Farmers’ suicide rates soar above the rest

P. Sainath

Suicide rates among Indian farmers were a chilling 47 per cent higher than they were for the rest of the population in 2011. In some of the States worst hit by the agrarian crisis, they were well over 100 per cent higher. The new Census 2011 data reveal a shrinking farmer population. And it is on this reduced base that the farm suicides now occur.

Apply the new Census totals to the suicide data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and the results are grim. Sample: A farmer in Andhra Pradesh is three times more likely to commit suicide than anyone else in the country, excluding farmers. And twice as likely to do so when compared to non-farmers in his own State. The odds are not much better in Maharashtra, which remained the worst State for such suicides across a decade.

“The picture remains dismal,” says Prof. K. Nagaraj, an economist at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. Prof. Nagaraj’s 2008 study on farm suicides in India remains the most important one on the subject. “The intensity of farm suicides shows no real decline,” he says. “Nor do the numbers show a major fall. They remain concentrated in the farming heartlands of five key States. The crisis there continues. And the adjusted farmers’ suicide rate for 2011 is in fact slightly higher than it was in 2001.” And that’s after heavy data fudging at the State level.

Five States account for two-thirds of all farm suicides in the country, as NCRB data show. These are Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The share of these ‘Big 5’ in total farm suicides was higher in 2011 than it was in 2001. At the same time, the new Census data show that four of these States have far fewer farmers than they did a decade ago. Only Maharashtra reports an increase in their numbers.

Nationwide, the farmers’ suicide rate (FSR) was 16.3 per 100,000 farmers in 2011. That’s a lot higher than 11.1, which is the rate for the rest of the population. And slightly higher than the FSR of 15.8 in 2001.

In Maharashtra, for instance, the rate is 29.1 suicides per 100,000 farmers (‘Main cultivators’). Which is over 160 per cent higher than that for all Indians excluding farmers. Such gaps exist in other States, too. In as many as 16 of 22 major States, the farm suicide rate was higher than the rate among the rest of the population (RRP) in 2011.

The data for 2011 are badly skewed, with States like Chhattisgarh declaring ‘zero’ farm suicides that year. The same State reported an increase in total suicides that same year. But claimed that not one of these was a farmer. What happens if we take the average number of farm suicides reported by the State in three years before 2011? Then Chhattisgarh’s FSR is more than 350 per cent higher than the rate among the rest of the country’s population.

In 1995, the ‘Big 5’ accounted for over half of all farm suicides in India. In 2011, they logged over two-thirds of them. Given this concentration, even the dismal all-India figures tend to make things seem less terrible than they are.

Ten States show a higher farm suicide rate in 2011 than in 2001. That includes the major farming zones of Punjab and Haryana. The average farm suicide rate in the ‘Big 5’ is slightly up, despite a decline in Karnataka. And also a fall in Maharashtra. The latter has the worst record of any State. At least 53,818 farmers’ suicides since 1995. So how come it shows a lower FSR now?

Well, because Census 2011 tells us the State has added 1.2 million farmers (‘main cultivators’) since 2001. That’s against a nationwide decline of 7.7 million in the same years. So Maharashtra’s farm suicide rate shows a fall. Yet, its farm suicide numbers have not gone down by much. And a farmer in this State is two-and-a-half times more likely to kill himself than anyone else in the country, other than farmers.

Karnataka, in 2011, saw a lot less of farm suicides than it did a decade ago. And so, despite having fewer farmers than it did in 2001, the State shows a lower FSR. Yet, even the ‘lower’ farm suicide rates in both Maharashtra and Karnataka are way above the rate for the rest of the country.

These figures are obtained by applying the new farm population totals of Census 2011 to farm suicide numbers of the NCRB. The Census records cultivators. The police count suicides. In listing suicides, the State governments and police tend to count only those with a title to land as farmers.

“Large numbers of farm suicides still occur,” says Prof. Nagaraj. “Only that seems not to be recognised, officially and politically. Is the ‘conspiracy of silence’ back in action?” A disturbing trend has gained ground with Chhattisgarh’s declaration of ‘zero’ farm suicides. (That’s despite having had 4,700 in 36 months before the ‘zero’ declaration). Puducherry has followed suit. Others will doubtless do the same. Punjab and Haryana have in several years claimed ‘zero’ women farmers’ suicides. (Though media and study reports in the same years suggest otherwise). This trend must at some point fatally corrupt the data.

At least 270,940 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1995, NCRB records show. This occurred at an annual average of 14,462 in six years, from 1995 to 2000. And at a yearly average of 16,743 in 11 years between 2001 and 2011. That is around 46 farmers’ suicides each day, on average. Or nearly one every half-hour since 2001.

Over 2,000 fewer farmers every day

P. SAINATHThe mistaken notion that the 53 per cent of India's population dependent on agriculture are all farmers lead many to dismiss the country’s massive farmers’ suicides as trivial. Photo: AP

  • The mistaken notion that the 53 per cent of India’s population dependent on agriculture are all farmers lead many to dismiss the country’s massive farmers’ suicides as trivial. Photo: AP
  • The Hindu

The mistaken notion that the 53 per cent of India’s population ‘dependent on agriculture’ are all ‘farmers’ leads many to dismiss the massive farmers’ suicides as trivial

There are nearly 15 million farmers (‘Main’ cultivators) fewer than there were in 1991. Over 7.7 million less since 2001, as the latest Census data show. On average, that’s about 2,035 farmers losing ‘Main Cultivator’ status every single day for the last 20 years. And in a time of jobless growth, they’ve had few places to go beyond the lowest, menial ends of the service sector.

A December 2012 report of the Institute of Applied Manpower Research (IAMR) — a part of the Planning Commission — puts it this way: “employment in total and in non-agricultural sectors has not been growing. This jobless growth in recent years has been accompanied by growth in casualization and informalization.” It speaks of an “an absolute shift in workers from agriculture of 15 million to services and industry.” But many within the sector also likely moved from farmer to agricultural labourer status. Swelling the agrarian underclass.

So how many farmers do we have?

Census 2011 tells us we now have 95.8 million cultivators for whom farming is their main occupation. That’s less than 8 per cent of the population. (Down from 103 million in 2001 and 110 million in 1991). Include all marginal cultivators (22.8 million) and that is still less than 10 per cent of the population.

Even if you count together all cultivators and agricultural labourers, the number would be around 263 million or 22 per cent of the population. (Interestingly, this reduced figure comes after a few big states have actually reported a rise in the total number of cultivators. Since 85 per cent of all marginal workers reported more than a 100 days work, this could possibly reflect the reverse pull of MNREGA, among other factors).

Between 1981 and 1991, the number of cultivators (main workers), actually went up from 92 million to 110 million. So the huge decline comes post-1991.

Hold on: aren’t 53 per cent of the population farmers?

No. That’s a common fallacy. The over 600 million Indians dependent on agriculture are not all farmers. They are deployed in an array of related activities — including fisheries. This confusion is widespread and innocent.

Yet, there are also a few whose colossal ignorance leads them to dismiss the country’s massive farmers’ suicides as trivial. For instance: “at least half of the Indian workforce is engaged in farming. This fact points to a much lower suicide rate per 100,000 individuals for farmers than in the general population.” Note how easily those ‘engaged in farming’ become ‘farmers!’

As a notion it borders on the whacko. It goes: After all, 53 out of every 100 Indians are farmers. So our 270,940 farm suicides since 1995 are a low number on a population base of over 600 million. So low that we should be agitated over how the suicide rate in the general population can be brought “down to the levels prevailing amongst farmers.”

Never mind for now the appalling moral position that a quarter of a million human beings taking their lives is hardly alarming. The Bhopal gas tragedy, the worst industrial disaster in human terms, claimed over 20,000 lives. But in this perverse logic, since that was less than 0.003 per cent of the then population, it is rendered meaningless. That position says more about its authors than about the suicides. It shows they are clueless about who a farmer is — and about what the data show.

It shows even greater ignorance of who defines and counts a ‘farmer suicide.’ The Census records cultivators. The police count suicides. The police do not read the Census. Not for definitions, anyway.

The Census groups the population into workers and non-workers. The latter would be infants, children, students, housewives, unemployed, aged and retired people. Farmers, or cultivators come under ‘Workers’ — a huge category covering many varied groups. Now rural workers account for close to 70 per cent of all workers. And rural workers consist of farmers, agricultural labourers and non-farm workers.

Cultivators (main workers) in the Census are barely eight per cent of the population as a whole. (That’s after a two-decade secular decline in this group). The ongoing farm suicides — 184,169 of them since 2001 according to the National Crime Records Bureau — are taking place on a smaller and shrinking base. Their intensity has hardly diminished. In most of the States accounting for two-thirds of all farm suicides, the intensity has likely risen.

Of course distress affects a much wider population dependent on agriculture. (Farmer bankruptcies crush the village carpenter, and even play a role in weaver suicides). The sufferings of others are as real. It is not as if the agricultural labourer or non-farm worker is having a great time. Both sections have seen distress migrations — and suicides. (For that matter the owner of a small industrial unit in an urban city could be distress-hit). Their suicides are no less tragic. But it is vital to know who officially gets counted as a farmer. And who gets listed in the ‘farmers’ suicides. For that tells us more about the ongoing tragedy and gives us a sense of its awful scale.

Everybody who works in the film industry is not an actor. Everyone in the educational system is not a student. And all those in the 53 per cent of the population related to the farming sector are not farmers. Even among those who are, only a limited group gets counted as such when police and governments make farmers’ suicide lists. Cultivators are counted by the Census. Suicides are recorded by police stations across the country. The numbers collated by State governments. Very different approaches are involved.

The Census considers someone a cultivator if he or she operates a piece of land — which they may or may not own; State governments and police count only those with a title to land as farmers. The Census records two kinds of cultivators: ‘Main workers’ and ‘marginal workers.’ The latter are more like agricultural labourers or non-farm workers since farming is not their main activity. A ‘Main worker’ in cultivation is someone for whom that is the major occupation for at least half the year. That group makes barely eight per cent of the population as a whole.

Suicides among the others in the agrarian world (within that “53 per cent”) won’t be recorded as ‘farmer suicides.’ Try getting State governments and their police to do that! Even within the ‘recognised’ eight per cent, those whose title to land is not clear will not be listed as farmers’ suicides, should they take their own lives. For instance, women and tenant farmers are routinely excluded. Even eldest sons running the farms — with the land still in the names of their aged fathers — would also be omitted.

Police and State governments run the suicide lists, not the Census. Nor does the NCRB, which has neither the vested interest nor the ability to fiddle that data. It merely collates what the State Crime Record Bureaus submit to it. Hence, the Chhattisgarh government could brazenly declare a ‘zero farm suicides’ figure in 2011. That after the State saw over 7,500 of them (by its own admission) between 2006-10. With all the fiddles in the data, the numbers and intensity remain appalling.

Maharashtra revels in such fraud. With close to 54,000 since 1995, the State has been the worst in farm suicides for over a decade. And even those numbers conceal major exclusions. They’ve invented categories like ‘Farmer’s relatives suicides,’ or “non-genuine” suicides, in order to further trim the numbers. So the State governments and their police, have immense power in re-defining who a farmer is. Watch out for more and more States doing ‘a Chhattisgarh’ and declaring ‘zero’ farm suicides in coming months and years.


Census findings point to decade of rural distress. P. Sainath

For first time since 1921, India’s urban population goes up by more than its rural

Is distress migration on a massive scale responsible for one of the most striking findings of Census 2011: that for the first time since 1921, urban India added more numbers to its population in a decade than rural India did?

At 833.1 million, India’s rural population today is 90.6 million higher than it was a decade ago. But the urban population is 91 million higher than it was in 2001. The Census cites three possible causes for the urban population to have risen by more than the rural: ‘migration,’ ‘natural increase’ and ‘inclusion of new areas as ‘urban.’ But all three factors applied in earlier decades too, when additions to the rural population far outstripped those to the urban. Why then is the last decade so different? While valid in themselves, these factors cannot fully explain this huge urban increase. More so in a census in which the decadal growth percentage of population records “the sharpest decline since India’s independence.”

Take the 2001 Census. It showed us that the rural population had grown by more than 113 million since 1991. And the urban by over 68 million. So rural India had added 45 million people more than urban. In 2011, urban India’s increase was greater than that of rural India’s by nearly half a million, a huge change. The last time the urban increase surpassed the rural was 90 years ago, in 1921. Then, the rural total actually fell by close to three million compared to the 1911 Census.

However, the 1921 Census was unique. The 1918 Influenza epidemic that killed 50-100 million people worldwide, ravaged India. Studies of the 1921 Census data say it records between 11 and 22 million deaths more than would have been normal for that decade. There was also the smaller impact of World War I in which tens of thousands of Indian soldiers died as cannon fodder for Imperial Britain in Europe and elsewhere.

If Influenza left its fatal imprint on the 1921 enumeration, the story behind the numbers of the 2011 Census speaks of another tragedy: the collapse of millions of livelihoods in agriculture and its related occupations. And the ongoing, despair-driven exodus that this sparked in the countryside.

The 2011 Census captures only the tip of an iceberg in terms of rural upheaval. The last time urban India added more numbers to its population than rural India was 90 years ago and that followed giant calamities in public health and war. Yet, without such conditions, urban India added 91 million to its 2001 total, against rural India’s 90.6 million. (Table 1). Nor can this reversal be fully captured by the factors Census 2011 cites as driving the urban increase. Take ‘migration.’ In public debate, ‘urban’ is often equated with big metros. This conjures images of massive waves of people from villages heading straight for the big metros. And this flow, you will be assured, is falling. (Vital data on this will emerge only next year and might surprise us).

The Census data, however, do not convey the harshness and pain of the millions trapped in “footloose” migrations. That is, the desperate search for work driving poorer people in many directions without a clear final destination. Like Oriya migrants who work some weeks in Raipur. Then a couple of months at brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh. Then at construction sites in diverse towns in Maharashtra. Their hunger, and contractor, drive them to any place where there is work, however brief. There are rural migrations to both metros and non-metro urban areas. To towns and smaller cities. There are also rural to rural migrations. There are urban-urban migrations. And even, in smaller measure, urban to rural migrations.

Flight from agriculture

Neither the Census nor the National Sample Survey is geared to capture the complexity of India’s migrations. A migrant in the Census is someone counted at a place other than his or her last place of residence. This records a single move — not multiple migrations. So it sees only the tip of the mobility iceberg, missing footloose migrations altogether. What we do know from Census 2001 is of the flight from agriculture. Between 1991 and 2001, over seven million people for whom cultivation was the main livelihood, quit farming. That is a mind-boggling figure. It suggests that, on average, close to 2,000 people a day abandon farming in the country. Where do they go? Nothing in employment data suggests they get absorbed in decent work in bustling cities.

What about ‘natural increase’ (the difference between the numbers of births and deaths in a population)? That does not explain the switch around in rural-urban increases either. Indeed, the rate of natural increase has declined in both rural and urban areas. Still the urban population and towns get bigger and bigger.

As Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India Dr. C. Chandramouli puts it: “Fertility has declined across the country. There has been a fall in numbers even in the 0-6 age group, as a proportion of the total population. In fact, in absolute numbers too, this group (now 158.8 million) has declined by five million, compared to the previous Census. This would suggest migrations as a significant factor in urban growth. But what kind of migrations we can only ascertain or comment on when their patterns emerge more clearly. The Census in itself is not structured to capture short-term or footloose migrations.”

We also get an extraordinary picture when viewing what demographers call the ‘Urban-rural growth differential.’ The URGD is simply the difference between the rates at which rural and urban populations expanded in each decade. It is also a rough and ready index of the extent of rural-urban migrations. The URGD in the 2011 Census is 19.8, the highest in 30 years.

‘Natural increase’ does not then account for the growth in urban numbers. Certainly not for the 30 per cent rise in urban population in the States. Thousands of towns today have far larger populations than they used to have — but not due to natural increase. The reason is migrations on a massive scale. Rural folk still outnumber urban people by more than two to one. In the 2001 Census, rural family size (5.4) remained bigger than urban family size (5.1). Also striking, States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar show massive falls in growth rates in 2011. In the 2001 Census, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were “the two States with largest number of net migrants migrating out of the state.”

The other factor cited by the current Census for the turnaround is interesting. “Inclusion of new areas under ‘Urban’.” The number of ‘statutory towns’ has gone up by a mere 241 since 2001. Compare that with the preceding decade when they rose by 813, or more than three times that number. (A ‘Statutory town’ is an urban unit with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee.)

There is, however, a boom in the number of ‘Census towns.’ In the decade 1991-2001, Census towns actually declined from 1,702 to 1,361. In the 2011 Census, they nearly tripled to 3894. That is stunning (Tables 2 and 3). How did this happen? And what is a ‘Census town?’ This is a village or other unit declared as a town when: its population crosses 5,000; when the number of male workers in agriculture falls to less than 25 per cent of the total; and where population density is at least 400 per square kilometre.

At the very least, this means the male workforce in agriculture has collapsed in thousands of villages, falling to less than a quarter of all workers. So the farm exodus continues. What might the 2011 data on cultivators show us when it is out late next year? It could show us that the numbers quitting cultivation since 2001 might equal or exceed the over seven million dropouts of the previous decade.