Farm suicide as an indicator of agrarian crisis should be used with caution

Farm suicide as an indicator of agrarian crisis should be used with caution

Passionate about the deepening of agrarian crisis, quite often journalists and media persons cite figures related to farm suicide (as provided by the National Crime Records Bureau) in order to draw the attention of the readers. They do so in the following ways:

* Compare the absolute number of farm suicides (viz. suicide by cultivators + suicide by agricultural labourers) across regions/ states for a particular time point or time period or rank the regions/ states based on their relative performance in terms of the number of suicides committed
 
* Compare the proportion of farm suicides committed in a particular state/ region (with respect to the total number of farm suicides) with others at a particular time point or a certain time period or rank the regions/ states based on their relative performance in terms of the share of farm suicides committed

* Compare the absolute number of farm suicides in a state or at the national level at different time points or time periods

*  Compare the change (viz. growth rate in percentage) in the absolute number of farm suicides in a state or at the national level over time

Methodologically speaking, all the above techniques to indicate deepening of agrarian crisis are partially or fully incorrect. Just like the way in which the number of literate persons in country A cannot be compared to the number of literate persons in country B in the standard literature because of the differences in population sizes, the comparison of the absolute number of farm suicides across states for a particular time point or time period should not be made.

For the same reason as stated above viz. differences in population sizes (also of the cultivators’ and agricultural labourers’ population) across states/ regions, the proportion of farm suicides committed in a state/ region (with respect to the total) cannot be compared with that of other states/ regions during a particular time point or time period.

Since population of a state/ region (also population of cultivators and agricultural labourers) changes over time and do not remain static, it will be wrong to compare the absolute number of farm suicides across different time-points/ time spans. For the same reason, one should not compare the change (viz. growth rate in terms of percentage) in the absolute number of farm suicides in a state or at the national level over time.

So, what exactly needs to be done if we want to indicate agrarian crisis and rural distress? Just like the way in which literacy rate (or say crime rate) in country A is compared to the literacy rate in country B in the standard literature, suicide mortality rate (SMR) of farmers viz. farmer suicides normalised by the population of farmers should be used for comparisons across states and different time points.

In a research paper entitled Farmer Suicides in India: Trends across Major States (1995-2011) by Deepankar Basu et al (2016), it has been shown that the SMR of farmers at a certain time point can be calculated using the following formula:

SMR of farmers in a year/ time period = {(Number of farmer suicides in a year/ time period) divided by the (Population of farmers in that year/ time period)} multiplied by one lakh

In their paper, Deepankar Basu et al make it clear that prior to the release of Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India 2014 (ADSI 2014) by the NCRB, researchers and social scientists by the category ‘self-employed in farming/ agriculture’ (as used in ADSI reports prior to 2014) meant only cultivators. However, after making changes to that faulty methodology (based on a wrong assumption), which was used earlier, Deepankar Basu et al calculate the population of farmers in different years using interpolation technique on the basis of the assumption that population of farmers is the sum of (1) main and marginal cultivators; and (2) main and marginal agricultural labourers.

Deepankar Basu et al also show that economists like Nagaraj (2008) computed SMR of farmers as the ratio of farmer suicides (as reported by the ADSI) and the population of main and marginal cultivators (as reported by the decennial census).

Alternative indicators of agrarian crisis

Apart from taking into consideration the SMR of farmers in a year/ time period, the following indicators may be considered, among others, so as to indicate farm crisis and distress in the countryside:   

* Prices received by farmers in mandis (viz. markets centres) and their comparison with the declared minimum support prices (MSP); a related indicator could be the proportion of mandis in a state/ region where a particular commodity sold below MSP at a certain time point/ time period.

* Per capita gross value added (GVA) by agriculture, which is deflated by the Consumer Price Index-Rural (2012=100), as suggested by Prof. Prabhat Patnaik in his recent article entitled Hidden figures: The numbers show absolute deterioration in the condition of farmers. Prof. Patnaik also points out that the terms-of-trade between agriculture and industry do not consider the farm gate prices, which the peasants receive. In fact, the crude measure of the terms-of-trade given in official sources is based on wholesale prices. Thus, the terms-of-trade between agriculture and industry may not reflect the non-remunerative prices that the farmers are receiving and may not indicate the prevailing farm crisis.

* The real wage rate of agricultural and rural labourers (across states/ nationally and over time) can be calculated by deflating rural wage rate (in 12 agricultural and 13 non-agricultural occupations) by Consumer Price Index-Rural, which is brought out by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI).

It needs to be added here that in the wake of the enactment of National Food Security Act in 2013, the rate of inflation of Consumer Price Index for Agricultural Labourer (CPI-AL, 1986-87=100) and Consumer Price Index for Rural Labourer (CPI-RL, 1986-87=100) may be lower vis-à-vis the inflation rate of Consumer Price Index-Rural (CPI-Rural, 2012=100) in the recent years. It is because the former two indices give higher weights to food, beverages and tobacco (which is over 70 percent), whereas the latter give lesser weight to them (which is around 57.44 percent altogether). So, for getting real wages the nominal wages of rural labourers and agricultural labourers should be deflated by CPI-Rural, and neither CPI-AL nor CPI-RL.

There can be many such indicators depending on what aspect of agrarian crisis a journalist or a researcher wants to cover.

Depressed prices of agricultural commodities in 'mandis'

In the recently concluded assembly elections, the Indian National Congress (INC) has defeated the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Among other things, it is being said by various political scientists and experts that the agrarian crisis is a major cause behind the defeat of BJP in these states.

We would like to touch upon here how it would look or what one will get if a comparison is made for the prices received by farmers in mandis with the declared minimum support prices (MSP) for different commodities. For instance, Madhya Pradesh was the third largest producer of ‘tur' or ‘arhar’ dal (viz. pigeon pea) in 2016-17 in terms of its percentage share in total production. The percentage share of Madhya Pradesh in the total production of ‘tur' or ‘arhar’ dal in the country was 14.5 percent in 2016-17 as per the Economic Survey 2017-18.

In the month of November this year (viz. in the same month when assembly polls took place in that state), in 70 market centres across Madhya Pradesh, the prices at which ‘tur' or ‘arhar’ dal was sold, had been lower than the declared minimum support price (kharif 2018-19) of Rs. 5,675 per quintal. Those mandis/ market centres in Madhya Pradesh, which saw lower than MSP of 'tur' or 'arhar' dal in November, 2018 are: Ajaygarh, Alirajpur, Bakswaha, Banda, Bareli, Begamganj, Berasia, Bhikangaon, Bhopal, Burhanpur, Chhindwara, Damoh, Datia, Dhar, Gadarwada, Gairatganj, Ganjbasoda, Garhakota, Gorakhpur, Gotegaon, Guna, Harda, Harsood, Hata, Indore, Itarsi, Jabalpur, Kailaras, Kalapipal, Kannod, Kareli, Katni, Khandwa, Khargone, Khategaon, Khatora, Khirakiya, Kumbhraj, Kurawar, Lahar, LavKush Nagar(Laundi), Morena, Narsinghpur, Nasrullaganj, Neemuch, Obedullaganj, Paatan, Patharia, Petlawad, Pipariya, Rahatgarh, Rajgarh, Ratlam, Sabalgarh, Sagar, Sailana, Satna, Sehore, Sendhwa, Seoni, Shahpura, Shahpura (Jabalpur), Sheopurkalan, Silvani, Sonkatch, Susner, Tendukheda, Udaipura, Ujjain and Vijaypur.

It is quite clear from the data provided by the website http://agmarknet.gov.in/ that only in Kannod market centre ‘arhar’ (whole) sold at the highest rate (modal price) of Rs. 4,600 per quintal (in the entire month of November) on 17th November, 2018, which is way below the declared MSP. In Gotegaon market centre, ‘arhar’ (whole) sold at the lowest rate (modal price) of only Rs. 1,200 per quintal (in the entire month of November) on 13th November, 2018.

In the month of November, 2018, ‘arhar’ dal (tur)/ desi (whole) sold in the range of Rs. 3500-Rs. 4100 per quintal at Ajaygarh market centre of Madhya Pradesh, which is far below the declared kharif MSP of ‘tur' or ‘arhar’ dal viz. Rs. 5,675 per quintal.

Similar exercises could be undertaken by researchers and media persons for other commodities if they want to use the above-mentioned indicator (loosely termed) of agrarian crisis.      

References


Commodity prices reported below MSP in mandis, http://agmarknet.gov.in/PriceAndArrivals/frmMarketPricesb
elowMSP.aspx


MSP for kharif crops 2018-19, please click here to access  

ADSI Reports, NCRB, please click here to access

Table 1.18 Production of Important Crops in Three Largest Producing States in 2016-17 in Statistical Appendix, Economic Survey 2017-18, please click here to access
 
Farmer Suicides in India: Trends across Major States (1995-2011) -Deepankar Basu, Debarshi Das and Kartik Misra, Economic & Political Weekly, 21 May, 2016, Vol. LI No. 21, please click here to access 

Farmers’ Suicides in India: Magnitudes, Trends and Spatial patterns -K Nagaraj, Macroscan, March 2008, please click here to access 

Non-agricultural jobs pay better than the agrarian ones, on average, though wage rates vary across different rural occupations, News alert by Inclusive Media for Change dated 24th May, 2018, please click here to access 

Neither freebies nor loan waivers will reduce farmer suicides -Neeraj Kaushal, The Economic Times, 18 December, 2018, please click here to access 

Hidden figures: The numbers show absolute deterioration in the condition of farmers -Prabhat Patnaik, The Telegraph, 12 December, 2018, please click here to access 

Farm distress influenced elections in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, but not in Telangana, India Spend, 11 December, 2018, please click here to access
 
 
Image Courtesy: Inclusive Media for Change/ Shambhu Ghatak
     



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