Mohan Guruswamy | Suicides are no indication of India's farmers' plight
Politicians see votes in farmer suicides. Few of them seem to understand the reality that has overtaken farming in India. With almost 60 per cent of the population still dependent on it, agriculture’s share of GDP has declined to just 13 per cent, and is declining fast. Very simply, it means that farming now only ensures greater relative poverty.
To make farming profitable, two things need to happen. One is that less people are involved in it and the other is that farm produce gets higher prices. Only rapid industrialisation will ensure the former, and a drastic reduction in the cross-web of state interference to curb prices for urban people. Neither is happening in India. This is a huge challenge and all politicians, whether it is Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar or Arvind Kejriwal, will always take the easy way out. They will just keep on visiting the homes of the suicides, and avoid stating the obvious. But are farmer suicides a recent phenomenon or has the incidence grown recently? Suicides have been a part of our life since time immemorial. People in all walks of life kill themselves for various reasons. And some people are more predisposed to killing themselves than others. The incidence of farmer suicides is actually not as high as the protesting decibels would suggest. In fact, the incidence of suicides among farmers is far less than the general trend.
The National Mental Health Association of the United States says that “no matter the race or age of the person; how rich or poor they are, it is true that most people who commit suicide have a mental or emotional disorder”. There is a suicide baseline, which exists, in good times or bad, and suicide is not a matter of economics. This is well supported by the data released by World Health Organisation: while the suicide rate in India, an agrarian economy, was 13 per 100,000; that of industrialised, rich countries were often higher or comparable — South Korea 28.5, Japan 20.1, Russia 18.2, France 14.7, Germany 13.5, USA 12.6, Australia 12.5, Sweden 12.0, UK 11.8, and happiness index-linked Bhutan was number 20, with 16.2. Men usually are more prone by two or three times to kill themselves than women.
In India, after examining the profiles of suicide victims by profession, one finds that farmers, who form 60 per cent of the population, account for 15.3 per cent of suicides, while those in the secure service industry (including government and public sector undertakings) form 9.8 per cent of cases! Suicide rates indicate that while poorer states like Bihar have a per 100,000 rate of 1.85 and Uttar Pradesh 3.02, some richer states like Gujarat (9.62) and West Bengal (18.45) are more prone. Clearly, there is no correlation between suicide rates and incomes, and if any at all, have nothing whatsoever to do with the farm or non-farm sectors; it is more to do with how people respond and succumb to a social or economic adversity. It’s in their inherited genes.
We cannot deny the grim reality of the countryside, but our politicians tend to overplay the emotional quotient of economic adversity. This comes through as a gimmick for winning votes. In no respect can suicides be used as an index for the lagging economic performance. In the same regions of the Telugu states and Vidarbha, where suicides are reported, there exist millions of other farmers who are in the same or possibly worse situations. Most of them cope up with their adversity and suicide is not the chosen option. Clearly, the issue to grapple is not suicides by farmers, but the economic plight of farmers who have been affected by crop failure and drought.
The problem thus should be analysed using a more holistic approach, keeping in mind a larger perspective. The agricultural sector as a whole is facing major structural problems. We are witness to the falling share of agriculture in the country’s GDP, from 35 per cent in 1990 to 13 per cent in 2015, the increasing burden on land (267 people per square km in 1991 to 324 people in 2001), and also the “low productivity, low purchasing power, poor infrastructure, a gross inequality of state-conferred benefits and a perceptible withdrawal of the state from the agricultural sector”. Considering the fact that agriculture is still the mainstay of the Indian economy, employing around 60 per cent of the total workforce; this on the whole does not bode well for the country.
The main proportion of the government’s outlay on agriculture goes towards subsidies, which contribute very little to growth today. They benefit the rich farmers the most, while the marginal ones are living on the fringe. These need to be done away with to arrive at a long-term solution. There is also need to promote watershed management and massively increase the acreage under irrigation — at present only about 35 per cent of total agricultural land is irrigated! This would reduce their susceptibility to drought and avoid crises. Telangana state has shown that increased availability of water to farmers exponentially improves economic growth and prosperity. This is the Telangana state model which the arid states of India must emulate.
There are other infirmities, which keep most farmers at subsistence levels. The fragmentation of holdings is a major cause, with about 83 per cent of farmers considered small or marginal, with less than two hectares each. This implies that over 80 per cent of farmers in India hold about 35 per cent of the total cultivated land. To compound matters, there has hardly been any new creation of irrigation potential by the state for the last 25 years. All the additional irrigated holdings of the past two decades have come from private tube-wells. Two thirds of our farmlands are still rainfed. This clearly makes any commercial-scale farming impossible, and a majority of farmers dependent on the rain gods and governmental lords.
To reiterate, suicide is a matter of psychology, and not of economics — no matter how tempting that may be to exaggerate an issue. Few can deny that there is a crisis looming over the agricultural sector. To be able to act purposefully, we must rely on facts instead of emotions. The true indicators of the economic conditions are objective measures such as the sectoral share in GDP, availability of cheap credit, increase in area under irrigation, etc., and not farmer suicides. It is unethical to use this as an economic index. But tell that to the politicians?
(The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy.)