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

World Bank clarifies: Its 26th rank to India not for universal access to power but for ease of doing business

By Our Representative
In a major embarrassment to the Government of India, the World Bank has reportedly clarified that it has not ranked India 26th out of 130 countries for providing power to its population. The top international banker’s clarification comes following Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal’s claim that India has “improved to 26 position from 99” in access to electricity in just one year.

"Misleading" satellite images being shared on Balakot surgical strike on Jaish camp

By Dr Vinay Kate*
With every passing day more questions are being raised about the surgical strike India did in Balakot as a response to Pulwama attacks. So far the Indian media has claimed mass casulaty of 300+ terrorists of Jaish-e-Mohammad in this surgical strike, but there is hardly any report from foreign media about the same.

Extreme repression, corporate loot, cultural genocide "characterise" India's tribal belt

Counterview Desk
As Lok Sabha polls approach, there is considerable ferment in one section of the population -- India's Adivasis, forming about 8.6 per cent of India's population. Things became particularly critical following the February 14, 2019 Supreme Court order, allegedly seeking to evict lakhs of tribals from their forest lands.

Industry in India "barely growing", export growth 0%, whither moral anchors?

Counterview Desk
In a sharp critique of the Modi government, the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A), one of world renowned economist Prof Kaushik Basu, who is Professor of Economics and Carl Marks Professor of International Studies at Cornell University, has told students at the IIM-A’s 54th Annual Convocation on March 16, 2019 that they have a “special responsibility” on their shoulders, “the responsibility to reject narrow sectarianism, uphold scientific thinking, openness to new ideas, and freedom of speech.”

Congress would win just 9 of 26 Lok Sabha seats: Gujarat Assembly segment-wise analysis

By Rajiv Shah
Even as the Congress plans its first working committee meet in Gujarat on February 28 after an almost 58 year gap, there is reason to wonder what is in store for India’s grand old party in a state which has been long been a BJP bastion – in fact ever since mid-1990s. Ahead of the then assembly polls in late 2012, talking with me, a senior Gujarat Congress leader, currently Rajya Sabha MP, frankly said he saw no reason why Congress would win.

Financial inclusion? Not micro-loans; India's poor "need" investment in health, education

By Moin Qazi*
India has grown into a global powerhouse. Its economy is soaring but the picture on the ground is still quite arid. The green shoots that you see are only a patch of its landscape. Most Indians are hapless victims of inequity. India is one country where intense poverty abounds in the shadow of immense wealth.

"Pro-corporate" Supreme Court order on FRA would further marginalize Adivasis

By VS Roy David, JP Raju*
For millions of Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers February 13, 2019 will go down in history as the day of apocalypse. This is like the proverbial Black Friday where millions of most marginalized people of India were ordered by malicious anti-people draconian Supreme Court order depriving them the life and livelihood by evicting them from their habitats.

India, Pakistan told to eliminate nuclear weapons: N-war "would kill" 2 billion

Counterview Desk
The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), a non-partisan federation of national medical organizations in 64 countries, representing tens of thousands of doctors, medical students, other health workers, and concerned citizens, claiming to share the common goal of creating a more peaceful and secure world freed from the threat of nuclear annihilation, has warned that “an unprecedented global catastrophe” awaits the globe against the backdrop of warmongering in India and Pakistan.

Modi wants Pak govt be held responsible for JeM terror strike: World doesn't agree

By Sandeep Pandey*
I went to participate in a candle light homage paying event at Dr BR Ambedkar's statue organised by about 200 Dalit students on Hazratganj main crossing in Lucknow on February 16, 2019 evening, two days after the dastardly terrorist act in Pulwana, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), in which 44 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel was killed.

Women, business, law: India scores worst among all BRICS, several African nations

By Rajiv Shah
A new World Bank report ranks India 125th in its Women, Business and the Law (WBL) index among 187 economies it seeks to analyse across the globe. The report's main aim claims to be to "gain new insight into how women’s employment and entrepreneurship choices are affected by legal gender discrimination. On a scale of 100, India's score is 71.25, worse than the global average of 74.71.