legal notice to IIM-A director, govt babus

By Our Representative
Taking strong exception to the police action against protesting migrant workers off the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A) on May 18, senior Gujarat High Court advocate Anandvardhan Yagnik, in a legal notice to the IIM-A director "on their behalf" has said that the workers had only been seeking to to go back to their home states, Jharkhand and West Bengal, for the last more than 20 days because they were not paid their “earned wages because of the lockdown.”