13 April 2013

Farmers’ suicides and crisis in Indian agriculture

Nearly a quarter million farmers’ suicides have been recorded in India in the last 15 years, ie 45 farmer suicides per day or almost one every 33 minutes. The suicide mortality rate (SMR, suicide deaths per 100,000 persons) of male farmers has been greater than that of male non-farmers (see Figure 1). The SMR for male farmers peaked to 19.2 (almost 40 per cent higher than that of non-farmers) in 2004. Subsequently, it has been declining (except for 2009, a drought year) and is to be at 16.1 in 2011.  Despite the continuing high incidences of farmers’ suicides, the declining trend gives a hope that the farm sector is perhaps getting back and other data also show that the farm sector was doing relatively well in recent years.

Calculated using a method described in an earlier work by the author and based on data from the National Crime Records Bureau and Census of India.

While acknowledging, the relatively better performance of agriculture in recent years, the decline in the incidence of farmers’ suicides is also because of the reporting of farmer suicides in some other category that led to recording zero farmers’ suicides in the state of Chhattisgarh, which had been reporting more than 1,000 farmers’ suicides per annum prior to 2011. Then, of course, there is the overall underreporting of suicides because of social stigma and the fact that suicide continues to be criminal offence under the statute books of the Indian Penal Code. Keeping aside our apprehension on data for a different exercise, SMR for male farmers in 2011 are 290 for Kerala, 49 for Maharashtra,  42 for Andhra Pradesh, and 37 for Karnataka and more than three-fifths of the farmers’ suicides in the year were reported from these four states.

Following the classic work of Durkheim on suicides, almost a hundred years ago, it goes without saying that a high incidence of suicides among a particular sub-group of population is indicative of a socio-economic problem. Of course, its absence does not deny the absence of a crisis among farmers in other regions/states. The crisis in Indian agriculture is pervasive and much more spread out than the spread of famers’ suicides.

Besides farmer distress, the social crisis is observed in food and nutrition insecurity, and social conflicts that has also taken the form of extremism in some parts of the country among others. The economic crisis in agriculture is said to be on account of technology fatigue, stagnating productivity, declining fertilizer use efficiency, low growth with high input usage, subsidies surpassing investments, and increasing cost of cultivation. To add to it there is the ecological crisis reflected through soil degradation, falling water tables, destruction of friendly predators and parasites, biomass loss in commons, and increasing risks from climate change.

This crisis is as much because of inadequate and inappropriate planning as much it is because of an emphasis on means rather than ends. To address this crisis, the government has responded with a number of programmes. The major response was to expand the green revolution areas beyond the irrigated areas to other areas that are largely rainfed.  This comes with the assumption that the technology and science meant for irrigated water abundant areas should be transferable to other areas. The current response, unfortunately, is suggesting more of the same which has already brought about the crisis.

Further, such an argument stems from the perspective of making food available at a macro level and it is this that subsumes the issues of accessibility and affordability to the public distribution system and not by strengthening the local production system, but by imposing a production system that is largely mono-cropping in nature. This also compromises the risk taking ability inherent in a system that thrives on diversity and mutual dependence. For instance, a good foliage cover will provide fodder for livestock, who in turn will provide manure to the soil that in turn will help the plant grow. Similarly, cultivation of multiple crops could also mean that all the crops need not be vulnerable to a particular unforeseen climatic fluctuation, but it could have adverse implications in a mono-cropping system.

A very nice initiative of the Government of India is the Rashtriya Krishi Vikash Yojana initiated since the 11th Five Year Plan. The logic behind this initiative is that the planning from agriculture should start from the village level and then be aggregated to block, district, state and nation, respectively. In short, it should be bottom-up, and, I would say a novel initiative. But, the problem is that this initiative also comes with a message from the Prime Minister that we should be able to achieve 4 per cent growth per annum in agriculture. In real terms, this means that there should be production growth. Independent, of the fact that this is impossible and not even required because our population growth is about 1.6 per cent per annum.  What is more, this imposition from top comes with a plan that moves from state to district to the village.

So, we have a bottom-up thinking being implemented through a top-down structure. This top-down structure is entrenched in many of our institutions. Scientists and technocrats, more often than not working in silos, would come up with ideas that is to be the input the farmer will use. The agricultural administration facilitates the provisioning of these inputs that are largely tied through some subsidy schemes. This top-down structure unfortunately means that generation and dissemination of knowledge is a one-way process. The farmers become passive recipients and are not active participants in the process.

Another much talked about initiative is the farm debt waiver of 70,000 INR in 2008 (17.5 billion USD; the approximate exchange rate then is 1 USD=40 INR). This, of course, is a fiscal decision and government in many parts of the world have been taking such decisions and I would leave it at that. However, it needs to be mentioned that this is book-keeping exercise that helped the banks do away with their non-performing assets. For the farmers who benefitted (there are many who didn’t), it would reduce the mental burden and also make them eligible for fresh loans. It is the fresh loans that would help them get back to the agricultural activities. However, the market-dependent input-intensive production where rate of increase in cost is greater than net returns, debt-servicing would be a casualty, particularly in bad years. This also increases the risks in the agricultural production process.

Many a times proponents of the input-intensive argument would suggest that the criticisms are well taken, but there is no alternative, TINA. This is not correct. Actually, like mother earth, multiple alternatives exist, MAE. The alternatives focus on diverse and integrated production systems that are better adapted to climatic variability and take into consideration the local specificities. It needs to be mentioned that the alternative being proposed is not a blind call to tradition. It does borrow some of the positive aspects from tradition, but it is based on science and is knowledge-centric. This means that to propagate this alternative will require an investment that has a different logic. In particular, investments that enable peoples’ capabilities to make them active participants will be crucial, as they are the real wealth of nations.

(This write-up is based on related recent work that the author has been associated with and meant for spring 2013 edition of the Newsletter of the Association of Indian Economic and Financial Studies, AIEFS, http://www.aiefs.org/. It was first written on 2 April 2013 and has been slightly edited for this blog.)

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