Treating India’s Suicidal Farmers

BRICS, 8 May 2017

Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

How many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

— Bob Dylan, 2016 Nobel Literature Laureate

8 May 2017 – India’s economy may be soaring, but agriculture remains its Achilles’ heel, the source of livelihood for hundreds of millions of people but a fraction of the nation’s total economy and a symbol of its abiding difficulties. Farmer suicides are a wrenching affliction that is as tragic as it is complex and is a serious threat to India’s most critical economic sector. They are not just a loss of human lives; they are actually debilitating scars on a nations’  development that can endure for decades perpetuating a vicious cycle.

A study conducted across 13 States by the Union Agriculture Ministry throws up the all-too-familiar reasons that drive farmers to suicide.

The Ministry’s agricultural economic research unit, Agricultural and Rural Transformation Centre (ADRTC) of the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bengaluru, investigated farmers’ suicides in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

The story behind each death points to frequent crop failure, vagaries of the monsoon, absence of assured water resources, attacks of pests and diseases, debts, farming and social causes.

Nothing has changed on the ground for the farmer in the past two years, as is clear from the Union Home Ministry’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which disseminates and compiles information on “suicides of self-employed in farming/agriculture” in its publication Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India.

NCRB reports up to 2015 reveal identical causes of suicides among farmers — bankruptcy, farming-related issues, family problems, illness, drug abuse or alcoholism.

Currently, the government does little more than grant compensation to the families of farmers who take their lives, which many consider an incentive.  The cash compensation does help them tide over the immediate problem of feeding the family. But there is politics here also .the compensation can be denied if ownership of the land is disputed or if the death is not judged to be linked to indebtedness or the farm crisis;

There is both political apathy and bureaucratic hurdles. From the post-mortem report to affidavits from panchayat clearances and papers from banks, the process is painful and the families are subjected to a literal forensic   scrutiny by the bureaucracy, many better off families do not report suicides because of the social reputational hazards attached to them.

For many bereaved families, receiving compensation remains out of bounds. .The agricultural department does not accept all suicides as compensation worthy. Department officials said, “If a farmer is unable to clear loans taken for agriculture from authorised banks or financiers, it is considered a farmer suicide by the Karnataka government. Loans taken for other purposes, or even agricultural loans taken from unauthorised financial institutions, are not accepted as causing farmer suicides. After receiving the money, a widow often has to fend off claims from her husband’s family and creditors. Widows forced to repay loans can be caught in a vicious cycle of debt bondage.

The roots of despair   have been well researched and documented. They are a toxic blend of : livelihoods drained away by spiraling debt and  predatory moneylenders  ; soil tired on account  of heavy doses of  chemical fertilizer ,crops and livestock destroyed by drought or unseasonable monsoon rains associated with climate change; plummeting water tables from relentless water mining;  loss of agricultural land to development;   collapse in cotton prices and growing expenses on  genetic-engineered hybrid seeds ; total breakdown of  agricultural extension support    and  near absence of rural mental health services  .

Farmer suicides are   simply a reflection or a symptom of how fragile the farm economy is. Even a small aberration in weather – unseasonal rains, high winds, dry weather and drought – multiplies the risk factor for farmers, taking it to unmanageable levels. Livelihood security for any farming family, therefore, hangs by a slender thread. The suicide rate for farmers is 48 percent higher than any other profession.

In the farmers’ plight, all the strands of an economy in transition intersect. To a degree, the suicides reflect the farmers’ bafflement at the gradual, and erratic, withdrawal of the state.  The Indian farm  distress  has mch to do with  t the World Bank’s policies in the mid-1990s that forced the country to open up its seed sector to global corporations like Cargill, Monsanto and Syngenta.

These conglomerates made sure that the Indian farmer bought seeds from them,   The cost of farming shot up, and the poor farmer, who had till then used his own seeds — those saved on the farm — had to buy them from big companies. The seeds supplied were engineered in such a way that they came with “non-renewable traits.”

Lured by the promises of new foreign seeds, the farmers started availing   big ticket loans to invest in expensive    seeds, tagged with high yields, in what they saw a fair commercial risk. If the math was right it was certainly worth it .But unfortunately we don’t have    sophisticated financial risk hedging instruments at the lower segment of farmers. Nor do we have super efficient supply chains that should support this type of savvy ventures .Any adverse development can send the farmer into a tailspin and then the familiar script runs through.

As writer Vandana Shiva said in one of her papers: “A free resource available on farms became a commodity which farmers were forced to buy every year. This increased poverty and led to indebtedness.”

Peasants borrow loans from moneylenders at insane rates of interest for all their needs — from buying expensive transgender seeds, high cost fertilizers    to food for themselves and cattle. The peasants hope for a better yield in times to come, but this never happens, and they find themselves in a debt trap as they keep pursuing a vain chimerical mirage of a high wattage golden crop bonanza. They often mortgage their lands and as borrowings mount, many farmers are driven to suicide.  Owing more than they earn, these steadiest of workers have become gamblers of the highest stakes, betting their land – and their lives – on one better crop. Unable to pay the interest, let alone the principal, they borrow more and get onto a treadmill   recklessly driven by the cruel money-lenders, who are no better than sharks. Shylocks demand only a pound of flesh. But these indigenous    moneylending vampires bay for blood.  Crushing debts are pushing the farmers into the darkest of pits.

A field-based research study in The Lancet (by Pandit et al) suggests that actual suicides may be 35-40% higher than officially recorded. The Lancet study concludes, “Most Indians do not have community or support services for the prevention of suicide and have restricted access to care for mental illnesses associated with suicide, especially access to treatment for depression, which has been shown to reduce suicidal behaviours. Reductions in binge alcohol drinking through regulations, higher alcohol taxation, or brief interventions in primary care might also reduce suicide deaths.”

The abysmal state of mental health care in the country made matters worse. Most government-run hospitals do not have psychiatric drugs, and visiting a private shrink and sustaining the treatment — usually a long drawn out affair — is an expensive proposition for most families. The ignorance and callous attitude towards psychiatric ailments, coupled with social stigma, dissuades most from seeking help. Counseling centres are purely urban phenomena.

There may be some light at the bottom of this abyss, as a grass-root community mental health program, called Vishram or the Vidarbha Stress and Health Programme, has been engaged in therapeutic counseling of the distressed farmers which has definitely improved the mental health profile of the farm community. Launched a few years ago, it is designed to establish a sustainable rural mental health program to address mental health issues in rural India and mental aberrations that abet suicides like   like alcohol abuse and depression in the agrarian community. According to an evaluation of the intensive 18-month program, the prevalence of depression has reduced by 22% in a year, while suicidal tendencies have reduced by nearly 51%.

The programme, implemented with the assistance of an NGO called Prakriti, deploys health workers from within the community, some with no background in mental health. These workers were trained to raise mental health awareness and provide “psychological first-aid”. The program also included counselors who imparted mental health literacy. The third line of workers consisted of expert psychiatrists, who are qualified to provide medications for more serious mental health disorders.

Dr Vikram Patel, a psychiatrist and professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is the man behind this programme .Patel wants suicide to be seen as a public health issue.”In India we haven’t done good research on farmers’ suicides and in terms of mental health, this has always been seen as a social issue .But if you look around the world at least 50% of farmers, and adults who kill themselves would have had a depressive disorder or an alcohol use disorder, these two being the main mental health conditions,” he says.

Frontline workers interacted directly with the agrarian population, talking about the “tension” they were experiencing and by raising awareness about the stress episodes they were undergoing and ways to cope with them. For many farmers, sharing and ventilating their toxic thoughts was   cathartic. Since they are drawn from the same community, the healthcare workers are familiar with the environment and therefore better able to empathize with these farmers .They combine their new cognitive skills with traditional wisdom for working out strategies to strengthen the resilience mechanism of these farmers.

Another significant impact of the program was a six fold increase in the ratio of people seeking mental care. The proportion of those with depression who sought help rose from a mere 4.2% to 27.2%. This in itself highlights the success of the program in spreading awareness and raising mental health literacy.  .

India’ first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said in 1947, “Everything can wait, but not agriculture.” But what India is witnessing is exactly the reverse .all the paths of Indian economy are surging ahead .agriculture is the solitary one that is beating a path back in retreat.

Within this self-perpetuating cycle of misery and no apparent exit door, wrapping a noose around the neck are all-too-friendly exits for men. While their deaths might bring personal escape, these men leave behind crippling emotional, financial and physical burdens, inherited by those left to farm the dust: the women who did not die

For every Indian farmer who takes his own life, a family is hounded by the debt he leaves behind, typically resulting in children dropping out of school to become farmhands. The Indian government’s response to the crisis—largely in the form of limited debt relief and compensation programs—has failed to address the magnitude and scope of the problem or its underlying causes. If the government does not act, probably these women may also have to open the doors they have kept shut till now.


Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 8 May 2017.

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