By Vasudha Kaul
With the recent suicide of Gajendra Singh, a farmer from Rajasthan, the concern over abysmally high farmer suicides in India has come to focus again. The article attempts to understand what and why of this issue.
The occurrence of farmer suicides is universal. In 2014, farmer suicide was the leading cause of death of US farmers, in the UK there was one farmer suicide per week, Australia had 2000 and France recorded 150 farmer suicides that year. But the Indian numbers are overwhelming.
Records from National Crime Records Bureau show that at least 300,000 Indian farmers have taken their lives from 1995-2013.
The question to be asked is if, as the government and private organizations such as Monsanto claim that unsolvable personal and climatic reasons have led to the high number of farmer suicides or is there a problem that can be actively addressed.
Many authors and activists claim that this number is a highly skewed and conservative estimate.
In 2011, the Chhattisgarh government declared zero farm deaths, even when their 2010 count was 1567.
Many states and UTs such as West Bengal and Pondicherry have followed suit and declared zero figures.
The state governments try to distort these statistics in an attempt to highly minimize the extent and intensity of the problem. Even with the skewed numbers, the rate of farmer suicide has increased from 2001 to 2011.
With the advent of 1991 and the liberalization efforts, there were no national barriers to the free movement of capital, which severely affected the already vulnerable, Indian agrarian sector, as it became a victim of global crests and troughs of prices.
P. Sainath, one of the leading authors and activists in this arena, claims there was a constant rise in the farmer suicides from 1995, even with other conditions such as the weather being constant. In addition to this, the type of seed grown by the farmer often depends on government’s insistence via policies and initiatives, which promote diversification leading away from the food crops and towards the export-intensive cash crops.
Hence farmers, are limited in the range of crops they can grow. This was exacerbated by the introduction of genetically engineered/ modified (GM) seeds especially that of the transgenic Bt. cotton in India, which has led to the formation of the cotton belt.
The ‘Cotton Belt’ is the area extending from Hyderabad north to Nagpur and east to the state of Gujarat, where almost 250,000 cotton-growing farmers have committed suicide since 1997.
These factors lead to an increase in the input cultivation cost. This soaring input cost is not supported from the government’s side by institutionalized credit, which then leads to farmers taking loans from the private moneylenders often creating a debt trap forcing them to suicide.
Personal problems are cited as a major reasons of farmer suicides in government reports. There is no discussion of the fact that the same social values are changing, albeit in different degrees, in other occupations or even in urban areas.
While suicide rates are increasing in all spheres of life, the question of the appalling increase in farmer suicide in India is left unanswered. Since the source of the agrarian problem is defined simplistically, the remedial methods are also temporary. Any method that provides temporary relief is necessary but is not a substitute for inclusive policy intervention to deal with the crisis.
Gajendra Singh, in his own way, attempted a social protest. But the nature of protest has changed from large-scale farm mobilizations to suicide, which often falls on deaf ears. Comprehending this change will be an important factor in understanding the ways to mitigate this issue.