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"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?
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*Well-known public policy expert. Source: Author's Facebook timeline

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