National Crime Records Bureau data says more than 2,16,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997
Karnataka had never witnessed farmers' suicides until the year 1998. The suicides were first reported from the northern parts of Karnataka, closer to the Andhra Pradesh border. What started as a few unfortunate incidents in the drought-prone, economically backward regions of Gulbarga and Bidar of North Karnataka is now rampant in the irrigated regions too. After the year 2000, this phenomenon was seen in agriculturally advanced regions like Shimoga, Hassan, Davangere, Koppal and Chikamagalur too.
Looking back, farmers of Karnataka have always demonstrated their angst only through protest, mostly by throwing produce on the streets. However, all this changed when the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh witnessed spate of farmers' suicides, mostly cotton growers. However, in Karnataka, farmers growing cereals, sugarcane, pulses, and vegetable cultivators also resorted to suicides. Another striking aspect is that the large number of farmers who committed suicides was mostly in the age group of 25-30 years. In some cases the debt amount of the farmer who committed suicide was as small as Rs.5000.
According to the State Agriculture department, the number of farmer suicides since 2008 is 900. But a study by Tehelka team puts the figure at 2500 deaths for the year 2010. Loss of crops from pests and diseases and lack of remunerative prices has added to the miseries of the farmers. Inability to repay the debts has compounded their conditions of desperation and leading them to suicides in order to avoid humiliation.
AR Vasavi, a Sociologist from Bangalore, says, "In Hassan district of Karnataka, I recorded the suicide of an enterprising middle-aged agriculturist, who in an effort to give up his caste occupation of toddy tapping had taken to agriculture. The declining water table and the drought in 2003 had laid his fields barren and the amounts he had borrowed to sink a well on his land had grown in compound rates. Unable to bear the periodic visits of his creditors to his village and home and their taunts and demands, he hanged himself on a tree in his land."
She adds, "The north-eastern Karnataka belts have the double burden of being drought-prone and of having lesser institutional and infrastructure support than in southern Karnataka." Her study indicates that the suicides are not merely a response to changes in the economic and social world of agriculturists. It is rather, the very entrenched structure of agriculture that is unfair, which has led to this tragedy.
The situation in Karnataka is different from other regions as it has a large area which comes under dry farming. Agriculture, Man and Ecology Foundation, a non-governmental organisation promoting sustainable agriculture, documents that production situation is vastly different in dry farming areas than in the irrigated farming areas. The yields in the fragile eco systems of dry farming are neither high nor assured. To add to the miseries is the uncertain monsoon. Dr Dwarakinath, Chairman of AME Foundation says, "Karnataka is the second largest dry-land state. At present, most dry farmers are also small farmers. They are generally resource poor. The creamy layer farmers have better socio economic status, while the farmers in dry farming are essentially conservative owing to low economic resilience".
It should be noted that farmers differ in their attitude and adoption behaviour too. Dr Dwarakinath remarks that the small farmers usually emulate the big farmers without understanding the dynamics of the demand and supply. Thus, leading to huge losses, this eventually brings the farmer to the brink of misery. What the small farmers lack today is positive orientation and capacity building. Although the Agriculture department has designated Extension officers to do the job, the rampant suicides clearly indicate that they have failed to do their job.
Also, over the years, the ecological conditions in rain-fed areas have enormously deteriorated. Climate change is further aggravating dry farming. Vasavi, who has done extensive studies on the agrarian crisis while working with National Institute of Advanced Studies, opines that the government should first stop the promotion of the Green Revolution model of agriculture.
Although green revolution took off well in irrigated regions, it has not found acceptance in dry farming. Vasavi and Dr Dwarakinath opine that focus on external inputs, high technology and high capital which is not affordable by the poor farmers is putting them to misery. Dr Dwarakinath adds that planning of production and capacity building of small farmers are the key areas the government need to focus on.
The need of the hour is a regional, eco-sensitive agriculture with strong market support. Focus must also be on rejuvenating land and promoting cooperative land use and labour pools. Although the agrarian crisis has made several governments sit up and take notice but no measures have brought any relief to the farmers.
2.5 lakh farmers ended lives in 13 years
A recent study reveals alarming facts about farmers's suicides in India. A record 2.5 lakh farmers have committed suicide in the country over the last 13 years. Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar's home state Maharashtra tops the list.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, more than 2,16,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997. P Sainath says: Add figures for the years 1995 and 1996 and 2010, the total figure crosses 2,50,000!
UPA 2 says the problem is systemic. Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar whose state has the worst figures for the 10th consecutive year has stopped quoting NCRB figures since 2007.
More than 17,000 farmers committed suicide in 2009, the worst since 2004. That takes the total number of recorded farmer suicides since 1997 to 216,500.
But the figures could be starker. P Sainath, who broke the story, explains it could be beyond a quarter million people.
"The numbers are from the annual report of the Government of India's own National Crime Records Bureau. Their yearly total for farmer suicide from 1995 to 2009 bring us to a total of 2,40,000. So even if we assume that 2010 saw far fewer suicides than the average of the last decade, it still takes the figure past 2,50,000 or a quarter of a million farmer suicides," explained P Sainath.
For the 10th consecutive year, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar's home state has the worst record with 2,872 farmers committing suicide, despite the much hyped prime minister's relief package.
Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh follow closely, with two thirds of farmer suicides being reported from these states.
But the question is that are more number of suicides being reported simply because there are more people in agriculture?
"Even the latest NCRB annual report of 2009 points out that general suicides in the whole country increased 15 per cent between 1999 and 2009, but the population of the country increased 18.5 per cent in the same decade. This means that there is an actual annual decline in the general suicide rates. But in the same period, the farmers' population declined as more people left agriculture. But the suicide rate rose steeply till they are double of the non- farmers' in the main states," said P Sainath.
The despair has deepened over the past year with 18 of the 28 states reporting more suicides. The farmer suicide graph has been steadily rising.
"I believe the issue is more systemic. Because if you are talking about 15 years, you are talking about one and a half decades. There is a need to hold our horses, study the report and then comment," exclaimed Congress spokesperson Manish Tewary.
In 2007, the agriculture minister in a written reply in the Rajya Sabha had said that there were more than 1,49,000 farmer suicides between 1997 and 2005. Since then, however, he has not fallen back on the NCRB numbers to explain the distress. But perhaps the first step in solving a crisis is acknowledging that one exists.