Saturday, 18 May 2013

Farmers’ suicide rates soar above the rest

Opinion » Columns » Sainath

MUMBAI, May 18, 2013

Suicide rates among Indian farmers were a chilling 47 per cent higher than
they were for the rest of the population in 2011. In some of the States
worst hit by the agrarian crisis, they were well over 100 per cent higher.
The new Census 2011 data reveal a shrinking farmer population. And it is on
this reduced base that the farm suicides now occur.

Apply the new Census totals to the suicide data of the National Crime
Records Bureau (NCRB) and the results are grim. Sample: A farmer in Andhra
Pradesh is three times more likely to commit suicide than anyone else in the
country, excluding farmers. And twice as likely to do so when compared to
non-farmers in his own State. The odds are not much better in Maharashtra,
which remained the worst State for such suicides across a decade.

"The picture remains dismal," says Prof. K. Nagaraj, an economist at the
Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. Prof. Nagaraj's 2008 study on farm
suicides in India remains the most important one on the subject. "The
intensity of farm suicides shows no real decline," he says. "Nor do the
numbers show a major fall. They remain concentrated in the farming
heartlands of five key States. The crisis there continues. And the adjusted
farmers' suicide rate for 2011 is in fact slightly higher than it was in
2001." And that's after heavy data fudging at the State level.

Five States account for two-thirds of all farm suicides in the country, as
NCRB data show. These are Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya
Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The share of these 'Big 5' in total farm suicides
was higher in 2011 than it was in 2001. At the same time, the new Census
data show that four of these States have far fewer farmers than they did a
decade ago. Only Maharashtra reports an increase in their numbers.

Nationwide, the farmers' suicide rate (FSR) was 16.3 per 100,000 farmers in
2011. That's a lot higher than 11.1, which is the rate for the rest of the
population. And slightly higher than the FSR of 15.8 in 2001.

In Maharashtra, for instance, the rate is 29.1 suicides per 100,000 farmers
('Main cultivators'). Which is over 160 per cent higher than that for all
Indians excluding farmers. Such gaps exist in other States, too. In as many
as 16 of 22 major States, the farm suicide rate was higher than the rate
among the rest of the population (RRP) in 2011.

The data for 2011 are badly skewed, with States like Chhattisgarh declaring
'zero' farm suicides that year. The same State reported an increase in total
suicides that same year. But claimed that not one of these was a farmer.
What happens if we take the average number of farm suicides reported by the
State in three years before 2011? Then Chhattisgarh's FSR is more than 350
per cent higher than the rate among the rest of the country's population.

In 1995, the 'Big 5' accounted for over half of all farm suicides in India.
In 2011, they logged over two-thirds of them. Given this concentration, even
the dismal all-India figures tend to make things seem less terrible than
they are.

Ten States show a higher farm suicide rate in 2011 than in 2001. That
includes the major farming zones of Punjab and Haryana. The average farm
suicide rate in the 'Big 5' is slightly up, despite a decline in Karnataka.
And also a fall in Maharashtra. The latter has the worst record of any
State. At least 53,818 farmers' suicides since 1995. So how come it shows a
lower FSR now?

Well, because Census 2011 tells us the State has added 1.2 million farmers
('main cultivators') since 2001. That's against a nationwide decline of 7.7
million in the same years. So Maharashtra's farm suicide rate shows a fall.
Yet, its farm suicide numbers have not gone down by much. And a farmer in
this State is two-and-a-half times more likely to kill himself than anyone
else in the country, other than farmers.

Karnataka, in 2011, saw a lot less of farm suicides than it did a decade
ago. And so, despite having fewer farmers than it did in 2001, the State
shows a lower FSR. Yet, even the 'lower' farm suicide rates in both
Maharashtra and Karnataka are way above the rate for the rest of the

These figures are obtained by applying the new farm population totals of
Census 2011 to farm suicide numbers of the NCRB. The Census records
cultivators. The police count suicides. In listing suicides, the State
governments and police tend to count only those with a title to land as

"Large numbers of farm suicides still occur," says Prof. Nagaraj. "Only that
seems not to be recognised, officially and politically. Is the 'conspiracy
of silence' back in action?" A disturbing trend has gained ground with
Chhattisgarh's declaration of 'zero' farm suicides. (That's despite having
had 4,700 in 36 months before the 'zero' declaration). Puducherry has
followed suit. Others will doubtless do the same. Punjab and Haryana have in
several years claimed 'zero' women farmers' suicides. (Though media and
study reports in the same years suggest otherwise). This trend must at some
point fatally corrupt the data.

At least 270,940 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1995, NCRB
records show. This occurred at an annual average of 14,462 in six years,
from 1995 to 2000. And at a yearly average of 16,743 in 11 years between
2001 and 2011. That is around 46 farmers' suicides each day, on average. Or
nearly one every half-hour since 2001.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Over 2,000 fewer farmers every day

The Hindu

Over 2,000 fewer farmers every day

The mistaken notion that the 53 per cent of India's population 'dependent on
agriculture' are all 'farmers' leads many to dismiss the massive farmers'
suicides as trivial.

There are nearly 15 million farmers ('Main' cultivators) fewer than there
were in 1991. Over 7.7 million less since 2001, as the latest Census data
show. On average, that's about 2,035 farmers losing 'Main Cultivator' status
every single day for the last 20 years. And in a time of jobless growth,
they've had few places to go beyond the lowest, menial ends of the service

A December 2012 report of the Institute of Applied Manpower Research (IAMR)
— a part of the Planning Commission — puts it this way: "employment in total
and in non-agricultural sectors has not been growing. This jobless growth in
recent years has been accompanied by growth in casualization and
informalization." It speaks of an "an absolute shift in workers from
agriculture of 15 million to services and industry." But many within the
sector also likely moved from farmer to agricultural labourer status.
Swelling the agrarian underclass.

So how many farmers do we have?

Census 2011 tells us we now have 95.8 million cultivators for whom farming
is their main occupation. That's less than 8 per cent of the population.
(Down from 103 million in 2001 and 110 million in 1991). Include all
marginal cultivators (22.8 million) and that is still less than 10 per cent
of the population.

Even if you count together all cultivators and agricultural labourers, the
number would be around 263 million or 22 per cent of the population.
(Interestingly, this reduced figure comes after a few big states have
actually reported a rise in the total number of cultivators. Since 85 per
cent of all marginal workers reported more than a 100 days work, this could
possibly reflect the reverse pull of MNREGA, among other factors).

Between 1981 and 1991, the number of cultivators (main workers), actually
went up from 92 million to 110 million. So the huge decline comes post-1991.

Hold on: aren't 53 per cent of the population farmers?

No. That's a common fallacy. The over 600 million Indians dependent on
agriculture are not all farmers. They are deployed in an array of related
activities — including fisheries. This confusion is widespread and innocent.

Yet, there are also a few whose colossal ignorance leads them to dismiss the
country's massive farmers' suicides as trivial. For instance: "at least half
of the Indian workforce is engaged in farming. This fact points to a much
lower suicide rate per 100,000 individuals for farmers than in the general
population." Note how easily those 'engaged in farming' become 'farmers!'

As a notion it borders on the whacko. It goes: After all, 53 out of every
100 Indians are farmers. So our 270,940 farm suicides since 1995 are a low
number on a population base of over 600 million. So low that we should be
agitated over how the suicide rate in the general population can be brought
"down to the levels prevailing amongst farmers."

Never mind for now the appalling moral position that a quarter of a million
human beings taking their lives is hardly alarming. The Bhopal gas tragedy,
the worst industrial disaster in human terms, claimed over 20,000 lives. But
in this perverse logic, since that was less than 0.003 per cent of the then
population, it is rendered meaningless. That position says more about its
authors than about the suicides. It shows they are clueless about who a
farmer is — and about what the data show.

It shows even greater ignorance of who defines and counts a 'farmer
suicide.' The Census records cultivators. The police count suicides. The
police do not read the Census. Not for definitions, anyway.

The Census groups the population into workers and non-workers. The latter
would be infants, children, students, housewives, unemployed, aged and
retired people. Farmers, or cultivators come under 'Workers' — a huge
category covering many varied groups. Now rural workers account for close to
70 per cent of all workers. And rural workers consist of farmers,
agricultural labourers and non-farm workers.

Cultivators (main workers) in the Census are barely eight per cent of the
population as a whole. (That's after a two-decade secular decline in this
group). The ongoing farm suicides — 184,169 of them since 2001 according to
the National Crime Records Bureau — are taking place on a smaller and
shrinking base. Their intensity has hardly diminished. In most of the States
accounting for two-thirds of all farm suicides, the intensity has likely

Of course distress affects a much wider population dependent on agriculture.
(Farmer bankruptcies crush the village carpenter, and even play a role in
weaver suicides). The sufferings of others are as real. It is not as if the
agricultural labourer or non-farm worker is having a great time. Both
sections have seen distress migrations — and suicides. (For that matter the
owner of a small industrial unit in an urban city could be distress-hit).
Their suicides are no less tragic. But it is vital to know who officially
gets counted as a farmer. And who gets listed in the 'farmers' suicides. For
that tells us more about the ongoing tragedy and gives us a sense of its
awful scale.

Everybody who works in the film industry is not an actor. Everyone in the
educational system is not a student. And all those in the 53 per cent of the
population related to the farming sector are not farmers. Even among those
who are, only a limited group gets counted as such when police and
governments make farmers' suicide lists. Cultivators are counted by the
Census. Suicides are recorded by police stations across the country. The
numbers collated by State governments. Very different approaches are

The Census considers someone a cultivator if he or she operates a piece of
land — which they may or may not own; State governments and police count
only those with a title to land as farmers. The Census records two kinds of
cultivators: 'Main workers' and 'marginal workers.' The latter are more like
agricultural labourers or non-farm workers since farming is not their main
activity. A 'Main worker' in cultivation is someone for whom that is the
major occupation for at least half the year. That group makes barely eight
per cent of the population as a whole.

Suicides among the others in the agrarian world (within that "53 per cent")
won't be recorded as 'farmer suicides.' Try getting State governments and
their police to do that! Even within the 'recognised' eight per cent, those
whose title to land is not clear will not be listed as farmers' suicides,
should they take their own lives. For instance, women and tenant farmers are
routinely excluded. Even eldest sons running the farms — with the land still
in the names of their aged fathers — would also be omitted.

Police and State governments run the suicide lists, not the Census. Nor does
the NCRB, which has neither the vested interest nor the ability to fiddle
that data. It merely collates what the State Crime Record Bureaus submit to
it. Hence, the Chhattisgarh government could brazenly declare a 'zero farm
suicides' figure in 2011. That after the State saw over 7,500 of them (by
its own admission) between 2006-10. With all the fiddles in the data, the
numbers and intensity remain appalling.

Maharashtra revels in such fraud. With close to 54,000 since 1995, the State
has been the worst in farm suicides for over a decade. And even those
numbers conceal major exclusions. They've invented categories like 'Farmer's
relatives suicides,' or "non-genuine" suicides, in order to further trim the
numbers. So the State governments and their police, have immense power in
re-defining who a farmer is. Watch out for more and more States doing 'a
Chhattisgarh' and declaring 'zero' farm suicides in coming months and years.


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