Why the farmer suicide debate is counter-productive to understanding India's agrarian crisis? -Roshan Kishore
In the discourse on agriculture, for instance, farmer suicides are cited as the biggest proof of the agrarian crisis in the country by a large section.
India’s political economy discourse is often a prisoner of the dictum that when there is no theory, there is a conspiracy theory. Corruption, rather than an accentuated cyclical shock after the global financial crisis, combined with the poor governance structures in Indian banks, is described as the main reason for the bad loan crisis. Reservation for socially deprived communities, and not the general deceleration in growth of quality employment, is described as a bigger culprit for the lack of jobs.
A similar approach is adopted when looking for points of evidence for economic and social trends.
In the discourse on agriculture, for instance, farmer suicides are cited as the biggest proof of the agrarian crisis in the country by a large section. While there is factual evidence to show that a large number of farmer suicides is indeed driven by economic distress (more on this later), citing these numbers has become an alibi of sorts for an in-depth analysis of the factors behind what is now a systemic crisis in India’s farms. The obsession with seeing farmer suicides as the be all and end all of the agrarian crisis in India has given birth to another extreme viewpoint, which seeks to dismiss the existence of the agrarian crisis by questioning the severity of farmer suicides.
A Bloomberg Opinion piece by Shamika Ravi, director of research at Brookings India and a member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, borders on the latter. “India’s farmers are doing far better than many realise”, the article says, citing the higher growth in rural sale of fast-moving consumer goods. Ravi also highlights that farmer suicides are a bigger problem in states with greater access to formal credit such as Maharashtra than the ones like Bihar, where money lenders hold more sway. She also argues that suicide rates among housewives are almost twice the number among farmers. While the facts used in the article are correct on a stand-alone basis, using them to discount the crisis in Indian agriculture is not. Here’ why.
Let us take the farmer suicide statistics first. The suicide rate (suicides per 100,000 population) among farmers and agricultural labourers has always been significantly lower than the headline suicide rate since 2001. This trend holds for almost all states. However, it is also true that economic distress (bankruptcy, indebtedness, poverty, crop failures, inability to sell their produce etc.) is a bigger cause of suicides among farmers in most states. This became apparent from the 2015 National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) statistics, which for the first time gave a reason-wise break-up of suicides in the country. These trends were discussed in detail in a 2017 Mint piece by this author. Unfortunately, the NCRB has not published these statistics for the period after 2015.
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