19 July 2015

Profession wise Suicide Reporting in India for 2014 opens Pandora's Box

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of India has now come up with its annual publication for 2014 on Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI). There have been 1,31,666 suicidal deaths in 2014 that is less than that of 2013 when there were 1,34,799 suicidal deaths. It needs to be mentioned that these deaths are as per police records and, as indicated by the Global Burden of Disease following a study on Suicide Mortality in India in the Lancet by Vikram Patel et al, would be underestimates.

There have been some important changes in profession wise suicide reportage for 2014 and some of the professions are not comparable. For instance, in the earlier profession wise classification, the self-employed were indicated under four sub-categories (business, professionals, agriculture/farming, and others). In 2013, more than 21 per cent of the total suicidal deaths were self-employed [others] and any exercise to improve clarity would be welcome. 

In 2014, we have self-employed indicated under three broad sub-categories (business, agriculture, and others). Further, the first two sub-categories were further bifurcated such that for agriculture we have a category called self-employed [agriculture (agricultural labour)] and self-employed [agriculture (farmers)] with the latter being further sub-divided to those who own land and those who are on contract/lease. Instead of increasing the clarity, the new categorisation has added to the confusion. 

At the outset, one should feel that the category of self-employed [agriculture] of 2014 is comparable. to self-employed [agriculture/farming] of 2013 and earlier. But, a closer look indicates that they are not. This is so because the former also includes a category called self-employed [agriculture (agricultural labour)]. To an outsider it would give the impression that this category was included in the earlier reporting, but this should not be the case for the simple reason that agricultural labourers are not self-employed. This also means that this category should not be there in the 2014 classification under self-employed. Thus, raising the question about who they are.

In revenue terms, in some places, a person is not considered a farmer if the land is not in his/her name and this problem holds even if some other member of the household owns land. In some other places where land leasing is illegal, any reporting by the police could exclude tenancy. In places where tenancy was made legal (like West Bengal) this would not include sub-tenants. Thus, it is quite likely that a large proportion of the self-employed [agriculture (agricultural labourers)] are likely to be farmers who may not be considered as such in the police records. Thus, indicating that this exercise of new classification was done without a proper understanding.

One gets the impression that the purpose of the new classification was to provide a relatively lower number of farmers' suicides (5,650 in 2014 compared to 11,772 in 2013). However, if one takes the entire category under self-employed [agriculture] then the total number of suicides turn out to be 12,360. Even if one goes by the classification and interpretation taken by the Bureau then they should be worried about a relatively higher suicides among agricultural labourers (with 6,710 suicidal deaths).

One observes that the profession wise suicides have not been given for cities in 2014. This would have been important from the perspective of understanding the categories with relatively higher suicides and whether there has been a rural-urban divide for some of the non-agricultural professions.

The report gives additional information on farmers' suicides by causes and by their land holding status, which is also welcome. But, one fails to get the merit of providing causes as mutually exclusive when the various factors are interrelated, as discussed with regard to Farmers' Suicides in Maharashtra and elsewhere. To illustrate, an immediate cause because of family problems is likely to be inherently linked to livelihood failure. One also fails to understand its relevance because one of the disclaimers of the report is that "(t)he causative factors ... are not being captured by the Bureau." In addition, the rare event that suicides are, a classification by land size has to be carefully interpreted from a statistical perspective.

[Added on 24 July 2015: Today the Minister of Agriculture in a reply in the Rajya Sabha to a question on farmers' suicides indicated that impotency and love affairs are some of the causes. This ignores the disclaimer by NCRB. This also made me add a sentence from Suicide of Farmers in Maharashtra (footnote 24, page 37) quoting AA Leenaars that causative factors are complex because of the following example: “A 16-year-old was found dead in a car, having died of carbon monoxide poisoning. People were perplexed: “Why did this young person from an upper-middle-class family kill himself?” The parents found out that his girlfriend had rejected him the day of his suicide. That was the reason: … A few friends and his teachers knew that he had been having problems in school. That was the reason. A few others knew that his father was an alcoholic and abusive. That was the reason. His physician knew that he had been adopted and had been recently upset about that. She knew the real reason. And others knew…”]

Outside agriculture, some professions with relatively higher incidence of suicides are students (8,068 suicidal deaths and largely around the time when results are declared in the final examinations), unemployed (9,918),  or that among daily wage earners (a new category with 15,735 suicidal deaths). Of course, it would help if one could noramlise with appropriate population numbers before comparing.

Another welcome addition in the new report for 2014 is a discussion on suicides among Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). An obvious question on this is why was this restricted to the central forces alone and not extended to the state forces as also the army or was that collected and deliberately being withheld. The suspicion arises because suicides by those in the state police forces would be the easiest to collect by the Bureau and obtaining such data from the armed forces should also not be difficult.
The gender wise classification provides data for transgenders for the first time and the Bureau needs to be appreciated for this. However, it would also help in the larger understanding if the Bureau could consider providing unit level data. Of course, they should take care to not reveal the identity of the individuals, but this should not prevent putting in place cross-checks by independent organisations and scholars to improve data validity.

What is more, despite the new classification, there are 41,216 suicidal deaths (that is, more than 31 per cent of suicidal deaths) that are categorised under the profession 'Others'.  This needs to be improved. In any further exercise to improve classification, the Bureau could benefit from an earlier note on Suicide Mortality Rates across States in India or the more recent exercise on appropriate reporting and measurement of Farmers' Suicides in India.

To sum up, the latest reportage of suicides in ADSI 2014 by the Bureau is an underestimate. In addition,  the new profession wise reporting reduces comparability and lacks clarity.

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