Farmers' suicides

Farmers' suicides

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According to the article titled Farmers' suicides and the state in India: Conceptual and ethnographic notes from Wayanad, Kerala by Daniel Münster, Contributions to Indian Sociology 2012 46: 181,

•    Farmers’ suicides are invariably linked to and almost synonymous with the—equally composite—agrarian crisis in the aftermath of neoliberal ‘reform’. Most of the writing on the subject is based on the same set of data (statistical data of the National Crime Records Bureau) or on journalistic visits to suicide ‘hotspots’. So far few ethnographic accounts, committed to qualitative research in suicide prone areas, have been published.

•    The present study is an ethnographic report from the field in the South Indian district Wayanad, one of the officially designated suicide-prone districts. The primary aim behind the research is to analyse the state’s responses to farmer suicides: the bundle of relief packages, inquiry commissions, rural employment schemes and debt relief commissions that were set up in recent years partially as a response to reports on increasing numbers of farmers’ suicides. Such investigation may eventually contribute to an understanding ‘of precisely how neoliberal globalization is transforming the re-distributive functions of the Indian state or affecting its legitimacy and identity as an agency of social welfare’. This article makes a strong case for grounding the study of farmers’ suicides in ethnographies of agrarian practice and the local developmental state.

•    Farmers’ suicides provide rural citizens with a language to speak about politics, citizenship and development in the context of neoliberalising agriculture.

•    The research is intended to conceive farmers’ suicides as an highly over-determined interface between ‘state’ and rural society; an interface in two senses: first as a drastic image, repeatedly invoked to speak about rural distress and the widespread agrarian crisis in neoliberal India and to address the failure of the nation state to protect its agrarian classes; second, as a set of actually existing practices— suicides—which force state agencies to show presence in social settings, which they had allegedly neglected.

•    In Wayanad neither cotton, nor GM seeds, nor global agri-corporations play a significant role. Not all suicides in Wayanad were related to agrarian distress. For many decades Kerala has had high suicide rates, many with multiple causes: family problems, alcoholism (extremely widespread in Wayanad), health issues, ‘love failure’, or debt.

•    The 1980s and 1990s brought unprecedented wealth to Wayanad. In the late-1980s up until the late-1990s, many farmers of Wayanad especially pepper growers in the ‘Pepper Panchayats’ of Pulpalli, Mullankolli and Poothadi, became wealthy. Wayanad became an important earner of foreign currency in Kerala. Farmers, even relatively small farmers who owned around two acres could afford constructing large houses.

•    The end of the 1990s hit Wayanad’s agrarian economy in a series of crises. First, the world market prices for cash-crops dropped dramatically. Local rates for pepper (ungarbled) dropped from 270 INR/Kg in 1997 to 54 INR/Kg in 2001, coffee dropped from 60 INR/Kg in 1997 to 16 INR/Kg in 2002 and vanilla, most dramatically dropped from 4300 INR/Kg in 2003 to 25 INR/Kg in 2006. Prices had fluctuated before, most cultivators remembered price crashes in the late-1970s, but this time they were accompanied by a second crisis: a dramatic drop in productivity.

•    Since the late-1990s Wayanad has been facing a serious ecological crisis. During the boom years cash-croppers heavily overused chemical fertilisers and pesticides in order to keep productivity high and profitable. The soil is now depleted beyond redemption and some Panchayats of Wayanad suffer from increased incidences of cancer. Furthermore new diseases started to affect plantations. ‘Quick wilt’, ‘slow wilt’ and ‘foot rot’ are their names, and all share the ability to destroy whole plantations quickly.

•    When prices crashed and plantations died, many farmers and neo-farmers were left with heavy debts. When, eventually the recovery notices of the banks arrived, hundreds of farmers, especially marginal landholders with up to two acres of land, drank pesticides and killed themselves.
•    Another economic practice emerged since the late-1990s and has a strong correlation with suicide cases. Many suicide victims had invested in the cultivation of ginger in neighbouring Kodagu (formerly Coorg) district. The return from ginger cultivation could also be nil. There is an almost 50 per cent chance that the ginger plant is going to be affected by a fungus that would spread quickly across the fields and destroy the plantation within days.

•    Husbands very often did not even talk about their debt burden to wives and children: they just changed their character, became abusive and started to drink more heavily. Many widows shared later that they had no idea of their husbands’ debts, and were not involved in agricultural matters at all. This made it all the more difficult for them to deal subsequently with the stigma, poverty and political instrumentalisation they were to experience.

•    One of author's original research questions was also to consider farmers’ suicides as suicides against the state. This link was difficult to establish in Wayanad.

•    Farmers who killed themselves knew that they were part of a district-wide if not all-India epidemic, that their suicide would attract considerable  attention from the media, NGOs as well as state agencies and also—controversially—that the state might eventually take care of their families, write off their debt and pay compensation of 50,000 INR.

•    Most farmers the author spoke to, whether activists or not, were quite knowledgeable about the removal of quantitative restrictions on imports and the dismantling of import duties for agrarian products under the GATT regime as the main reasons for the fall in prices of agrarian cash-crops. They would speak of cheap coffee and pepper coming from Vietnam and Sri Lanka that keeps flooding the market and later to be resold as premium Wayanad pepper. Second, they articulated the retreat of the state, the cut of input subsidies and low investments in irrigation and infrastructure. They would speak of the government that always cheated, gave no security to the farmers, had no procurement policy and provided no minimum price.

•    The official all-India suicide-rate (suicide rate is the incidence of suicide mortality per 100,000 inhabitants) has for the last 10 years constantly been around 10.5 and hence not extraordinarily inflated. Kerala’s official suicide-rate was 26.8 which is more than twice the national average and the third highest in India (after Pondicherry and Andaman & Nicobar Islands) and had been so for the last years. Within Kerala there are two districts that have been given the recent status of ‘suicide-prone districts’: Idukki and Wayanad. Even though suicides are statistically well captured, there is a considerable fluctuation in the number of reported farmers’ suicides.

•    The ‘Accidental Deaths and Suicides (ADSI)’ annual report (National Crime Records Bureau 2007) is the only official source of information. It lists the distribution of suicidal death by state, gender, marital status, causes of suicide, means adopted and profession. According to K. Nagaraj, the professional category farmer (although still unspecific) is a relatively recent category in the ADSI reports: ‘The category self-employed (farming/agriculture)—which can be taken as representing the farmers—was added for the first time in 1995 (...)’ (Nagaraj 2008: 2).

•    The suicide rate for farmers can be calculated only for the year 2001, this being the first year that statistical data on farmers were recorded in the Census of India. On an all-India basis this does not make for highly inflated suicide rates among farmers: 15.8 among the main cultivators as compared to 10.6 of the general population. An entirely different perspective emerges, however, if one takes into account the fact that numbers of farmers’ suicides vary significantly across India. For Kerala, a suicide rate among main cultivators of 176.5 emerges, and the figure is still 142.9 if all cultivators are considered. Those numbers are alarming indeed.

•    For all-India the official number in the ADSI reports is 190,753 farmers’ suicides from 1995 to 2006. That makes an average of 16,000 suicides per year, which is still an underestimation since some major states have not reported on farmers’ suicides.

•    The status of farmer (cultivator) is based on the criterion of title to land. This leaves out women, tenant farmers, agricultural labourers, but also regular farmers if the land title was in the father’s or son’s name. A stringent criterion for agriculture-related suicide would be the absence of any other cause neighbours might mention (such as alcoholism or family problems).

•    The local practice of identifying farmers’ suicide became additionally complicated after 2004 by the decision of the new LDF government to actually pay a compensation of 50,000 INR to all families with cases of farmers’ suicides out of the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund (CMDRF).

•    In the beginning, as a populist measure, the criteria were handled rather loosely and compensation was paid rather freely. The first compensation cheques were handed over during public functions under great media attention. Later, both to be able to present the success of the other relief measures of the new state and union governments and to curb costs, the practice became more stringent. The debt still had to be the cause of suicide, but now it had to be an institutional credit (excluding debt with moneylenders) and the loan had to have been taken for agricultural purposes (excluding consumer loans).

•    In Wayanad, since suicide statistics are directly linked to the payment of compensation through the Revenue Department, the number of farmers’ suicides stagnated during the years 2006 to 2008. ‘Safe Farmers Campaign’ (SFC), a consortium of eight, mostly Catholic, NGOs (including Shreyas), in 2007 began a large-scale investigation into farmers’ suicides that ran parallel to the state’s efforts of enumeration and classification. Taking police reports of suicides as a starting point and following up all cases from 2000 to March 2008 they have come up with a total number of 1,690 farmers’ suicides (Kerala Social Service Forum 2009). That is nearly four times the figure of 435 officially recognised farmers’ suicides. The latter number is also the number of beneficiaries of the Chief Minister’s (CM) relief fund.

•    To avoid further committing of farmers' suicides and because of their political nature, the state compensates only such suicides. The CM fund is the most specific programme that targets only cases of farmers’ suicide. The Indian state has launched unprecedented relief and rehabilitation measures in response to the suicide crisis.



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