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Farmers' suicides in India

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Farmers' suicides in India

A group bringing attention to farmer suicide issue.

In 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau of India reported 5,650 farmer suicides.[1] The highest number of farmer suicides were recorded in 2004 when 18,241 farmers committed suicide.[2] The farmers suicide rate in India has ranged between 1.4 to 1.8 per 100,000 total population, over a 10-year period through 2005.[3]

India is an agrarian country with around 60% of its people depending directly or indirectly upon agriculture. Farmer suicides account for 11.2% of all suicides in India.[1] Activists and scholars have offered a number of conflicting reasons for farmer suicides, such as monsoon failure, high debt burdens, genetically modified crops, government policies, public mental health, personal issues and family problems.[4][5][6] There are also accusation of states fudging the data on farmer suicides.[7]


Historical records relating to frustration, revolts and high mortality rates among farmers in India, particularly cash crop farmers, date back to the 19th century.[8][9][10] The high land taxes of 1870s, payable in cash regardless of the effects of frequent famines on farm output or productivity, combined with colonial protection of usury, money lenders and landowner rights, contributed to widespread penury and frustration among cotton and other farmers, ultimately leading to Deccan Riots of 1875-1877.[10][11] The British government enacted the Deccan Agriculturists’ Relief Act in 1879, to limit the interest rate charged by money lenders to Deccan cotton farmers, but applied it selectively to areas that served British cotton trading interests.[10][12] Rural mortality rates, in predominantly agrarian British India, were very high between 1850 to 1940s.[13][14] However starvation related deaths far exceeded those by suicide, the latter being officially classified under "injuries".[15] Death rate classified under "injuries", in 1897, was 79 per 100,000 people in Central Provinces of India and 37 per 100,000 people in Bombay Presidency.[16]

Ganapathi and Venkoba Rao analyzed suicides in parts of [17] Similarly, Nandi et al. in 1979 noted the role of freely available agricultural insecticides in suicides in rural West Bengal and suggested that their availability be regulated.[18] Hegde studied rural suicides in villages of northern Karnataka over 1962 to 1970, and stated the suicide incidence rate to be 5.7 per 100,000 population.[19] Reddy, in 1993, reviewed high rates of farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh and its relationship to farm size and productivity.[20]

Reporting in popular press about farmers' suicides in India began in mid 1990s, particularly by Palagummi Sainath.[21] In 2000s, the issue gained international attention and a variety of Indian government initiatives.[22][23]

National Crime Records Bureau, an office of the Ministry of Home Affairs Government of India, has been collecting and publishing suicide statistics for India since the 1950s, as annual Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India reports. It started separately collecting and publishing farmers suicide statistics from 1995.[24]


Reasons for farmers suicides.
(in 2002)[25]
(of suicides)
Failure of crops 16.81
Other reasons (e.g. chit fund) 15.04
Family problems with spouse, others 13.27
Chronic illness 9.73
Marriage of daughters 5.31
Political affiliation 4.42
Property disputes 2.65
Debt burden 2.65
Price crash 2.65
Borrowing too much (e.g. for house construction) 2.65
Losses in non-farm activities 1.77
Failure of bore well 0.88
Note: "Reasons were given by close relatives and friends.
There are multiple reasons for suicides.
Not even one case was given only one reason."[25]

Various reasons have been offered to explain why farmers commit suicide in India, including: floods,drought, debt, use of genetically modified seed, public health and government economic policies. There is no consensus[26][27][28] on what the main causes might be but studies show suicide victims are motivated by more than one cause, on average three or more causes for committing suicide.[25] Panagariya states, "farm-related reasons get cited only approximately 25 percent of the time as reasons for suicide", and, "studies do consistently show greater debt burden and greater reliance on informal sources of credit" amongst farmers who commit suicide.[25]

A study conducted in 2014 found that there are three specific characteristics associated with high risk farmers: "those that grow cash crops such as coffee and cotton; those with ‘marginal’ farms of less than one hectare; and those with debts of 300 Rupees or more." The study also found that the Indian states in which these three characteristics are most common had the highest suicide rates and also accounted for "almost 75% of the variability in state-level suicides." [29][30]

A 2012 study did a regional survey on farmers suicide in rural Vidarbha (Maharashtra) and applied a Smith's Saliency method to qualitatively rank the expressed causes among farming families who had lost someone to suicide.[31] The expressed reasons in order of importance behind farmer suicides were – debt, alcohol addiction, environment, low produce prices, stress and family responsibilities, apathy, poor irrigation, increased cost of cultivation, private money lenders, use of chemical fertilizers and crop failure.[31] In other words debt to stress and family responsibilities were rated as significantly higher than fertilizers and crop failure. In a different study in the same region in 2006, indebtedness (87%) and deterioration in the economic status (74%) were found to be major risk factors for suicide.[32]

Studies dated 2004 through 2006 identified several causes for farmers suicide, such as insufficient or risky credit systems, the difficulty of farming semi-arid regions, poor agricultural income, absence of alternative income opportunities, a downturn in the urban economy which forced non-farmers into farming, and the absence of suitable counselling services.[26][33][34] In 2004, in response to a request from the All India Biodynamic and Organic Farming Association, the Mumbai High Court required the Tata Institute to produce a report on farmer suicides in Maharashtra, and the institute submitted its report in March 2005.[35][36] The survey cited "government apathy, the absence of a safety net for farmers, and lack of access to information related to agriculture as the chief causes for the desperate condition of farmers in the state."[35]

An Indian study conducted in 2002 indicated an association between victims engaging in entrepreneurial activities (such as venturing into new crops, cash crops, and following market trends) and their failure in meeting expected goals due to a range of constraints.[37][38]


As much as 79.5% of India's farmland relies on flooding during monsoon season, so inadequate rainfall can cause droughts, making crop failure more common.[39][40] In regions that have experienced droughts, crop yields have declined, and food for cattle has become scarcer.[41] Agricultural regions that have been affected by droughts have subsequently seen their suicide rates increase.[42]

New Economic Policy

Left leaning economists like Utsa Patnaik, Jayati Ghosh and Prabhat Patnaik suggest[43][44] that structural changes in the macro-economic policy of Indian Government that favoured privatisation, liberalisation and globalisation is the root cause of farmer suicides. Others[45][46] dispute such views.

GM crops

A number of social activist groups and studies proposed a link between GM crops and farmer suicides.[33] Bt cotton (Bacillus thuringiensis cotton) was claimed to be responsible for farmer suicides.[47] The Bt cotton seeds cost nearly twice as much as ordinary ones. The higher costs forced many farmers into taking ever larger loans, often from private moneylenders charging exorbitant interest rates (60% a year). The moneylender was claimed to collect his dues at harvest time, by compelling farmers to sell their cotton to him at a price lower than it fetches on the market. According to activists, this created a source of debt and economic stress, ultimately suicides, among farmers. Scholars claim that this Bt cotton theory made certain assumptions and ignored field reality.[48]

Crop coverage of bio-tech cotton (also called Bt cotton) and Farmer Suicides over time in Madhya Pradesh India, before and after the introduction of Bt cotton in 2002.[3]

In 2008, a report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute, an agriculture policy think tank based in Washington DC, noted that there was an absence of data relating to "numbers on the actual share of farmers committing suicide who cultivated cotton, let alone Bt cotton."[33][49] In order to evaluate the "possible (and hypothetical)"[49] existence of a connection the study employed a "second-best" assessment of evidence relating to farmer suicides firstly, and to the effects of Bt cotton secondly.[49] The analysis revealed that there was no "clear general relationship between Bt cotton and farmer suicides"[50] but also stated that it could not reject the "potential role of Bt cotton varieties in the observed discrete increase in farmer suicides in certain states and years, especially during the peak of 2004 in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra."[51] The report also noted that farmer suicides predate the official commercial introduction of Bt cotton by Monsanto Mahyco in 2002 (and its unofficial introduction by Navbharat Seeds in 2001) and that such suicides were a fairly constant portion of the overall national suicide rate since 1997.[33][52] The report noted that while Bt cotton may have been a factor in specific suicides, the contribution was likely marginal compared to socio-economic factors.[33][52] Elsewhere,[3] Gruere et al. discuss the introduction and increase in use of Bt cotton in the state of Madhya Pradesh since 2002, and the observed drop in total suicides among that state's farmers in 2006. They then question whether the impact of the increase in use of Bt cotton on farmers suicide in Madhya Pradesh has been to improve or worsen the situation.[3]

In 2011, a review of the evidence regarding the relationship between Bt cotton and farmers' suicides in India was published in the Journal of Development Studies, also by researchers from IFPRI, which found that "Available data show no evidence of a 'resurgence' of farmer suicides. Moreover, Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India."[53] Matin Qaim finds that Bt cotton is controversial in India, irrespective of the scholarly evidence. Anti-biotech activist groups in India repeat their claim that there is evidence of link between Bt cotton and farmers suicides, a claim that is perpetuated by mass media. This linking of farmers suicide and biotech industry has led to negative opinions in public policy making process.[54]

Stone[48] suggests that the arrival and expansion of GM cotton led to a campaign of misinformation, by all sides, exacerbating the farmer's situation; activists have fuelled the persistence of a legend of failure and rejection of Bt cotton with sensational claims of livestock death and farmer suicide, while the other side has been incorrectly pronouncing Bt cotton a major success based on literature that is actually inconclusive. The cotton cash crop farmer's situation is complex and continues to evolve, suggests Stone.[48] Gilbert, in a 2013 article published in Nature, states, "contrary to popular myth, the introduction in 2002 of genetically modified Bt cotton is not associated with a rise in suicide rates among Indian farmers".[55]

In another 2014 review, Ian Plewis states, "the available data does not support the view that farmer suicides have increased following the introduction of Bt cotton. Taking all states together, there is evidence to support the hypothesis that the reverse is true: male farmer suicide rates have actually declined after 2005 having been increasing before then".[56][57]

Suicide ideation

Patel et al. find[58] that southern Indian states have ten times higher rates of suicides than some northern states. This difference, they claim, is not because of misclassification of a person's death, for example as homicide, but because of regional causes. The most common cause for suicide in India's south are a combination of social issues, such as interpersonal and family problems, financial difficulties, and pre-existing mental illness. Suicidal ideation is as culturally accepted in south India as in some high-income countries. The high suicide rates in southern states of India may be, suggest Patel el al.,[58] in part because of social acceptance of suicide as a method to deal with difficulties.

State government field surveys

The Government of Maharashtra, concerned about the highest total number of farmer suicides among its rural populations, commissioned its own study into reasons. At its behest, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Mumbai[59] did field research and found the top causes of farmers suicides to be: debt, low income and crop failure, family issues such as illness and inability to pay celebration expenses for daughter's marriage, lack of secondary income occupations and lack of value-added opportunities.[60]


Farmers and total suicide rates per 100,000 people in India.[3][61]

The National Crime Records Bureau of India reported in its 2012 annual report that 135,445 people committed suicide in India, of which 13,755 were farmers (11.2%).[62] Of these, 5 out of 29 states accounted for 10,486 farmers suicides (76%) – Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala.[1]

In 2011, a total of 135,585 people committed suicide, of which 14,207 were farmers.[63] In 2010, 15,963 farmers in India committed suicide, while total suicides were 134,599.[64]

In 2012, the state of Maharashtra, with 3,786 farmers' suicides, accounted for about a quarter of the all India's farmer suicides total (13,754).[1] From 1995 to 2013, a total of 296,438 Indian farmers committed suicide.[65] During the same period, about 9.5 million people died per year in India from other causes including malnutrition, diseases and suicides that were non-farming related, or about 171 million deaths from 1995 to 2013.[66]

Farmer suicides rates in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – two large states of India by size and population – have been about 10 times lower than Maharashtra, Kerala and Pondicherry.[67][68] In 2012, there were 745 farmer suicides in Uttar Pradesh, a state with an estimated population of 205.43 million.[69] In 2014 there were eight farmer suicides in Uttar Pradesh.[70]

According to IFFRI study number of suicides during 2005–2009 in Gujarat 387, Kerala 905, Punjab 75 and Tamil Nadu 26.[71] While 1802 farmers committed suicide in Chhattisgarh in 2009 and 1126 in 2010, its farmers suicide dropped to zero in 2011, leading to accusations of data manipulation.[72]

According to the 2012 statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau, the farmer suicides statistics are as follows (Note: The NCRB lists suicides in the different employment categories, but it is not necessary that farming or crop-failure is the cause of the suicides listed in the "farmer" category):[73]

As per National Crime Records Bureau, the number of suicides by farmers and farm labourers increased to 12,360 in 2014 against 11,772 in 2013.[74] Of these suicides, 5,650 were farmers suicides.[75]

Farmers versus other professions

Patel et al., using a representative survey sample based statistical study from 2001 and 2003, extrapolated likely suicide patterns in 2010 for India. They claim suicide deaths in India among unemployed individuals and individuals in professions other than agricultural work were, collectively, about three times more frequent than they were in agricultural labourers and landowning cultivators.[79] Even across professions in rural areas, Patel et al. find suicide among agricultural workers (including farmers) in India is not more frequent than any other profession.[58]

The suicide incidence rate in India, on 100,000 farmers basis, is unclear. All estimates are speculative, because actual total number of farmers by state or India in each year are not available. Farm suicides per 100,000 farmers can be reliably calculated for 2001, because accurate data on number of farmers in the country and states is available for 2001 from the Census of India. The farm suicide rate was 12.9 suicides per 100,000 farmers, which was higher than the general suicide rate at 10.6 for 2001 in India.[80] By gender, the suicide rate was 16.2 male farmer suicides per 100,000 male farmers compared to 12.5 male suicides per 100,000 for general population. Among women, the suicide rate was 6.2 female farmer suicides per 100,000 female farmers compared to 8.5 female suicides per 100,000 for general population.[80]

Total number of farmers

Annual farmers' suicide incidence rate data on 100,000 farmers basis, depend on estimated total number of farmers for that year. Estimates for total number of farmers in India vary widely.[81][82] Some count the total number of cultivators, some include cultivators and agricultural laborers in their definition of total farmers, while others include anyone engaged in any form of farming and agriculture activity.[82] Estimates for total number of farmers in India, for 2011, accordingly range from 95.8 million (8%) to 263 million (22%) to 450 million (38%), out of a total population of over 1.2 billion.[81] Others[83] estimate the total number of farmers in India to be about 600 million (50% of total population). With about 14,000 suicides in 2011 by those engaged in farming and agricultural activities,[84][85] the different estimates of total farmers has led to different suicide incidence rate estimates on per 100,000 farmers basis. Additionally, the reliability of official statistics has been questioned. K Nagaraj suggests that official data may be overestimating the number of total farmers in India, and undercounting the total number of farmer suicides every year.[82] Tom Brass, in contrast, suggests that official census and surveys in India systematically underestimate the total number of people engaged in agriculture in India.[86]

Responses to farmers' suicides

The government appointed a number of inquiries to look into the causes of farmers suicide and farm related distress in general. Krishak Ayog (National Farmer Commission) visited all suicide prone farming regions of India, then in 2006 published three reports with its recommendations.[87] Subsequently Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Vidarbha in 2006 and promised a package of ₹110 billion (about $2.4 billion). The families of farmers who had committed suicide were also offered an ex gratia grant of ₹100,000 (about $2,000) by the government, though this amount was changed several times.[88]

2006 relief package

In 2006, the Government of India identified 31 districts in the four states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Kerala with high relative incidence of farmers suicides.[89] A special rehabilitation package was launched to mitigate the distress of these farmers. The package provided debt relief to farmers, improved supply of institutional credit, improved irrigation facilities, employed experts and social service personnel to provide farming support services, and introduced subsidiary income opportunities through horticulture, livestock, dairying and fisheries. The Government of India also announced an ex-gratia cash assistance from Prime Ministers National Relief Fund to the farmers. Additionally, among other things, the Government of India announced:[89]

  • In the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, that had received considerable mass media news coverage on farmer suicides, all farmer families of Vidarbha in six affected districts of Maharashtra were given a cash sum of 05 million (US$75,000) each, to help pay off the debt principal.
  • 7.12 billion (US$110 million) in interest owed, as of 30 June 2006, was waived. The burden of payment was shared equally between the Central and the State government.
  • The Government created a special credit vehicle for Vidarbha farmer, to the tune of 12.75 billion (US$190 million). Special teams comprising NABARD and banks were deputed to ensure fresh credit starts flowing to all farmers of the region.
  • An allocation of 21.77 billion (US$330 million) was made to improve the irrigation infrastructure so that the farmers of Vidarbha region had assured irrigation facilities in the future.

Agricultural debt waiver and debt relief scheme, 2008

The Government of India next implemented the Agricultural debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme in 2008 to benefit over 36 million farmers at a cost of 653 billion (US$9.9 billion). This spending was aimed at writing of part of loan principal as well as the interest owed by the farmers. Direct agricultural loan by stressed farmers under so-called Kisan Credit Card were also to be covered under this Scheme.[90]

Regional initiatives

Various state governments in India have launched their own initiatives to help prevent farmer suicides. The government of Maharashtra set up a dedicated group to deal with farm distress in 2006 known as the Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavlamban Mission, based in Amravati.[91] A group to study the Farmers Suicides was also constituted by the Government of Karnataka under the Chairmanship of Dr Veeresh, Former Vice-Chancellor of Agricultural University and Prof Deshpande as member.[92]

Maharashtra Bill to regulate farmer loan terms, 2008

The State government of Maharashtra, one of the most farmer suicide affected states, passed the Money Lending (Regulation) Act, 2008 to regulate all private money lending to farmers. The bill set maximum legally allowed interest rates on any loans to farmers, setting it to be slightly above the money lending rate by Reserve Bank of India, and it also covered pending loans.[93]

Maharashtra relief package, 2010

The State Government of Maharashtra made it illegal, in 2010, for non-licensed moneylenders from seeking loan repayment. The State Government also announced[60] that it will from Village Farmer Self Help Groups, that will disburse government financed loans,a low rate Crop Insurance program whose premium will be paid 50% by farmer and 50% by government, launch of alternate income opportunities such as poultry, dairy and sericulture for farmers in high suicide prone districts. The government further announced that it will finance a marriage fund under its Samudaik Lagna with 10 million (US$150,000) per year per district, for community marriage celebrations, where many couples get married at the same time to help minimise the cost of marriage celebrations – a cause of suicides among farmers as identified by its own study.[60]

Kerala Farmers' Debt Relief Commission (Amendment) Bill, 2012

Kerala, in 2012, amended the Kerala Farmers' Debt Relief Commission Act, 2006 to extend benefits to all distressed farmers with loans through 2011. It cited continuing farmer suicides as a motivation.[94]

2013 diversify income sources package

In 2013, the Government of India launched a Special Livestock Sector and Fisheries Package for farmers suicide-prone regions of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala. The package was aimed to diversify income sources of farmers. The total welfare package consisted of 912 million (US$14 million).[95]

Effectiveness of government response

The government's response and relief packages have generally been ineffective, misdirected and flawed, states Surinder Sud.[96] It has focused on credit and loan, rather than income, productivity and farmer prosperity. Assistance in paying off outstanding principal and interest helps the money lenders, but has failed to create reliable and good sources of income for the farmer going forward. The usurious moneylenders continue to offer loans at interest rates between 24 to 50 percent, while income generating potential of the land the farmer works on has remained low and subject to weather conditions.[96] Sud states that the government has failed to understand that debt relief just postpones the problem and a more lasting answer to farmer distress can only come from reliable income sources, higher crop yields per hectare, irrigation and other infrastructure security.[96] Golait, in a Reserve Bank of India paper,[97] acknowledged the positive role of crop diversification initiative announced in government's response to reports of farmer suicides. Golait added, "Indian agriculture still suffers from: i) poor productivity, ii) falling water levels, iii) expensive credit, iv) a distorted market, v) many middlemen and intermediaries who increase cost but do not add much value, vi) laws that stifle private investment, vii) controlled prices, viii) poor infrastructure, and ix) inappropriate research. Thus the approach with mere emphasis on credit in isolation from the above factors will not help agriculture".[97] Furthermore, recommended Golait, a more pro-active role in creating and maintaining reliable irrigation and other agriculture infrastructure is necessary to address farmer distress in India.[97]

International comparison

Farmers suicide is a global phenomenon. Outside India, studies in Sri Lanka, USA, Canada, England and Australia have identified farming as a high stress profession that is associated with a higher suicide rate than the general population. This is particularly true among small scale farmers and after periods of economic distress.[32] Fraser et al., similarly, after a review of 52 scholarly publications, conclude that farming populations in the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States have the highest rates of suicide of any industry and there is growing evidence that those involved in farming are at higher risk of developing mental health problems. Their review claims a wide range of reasons behind farmers suicide globally including mental health issues, physical environment, family problems, economic stress and uncertainties.[98] Significantly higher suicide rate among farmers than general population have been reported in developed countries such as the UK and the US.[99][100][101]

In popular culture

Summer 2007 by producer Atul Pandey, focused on the issue of farmer suicides in Maharashtra's Vidarbha region, as did the 2009 Bollywood film Kissan.[102] Prior to this The Dying Fields, a documentary directed by Fred de Sam Lazaro was aired in August 2007 on Wide Angle (TV series). The 2010 award-winning film Jhing Chik Jhing is based around the emotive issue of farmer suicides in Maharashtra. It looks at how the farmer has very little in his control and looks at the impact of indebtedness on his family.[103]

In 2006, a documentary by Indian film maker Sumit Khanna titled Mere Desh Ki Dharti, did a comprehensive review of the way we grow our food. A well researched and in-depth understanding of the agrarian crisis, it won the national award for the best Investigative film.

In 2009, the International Museum of Women included an examination of the impact of farmers' suicides on the lives of the farmers' wives and children in their exhibition Economica: Women and the Global Economy. Their slideshow "Growing Debt" and accompanying essay by curator Masum Momaya entitled "Money of Her Own" showed how many widows were left with the burden of their husbands' debts, and were forced to work as indentured servants to repay the debt. The widows were also unlikely to remarry, because other men in the community were unwilling to take on the widows' debts for themselves.[104]

  • Battle in Seattle, (a 2007 film that quotes the Indian suicide statistic in the end credits)

See also



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