New perspectives on farmer distress and farmer suicides

By ifmr

I recently had an opportunity to read an interesting book on farmer suicides in the Yavatmal district of Maharashtra by Secretary Health Meeta Rajiv Lochan1 (meeta29 [at] hotmail.com) and Professor Rajiv Lochan2 (mrajivlochan [at] hotmail.com). This book was first published in 2006 by the Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration at Pune3.

The book was written in the aftermath of the spate of farmer suicides that were widely reported from Yavatmal district of Maharashtra during the five year period from 2000 to 2004. The book cites data from the State Crime Records Bureau of Maharashtra (SCRB) which shows that during this period the annual average for Yavatmal was 773 with between 25 to 30% of them being farmers. The authors point out that even though in terms of SMR (Suicide Mortality Rate = Suicides per 100,000 population) neither the District nor the State standout4, these numbers were considered highly unusual because they were directly comparable to the total for Mumbai (1100) while the population in the entire Yavatmal District at 2.45 million was only about a quarter of Mumbai’s population and because of the sharp rise over the last three decades in both the total number of suicides5 as well as the proportion of farmers (and housewives) impacted6. Since both the authors are very familiar with the manner in which government works, they were able to go the most appropriate sources for the data they needed. The book as a consequence has a good deal of carefully collected background information on whole issue of suicides as well as on Yavatmal which is well worth reading. For the book the authors interviewed the families of all of the farmer suicides that were reported by the local administration during the period January 1, 2001 to December 31st, 2005 – a total of 399 cases.

One of the principal lessons that they draw from their work is that: “It has been presumed until date that rural indebtedness is the root of all trouble. This postulate may not be entirely correct, as we shall see in the discussion that follows. Writing off rural debts is not, we submit the correct strategy to deal with the issue since debt was not the problem in the first instance.” The authors feel that seeing indebtedness as the cause is both convenient and stereotypical (the “rapacious moneylender”) which is why it is often the favoured choice. The authors also feel that the existing studies (they specifically refer to the ones carried out by TISS7and IGIDR8) did not adequately understand and analyse the data and the cases and quickly rushed to pronounce indebtedness caused by poor agricultural performance as the principal cause of distress leading to suicides9. The authors’ own examination of Yavatmal cases suggests to them that “even when debt existed it was factors other than debt, where were important for making the farmer a victim of suicide”.

From a study of the productivity patterns in Yavatmal they find that for cotton and for pulses (the other major cash crop for Yavatmal) the wide variation in annual productivity is not a recent phenomenon but exists right from the 1960s10, leading them to state that: “Might this suggest that production tribulations are part of the agricultural cycle and that change in it would, while affecting the finances of a farmer in the short run, not depress him enough to resort to suicide?”

After reviewing the existing studies they carefully examine each one of the 399 cases. They find that from a statistical point of view that neither caste nor marginal landholdings as a factor stand out thus suggesting to them that the data is not supportive of the popular view that marginalisation was a key factor. In terms of debt they find that about half the farmers had taken loans from informal sources and about three quarters from institutional sources11. They also found that only about a quarter had paid their institutional loans fully, 10% had paid partially, and about 40% had defaulted entirely. Of the 148 suicide cases that comprise the 40% they found that only in two cases that coercive action had been taken by the bank for the recovery of its dues. Others had received demand notices and were amongst the thousands to whom such demand notices were routinely sent12. Based on their analysis the authors state that: “How burdensome these demand notices were felt to be is anybody’s guess just as the issue of the seriousness with which a loan is repaid is an open question.” After examining all the cases for the various factors likely to be causing stress to the individual who committed suicide, the authors conclude that even where families were indebted it is not obvious that the financial stress was the principal trigger13. For example while studying cases of families that has large expenditures on healthcare, the authors conclude that, “In all these cases, families had large outstanding loans to pay out but there was also a large amount of social distress [unrelated to the debt] such that it is difficult to see that loans had much of a role to play in the tragedy that happened.”

Based on the extensive research that they carried out the authors conclude that there are two underlying problems that, in their opinion, seem to underpin all of the cases and appear consistent with the statistical data that they examined:

1. A very average low income of Rs.2500 per acre which was simply not enough to meet the requirements of farmer households. In their view it is the absence of adequate income rather than indebtedness that was at the root of most issues.

In order to address this, the authors favour direct cash transfers over other indirect subsidy mechanisms which have a serious risk of capture or being misdirected.

2. An extremely high level of isolation both from his / her fellow villagers as well as with the government machinery. Even in a popular movement like the SHG (self-help group) movement, while a few states have somewhat higher rates of participation, in Maharashtra participation in SHGs was as low as 5% at the household level. The authors were surprised to discover how few were the numbers of farmers (only 25%) that had any familiarity with concepts such as MSP (Minimum Support Price), or crop insurance. On this issue the authors conclude as follows: “Most farmers also did not belong to any formal registered body like a registered famers’ society or self-help group. Even fewer take any help or advice from these voluntary associations. Might this suggest the farmer to be a relatively lonely individual struggling against overwhelming odds? Without any help or back up support?”

In order to deal with this the authors strongly recommend that enhancing the frequency of “…physical interaction between government functionaries and village society by insisting on more tours, night halts, and gram sabhas by officers at all levels of the administration.

For those of us that are interested in the development of rural areas and have been particularly troubled by the whole suicide issue this book is a must read. The painstaking efforts by authors both to document each and every interview they have done as well as all of the statistical data they have gathered and presented, make this book also a very good reference book of a great deal of value to every library.

  1. The book was written when she was Director, Maharashtra State Institute of Rural Development.
  2. He is a Professor of Contemporary Indian History at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie
  3. “Farmer Suicides: Facts and Possible Policy Interventions”. The original book was published in 2006 but I referred to the 2010 Kindle Edition that was available from Amazon.
  4. The authors find that while Maharashtra has an SMR of 14, in Kerala it is 33, and in Japan it is as high as 40.
  5. From a total of 70 in 1975 to 613 in 2005 with SMR rising from 1.55 in 1962 to 9.34 in 2000.
  6. The authors find that the proportion of farmers and agricultural labourers rose steadily from a level of 18.57% in 1975 to 53.83% by 2005.
  7. Ajay Dandekar et al, “Causes of Farmer Suicides in Maharashtra: An Enquiry”, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, 2005.
  8. Srijit Mishra, “Suicides of Farmers in Maharashtra”, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, 2005
  9. The authors find for example that in the TISS report a case on a loan of Rs.100,000 has been included in which the default had occurred 17 years prior to the date of the suicide and one on a loan of Rs.13,000 in which the default occurred 13 years ago.
  10. “In 1960-61, the earliest year for which we have data available [on the productivity for cotton], it was 103 kg/ha. Then it slumped to 47 in 1961-62, went up to 97 kg/ha in 1963-64, and went down to 63 kg / ha in 1966-67 and so on.”
  11. An interesting factor that they find is that: “Yavatmal has had a long history of interest rates of 25% [per season] (sawai) which are referred to as far back as the nineteenth century. In our study, we found that rates charged [by informal sources] varied from 3-5% per month to 25% per season (sawai) or 50% per season (dedhi)”. “A hundred years ago the district gazetteer said that the cultivators in Yavatmal district ‘almost always prefer to borrow from a money lender, paying perhaps twelve per cent interest, rather than from Government at six per cent. The chief reason seems to be that there is still great delay in getting money from the Government, or at least so the people think. It is also believed that certain subordinate servants of Government extract irregular fees while inquiries are made…” Is there a certain lesson in this for us even today?”
  12. The cooperative banks between them had send over 73,000 demand notices during the period from June 2004 to June 2005 and there were about 55,000 Revenue Recovery Cases of the District Central Cooperative Bank in the district.
  13. “Essentially what the empirical data shows is that the issue of rural indebtedness is a red herring. There is very little evidence of the pressure of loans being responsible for the suicide.”

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