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Mental stress causes higher farmers' suicide rate in "better off" Gujarat, West Bengal

By Mohan Guruswamy*
Farmer suicides always catch the fancy of politicians who see votes in death. Few of them seem to understand the reality that has overtaken farming in India. With almost 60% of the population still dependent on it, Agriculture’s share of the GDP has declined to just 13% and declining fast. Very simply it means that farming only ensures greater relative poverty.
To make farming profitable two things need to happen. One is that less people are involved in it and the other is that farm produce gets higher prices. Only rapid industrialization will ensure the former and 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, be it Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi or Akhilesh Yadav or even Arvind Kejriwal, but being politicians they will always take the easy way out. They will keep visiting the homes of the suicides.
But are farmer suicides more recent phenomena or has the incidence grown recently? Suicides have been a part of our life since time immemorial. People in all walks of life kill themselves for various reasons. And 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 this. They all 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.
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, which exists, in good times or bad – suicide is not a matter of economics.
This is well supported by the data released by World Health Organization in 2011: while the suicide rate in India, an agrarian economy, was 13 per 100,000; that of industrialized, rich countries were 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, and UK - 11.8. Men usually are more prone by two or three times 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 organized sector accounting for about 2.4% of the population provide 9.8% of the cases!
Suicide-rates indicate that while the 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, have 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.
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 the lagging economic performance.
In same 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 analyzed 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 2016, the increasing burden on land (267 people per square km in 1991 to 324 people 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 on the whole does not bode well for the country.
The main proportion of the government’s outlay on agriculture goes towards subsidies, which contribute very little to growth today. They benefit the rich farmers the most, while the marginal ones are living on the fringe.
These need to be done away with to arrive at a long-term solution. There is also need to promote watershed management and massively increase the acreage under irrigation - presently; only about 35% of total agricultural land is irrigated! This would reduce their susceptibility to drought and avoid crises.
A move towards the free market and an end to the government’s attempt to jawbone producer prices is 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 USA, 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 ha each. This implies that over 80% of the farmers in India hold about 35% of the total cultivated land. To compound matters there has hardly been any new creation of irrigation potential by the State for 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 rainfed. 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, and 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 GDP, availability of cheap credit, increase in area under irrigation etc. and not the farmer suicides. It is unethical to use this as an economic index. But tell that to the politicians?
---
Well-known policy analyst; contact: mohanguru@gmail.com. Source: Author's Facebook timeline

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