Resource centre on India's rural distress

Neither freebies nor loan waivers will reduce farmer suicides -Neeraj Kaushal

-The Economic Times

Minutes after taking oath on Monday as the new Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Kamal Nath sanctioned the waiver of farm loans in the state, as promised in the Congress election manifesto. Ostensibly, this is to relieve economic distress for farmers. But Nath himself was on record last week saying, “[Farmer distress] is why there are so many suicides.” Thus, the lightning waiver.

Before anything else, let’s get the facts straight on suicides in India. First, suicide mortality rate is lower among farmers than non-farmers, not higher. In 2011, the latest year for which these data are computed, non-farmers had twice the suicide rate compared with farmers. Two, the non-farmer suicide rate has been rising since 1995. The farmer suicide rate has been generally falling or stagnant in recent years, after peaking during 2002-04.

These facts are known and have been reported in the media. (The trends I mention here are from research by Deepankar Basu, Debarshi Das and Kartik Misra published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2016, ‘Farmer Suicides in India: Levels and Trends Across Major States, 1995-2011’, But they need repeating, as much of the public discourse on farmer suicide is carried out without acknowledging these numbers.

In the current discourse, farmer suicide is treated as an outcome of extreme economic deprivation and its prevalence is considered more widespread than it is. The solutions offered including farm loan waivers and freebies are meant to reduce economic deprivation, which deflects public policy from addressing the critical mental health needs of the affected population. An October 2018 Lancet Commission report on global mental health and sustainable development finds that 80% of Indians with any form of mental disorder in India do not seek any treatment. It is not freebies but psychiatric or psychological treatment that will help them.

True, crop failures, constant harassment by money lenders, loss of a job, stock market collapse and similar instances of economic distress create despair, and can drive some people to committing suicide. But so do a large number of other non-economic shocks. The point is, most people have the resilience to withstand these shocks. Those who don’t, need interventions that address their mental health problems.

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