In India, systemic forces lead scores of indebted farmers to commit suicide

Rural women, holding banners about the movie "Summer 2007," shout pro-farmer slogans in front of Gautam Cinema Hall. A free show of the movie based on the issue of an agrarian crisis and a farmer's suicide was organized for farmers by a social organization 'Sanchetna.' File July 1, 2008. (Credit: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Combine restrictive financial policies with the instability of climate change, and what do you get? In India, unfortunately, it leads to crippling debt for farmers.

Even worse, this debt is leading many of those farmers to commit suicide in large numbers.

More than 300,000 farmers – cultivators and agricultural laborers – have committed suicide in India between 1995 and 2014 either by ingesting pesticides or by hanging themselves. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), farmer suicides account for 11.2 percent of all suicides in India.

Though many have debated why scores of farmers have chosen to commit suicide – reasons ranging from genetically modified Monsanto seeds to financial policies – studies conducted locally and nationally have shown that the main cause is debt. An estimated 52 percent of the country’s 90 million rural agricultural households have one debt or another.

In 2015, the NCRB took the first step to collect data about land-owning farmers and farmhands and their reasons for committing suicide.

Now the bureau will take a step even further, the Hindustan Times reported. The next report on suicides will list the number of debt-ridden farmers committing suicide. It will also include whether the farmer’s debt was to a money lender, a bank or both. The findings will help the government analyze gaps in its efforts to reach agricultural credit to its target audience – the small and marginal farmer.

In India, agricultural investment is a big gamble. Farmers typically take out loans against land to buy seeds and fertilizer or get irrigation equipment. Yet the success of their crop – and their ability to repay their loans – relies on environmental conditions increasingly made unstable by climate change.

“Less than 20 percent of farmers in India are insured, exposing a vast majority of the farming community to the vagaries of weather, which lead them to taking desperate steps,” a 2015 report by India’s chamber of commerce said.

Chart by Hindustan Times, data from NCRB

Chart by Hindustan TImes, data from NCRB

Anoop Sadanandan, a social scientist and assistant professor at Syracuse University who wrote a paper on India’s farmer suicides in 2014, said that while better data are welcome, bias still often creeps in at the local level.

“This is a particular concern in places where the local police, either with a vested interest in protecting the moneylenders or due to sloppiness, obfuscates or misrepresents the causes of farm suicide,” Sadanandan told Humanosphere in an email. “Second, what the government chooses to do with the finer data is still an open question. We’d have to wait and see what new policies flow out of this new data collection.”

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According to Sadanandan’s paper, banking reforms in the 1990s led to the unintended and unanticipated consequences of these waves of farmer suicides. Agriculture’s share in the national economy declined in recent decades because of the reforms, prompting banks to lend more to other productive economic sectors thanks to increased competition from private and foreign banks.

When that happens, local moneylenders often take the place of banks and boost interest rates year after year, creating a debt-trap for the farmers who rely on crop success – and prayers – for loan repayments. But a suicide does not absolve the rest of the family from paying back a loan.

“Ours is a debt-ridden family now. …The banks will auction off our land…our cattle and this house,” said Chaya, a wife and mother of three whose husband Datatery Popat Ghadwaje committed suicide in 2015, to Al Jazeera.

Ghadwaje, 42, committed suicide after days of hushed chanting that “the sky betrayed” him, according to his family.

“The harvest was his only hope. Hailstorms took everything away from us,” Ghadwaje’s 16-year-old son, Bhagwan Datatery, told Al Jazeera.

Even though agriculture remains the largest employment sector, it contributed only 17.4 percent to the GDP in 2015-2016, according to KPMG India.

Sadanandan said simple policy interventions could have reduced the number of farmer suicides. In his paper, he proposed introducing credit cards and irrigation. The credit cards would allow farmers to secure loans at concessionary interest rates and defer payments when crops are unprofitable, while irrigation would improve the quality of farmlands itself.

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“Irrigation of farmlands – by reducing chances of crop failure, improving productivity and profitability – generates incentives for banks to offer loans to farmers,” Sadanandan wrote in his paper. This would prevent farmers from relying so much on private moneylenders.

The Indian government has tried to address the problem. In early 2016, India’s government approved a $1.3 billion insurance plan for farmers to protect against crop failures, saying it was intended to put a halt to a recent wave of suicides. It went into effect in April.

But previous crop insurance plans have been criticized by the agricultural community and activists as being too complex or for having caps that prevented them from recouping the full commercial value in the case of damage. Moreover, even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has promised to pay farmer families whose members had committed suicide, those payments are often delayed by bureaucracy and corruption, according to reports.

In February, the government also released a national budget that included investments to boost the incomes of farmers, welfare initiatives and some $2.5 billion to speed up irrigation projects.

Since 40 percent of Indian families depend on farming and up to 60 percent of Indian laborers are in the agriculture sector, a pro-farm budget makes for good, even necessary, politics. But even necessary politics get lost in the political game when corruption and bureaucracy run rampant.

Sadanandan also said such plans are still only short-term strategies. Since the causes of these suicides are systemic, a longer-term strategy would be to make farming predictably profitable. This includes proper irrigation, water conservation, better market information and access for farmers and the development of agro-industries.

Another strategy, Sadanandan said, is to improve the quality of rural schools that would enable more people to migrate out of agriculture and find secure jobs in other sectors of the economy.

“Right now, some 60 percent of India’s workforce is engaged in agriculture – a sector that contributes a mere [17 percent] to the national productivity,” Sadanandan told Humanosphere. “This is just unsustainable.”

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Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan is Humanosphere's social media manager and podcast producer. A University of Washington graduate in journalism and dance, Imana's interests include underrepresented communities, the intersection between politics and culture, global-local issues and the arts. She can be reached at @imanafg on Twitter or imana@humanosphere.org