Agrarian Crisis and Farmers' Suicides


Source: Agrarian Crisis and Farmers’ Suicides in India

Srijit Misra, IGIDR

The larger agrarian crisis has two dimensions. On the one hand, there is a livelihood crisis that threatens the very basis of survival for the vast majority of small and marginal farmers as also for agricultural labourers. On the other hand, there is an agricultural developmental crisis that lies in the neglect of agriculture arising out of poor design of programmes and allocation of resources and having resulted in declining productivity and profitability. This twin dimensions could also be equated with the developmental discourse where the former is about displacement of people and the latter is about displacement of ideology. The outcome is that planning is not people-centric.
In monsoon India, abundance or paucity of water has always been considered as a major source of agricultural uncertainty. Today, this yield risk could also be because of spurious inputs or inappropriate use of technology. Increasing costs, price volatility, non-availability of credit from formal sources and other risks further compound it. Social responsibility of education, healthcare and marriage instead of being normal activities add to the burden. All these would even put the semi-medium farmer under a state of transient poverty.
An extreme response to this distress is the increasing incidence of farmerss suicides. Between 1995 and 2006, more than 190,000 farmers have committed suicides, 83 per cent of these being males. The suicide mortality rate (SMR, suicide death for 100,000 persons) for male farmers increased from 10.5 to 19.5 whereas that of male non-farmers has more or less remained around 13. The major states with SMR for male farmers greater than the all India average of 18 during 2001-06 are Kerala (233), Maharashtra (53), Chattishgarh (47), Karnataka (39), Andhra Pradesh (35), Tamil Nadu (31) and West Bengal (21). It is to be reiterated that suicide is a symptom of the larger crisis, and its absence does not in any way indicate the absence of a crisis.
It is only in Kharif 2008 that one observes a substantial increase in the minimum support prices of the 16 major crops. In fact, the absolute increase would be almost equal to increments in the entire decade. Though welcome, this vindicates the established fact that returns to agriculture had turned out to be abysmally low. Per-capita per day returns to farmer households from cultivation in 2002-03 was eight rupees. Another recent public policy intervention has been the Rs.70,000 crore debt waiver package. This is just a book keeping exercise and at best will reduce the burden from formal sources. Indebtedness, like suicides, is another symptom.
Risk mitigation has to go beyond suicides and debt. What is more important is to spruce of public investments that will increase returns to cultivation. Skill enhancement and linking of opportunities to local resources are required to spruce up non-farm income. Success of the credit and input markets require effective regulation. There is a case of encouraging technological and financial products that would reduce costs while increasing returns. Institutions that can organize farmers are required.
My earlier blog on a related theme is Indian Agriculture in Doldrums.
Selected Readings:
Bhaduri, Amit (2008), Predatory Growth, Economic and Political Weekly, 43 (16), 10-14.
Government of India (2007), Report of the Expert Group on Agricultural Indebtedness, Chairman: R Radhakrishna.
Mishra, Srijit (2007), Agrarian Scenario in Post-reform India: A Story of Distress, Despair and Death, Orissa Economic Journal, 39, (1 & 2), 53-84. IGIDR Working paper version is WP-2007-001.
Mishra, Srijit (2008) Risks, Farmers’ Suicides and Agrarian Crisis in India: Is There a Way Out? Indian Journal of Agricultural Economics, 63 (1), 38-54. IGIDR Working paper version is WP-2007-014.
Reddy, D. Narasimha and Srijit Mishra (eds.) (2008) Agrarian Crisis in India, Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
This is the abstract of a presentation at a one day international seminar, “Environmental degradation and food crisis – Lessons for India” being organized by Greenpeace India on 24 October 2008 atIndia International Centre, Lodhi Road, New Delhi, India.