Cash crop craze kills farmers

Suicide rates in India are among the highest in the world. With 187,000 suicides per year, one-fifth of all global suicides occur in India. Farmer suicides are often reported in the media and are subject to a great deal of political debate.

A recent study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine indicated farmer suicides might be disproportionate to the population as whole, reporting rural suicide rates were twice that of urban areas. The most common method of suicide was the deliberate ingestion of pesticide, a method not common in any high-income country. The report however concluded it did not have sufficient evidence to show that suicide rates are higher among farmers.

Suicide rates in India vary greatly between states; a general trend seems to suggest that inequality is a leading cause. This theory however does not apply to all as exceptions like Kerala exist. Kerala, one of the most developed states in India, also has the highest male suicide rate in India. If Kerala were a country, it would have the highest suicide rate in the world.

A study conducted jointly by the University of Cambridge and University College London sought to test whether variation in methods of agricultural production between various states affected the suicide rates in them. Three main characteristics were discovered among farmers who had committed suicide. The first was that these farmers mainly grew cash crops like coffee and cotton. The next similarity was that the majority of these farmers owned ‘marginal’ land, that is, land smaller than one hectare in area. The final cause was debt, as a majority were in debt of Rs 300 or more.

India’s adoption of the free market has caused a phenomenon experts are calling an ‘agrarian crisis’. The scaling back of subsidies and other state support has left a lot of farmers in the lurch and suicide rates have sky-rocketed since. The farmers are part of a vicious circle as they attempt to maximise their profits by growing crops susceptible to massive price fluctuation. While those with a large amount of land are able to absorb losses for few years, those with marginal land are likely to accrue large debts should they have a bad year. A case in point is the state of Gujarat, where cash crops are mainly grown on large plots of land and as result has low debt as well as one of the lowest suicide rates among farmers. 

Government policy has often been counter-productive. Former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S R Reddy’s decision to provide a compensation package of one lakh rupees to the family of farmers who commit suicide just became an added incentive for distraught farmers to end their lives. To add to their problems, bad weather is a further issue farmers have to deal with.  This year nearly 100 farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra after hailstorms ruined their crops. Government provide compensation of around $800 per farmer which is nearly not enough of for them to cover their losses. This is coupled with bureaucratic inefficiency which makes it very difficult for farmers to even receive these relief packages on time.

It seems amid economic liberalisation and double digit growth, India has left behind a vast portion of its population.  With the emergence of a wealthy middle class, it is forgotten that 833 million people forming 70% of the total population still live in rural areas. They perhaps provide the best example of the unequal economic growth that has taken place in India. Rs 300 would be considered a measly sum by this new affluent middle class but is a matter of life and death for these small scale farmers.

Agricultural reform is badly needed to address this problem. Rural India is obviously not ready for globalisation and the government needs to take steps to ensure such a problem is not allowed to keep growing. While this may go against the principles of market freedom, the government needs to make efforts to stabilise the prices of cash crops. Even high-income countries in Europe and North America take steps to protect their farmers, it makes sense India do the same, at least for now. Jonathan Kennedy, the lead author of the Cambridge-UCL study, states his study has “clear policy implications.” He goes on to say that just a reduction of one per cent in the proportion of marginal farmers, cash crops or indebted farmers would reduce the suicide rate considerably.

The government has been dismal in properly distributing land among farmers; addressing this problem will have widest impact when it comes to dealing with farmer suicides. The central government will need to work closely with states and come up with a raft of changes to ensure that commercial farming is not just the monopoly of a select few, and aim to provide the farmers of India with a secure future.

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