Agriculture is the largest private sector activity in India contributing 14 per cent to GDP and employing 52 per cent of the work force. India embraced the new economic policy in 1991 in response to its balance of payments crisis. The new economic policy was based on the principles of liberalization, privatization and globalization. But all the policies primarily addressed the problems of the industrial and commercial sector along with services sector. Agriculture was not a priority while it was also facing various challenges such as low production and productivity, skewed cropping pattern, lack of inputs and infrastructure including assured irrigation, lack of credit and extension services, distorted pricing and subsidy policy, low farm gate prices, disintegrated and rigid market and lack of warehouse facilities etc. It is due to these factors, while the cost of cultivation was rising, farmers’ income stagnated or declined, pushing the farmers into indebtedness and frustration leading to suicides.
The Central Government informed the Supreme Court on May 2, 2017 that despite a multi-pronged approach to improve income and social security of farmers, over 12,000 suicides were reported in the agricultural sector every year since 2013. Some estimates put the death of farmers to the tune of 200,000 since the adoption of the new economic policy. In fact the new economic policy was not against the farmers as such, but the development and reforms paradigms were dominated by the lead sectors such as services and the manufacturing sector.
A bench of Chief Justice J S Khehar and Justices D Y Chandrachud and Sanjay Kishan Kaul heard the government’s steps taken to ameliorate the condition of those associated with farming and the counter view by petitioner NGO ‘Citizen Resources and Action Initiative’. At the end, it said, “Today, we find it hard to intervene in the case. All the steps that need to be taken is squarely in the executive’s domain, what should be the minimum support price for agricultural produce as well as crop insurance.”
However, it took exception to the Centre’s stand that the Niti Aayog had been requested to put forth a strategy to address the issue of farmers’ suicide. The bench said, “You (the Centre) are giving everything to Niti Aayog. How much can it handle?”
Additional solicitor general P S Narasimha said, “The government is addressing the low income of farmers. Agrarian distress is manifest from a large number of farmers living below the poverty line and unfortunate incidents of suicides can be addressed by enabling farmers to increase their income. With this understanding, the government is aiming to double farmers’ income by the year 2022.”
The bench gave the Centre four weeks to file response to data placed by the NGO’s counsel Colin Gonsalves, who argued that the much-hyped PM Fasal Bima Yojana had not reached even 20% of small and marginal farmers as the Centre had parked thousands of crores of rupees with private insurance companies. He also requested the court to direct the Centre to subsidise agricultural work.
The debate on farmers’ suicide often takes polarized views. There is big group in the middle class which believes that farmers contribute less to the government kitty, but they get many subsidies and benefits. Although some commentators and researchers believe that farmers are the most distressed group in the country as their suicide rates are higher than that of others, based on their analysis of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. However , other researchers have claimed—based on demographic surveys—that farmers are not the most suicide-prone group in the country, and that those who do commit suicide need counselling rather than economic palliatives. Thisdebate may take us anywhere depending on sample, source of data and motives of our research. But farmers, of which 75 per cent are small and marginal farmers, are the less blessed and today farming in India is not considered remunerative and prestigious occupation. Does anybody want his son to be a farmer?
Earlier, NCRB used to provide data on farmer suicides, without specifying whether this included agricultural labourers or just cultivators. Most analysts assumed that the farmer suicide data referred only to cultivators and used population figures of cultivators to arrive at the suicide rates. However, in 2014, NCRB began publishing statistics for both agricultural labourers and farmer-cultivators, and it showed that they had so far been including suicides by both groups in their classification of farmer suicides. The old estimates had overestimated farm suicides because of the faulty assumption, it now turned out.
A reconstruction of the suicide rates by economists Deepankar Basu and Kartik Misra of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Debarshi Das of IIT-Guwahati (2016) published in the Economic and Political Weekly showed that except for Maharashtra and Kerala, the ratio of suicide rates (or the suicide mortality rates, as the researchers describe the rates) for farm-related workers and non-farm-related workers was less than one in all states between 1995 and 2011. Basu and his co-authors used these findings to argue that farmer suicides are a regional problem, not a country-wide phenomenon.
We can easily extend this argument to another facet of farmers’ suicide. The farmers who engaged in cash crops like cotton, sugarcane, tobacco and spices etc. were more prone to suicide in case they failed to repay their loans in case of crop failure.
It is held that in overall scenario farm suicide is not the driving force in overall suicides in India. But such arguments are academic exercises either to bring another facet of suicides in India or to obfuscate farmers, suicides’ as a big problem. The overall trend of farm-related suicides are lower than non-farm suicide rates for the post-2011 period, but it does not reduce the gravity of the problem. All is not well. It is interesting to note that from 2015 onwards, NCRB also began publishing the reasons for farm suicides. And it shows a stark difference between farmers and non-farmers. While only a minority of suicides by non-farmers are due to economic distress, an overwhelming majority of farmers commit suicides because of economic distress, the data shows. Across states, economic factors such as poverty, bankruptcy, or farming-related issues (crop failures, inability to sell etc.) are the key drivers of farm-related suicides.
Loan waivers by the government to farmers amounted to more than Rs. 55000 crore to help save them from distress in 2008 and this year in case of UP loan waiver, the amount is again estimated to be about Rs. 40000 crore. On moral grounds the government must help farmers in distress due to crop failure in the short run by loan waivers. However, loan wavers not only put extra burden on banks, they also put pressure on state exchequer. There is also moral hazard when even those farmers who can fend for themselves, get the benefit of loan waivers and also incentive to borrow more and not to pay waiting waivers. The lasting solution would, nevertheless, depend on addressing the persistent problems of assured irrigation, drainage, marketing, finance and adopting new technologies and also creating alternative avenues of income in rural areas in food processing and non- farm economic activities. Also promoting agricultural cooperatives and self help groups can help a lot. Some people would also agree that in good harvest season farmers could be taxed and such revenue should be ploughed back for the development of rural areas and agriculture.