An attempt to understand and contextualise farmer suicides -MS Sriram

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published Published on Dec 29, 2018   modified Modified on Oct 2, 2020

Some perspectives on the issue seem to paper over the problem and get into comparisons

There is much discourse on both the issue of agrarian distress and farmer suicides. However, there have been some arguments that seem to paper over the problem and get into comparisons—that the people who committed suicide just happened to be farmers; that they were not poor; that (as argued by Shamika Ravi of Brookings India) the suicides of housewives are higher than that of farmers; and that, as argued in a recent article in Mint, the idea of debt-driven suicide was popularised by those opposed to genetically modified crops.

These arguments are clever. On the one hand, they question the rigour of attributing causality, breaking up the triggers to smaller bits and putting them on a statistical significance like (a) poverty is not a significant reason (b) smaller farmers are not committing suicides (c) indebtedness is not a significant reason or (d) bankruptcy is not a significant reason.

On the other hand, they bring out alternative narratives— more lovers are committing suicide or a larger number of housewives are committing suicide. Similarly, people like Shamika Ravi have argued that farmers in better-off states (like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh) are committing suicide while those from economically backward states (like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) are coping.

How does one counter these clever arguments? Or are the arguments made by people other than “activists”—scholars like Srijit Misra, K. Nagaraj, Ajay Dandekar, Davuluri Venkateswarlu, A. Vaidyanathan or journalists like P. Sainath, Jaideep Hardikar and Kota Neelima —to be ignored? What have these people who have worked on the phenomenon of farmer suicides done to bring credibility to the obfuscating grand statistics and how do they establish causality?

The credibility of the scholars and authors named above does not come purely from comparing the data at the meta level that compares suicides by lovers to those of farmers. No, they are not writing a chapter for books like Freakonomics where the fun-fact is that drunken walking is more dangerous than drunk driving. Instead each of them is focusing on the data about the reported farmer suicides.

In most of the cases, the journalists and scholars have followed up on reported suicides and interviewed the families to ascertain whether the reporting was accurate and unbundled the death by trying to establish the events that triggered the death. Therefore, when one talks of farm suicides, it is usually backed by years of data that has been independently verified and given meaning through real-life stories, unlike the arguments provided purely on metadata.

Please click here to read more., 28 December, 2018,

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