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Farmer Suicides in India

Updated on September 1, 2021
Deepa damodaran profile image

Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.


Farmer Suicides Data

As per the data provided by Wikipedia, 300000 farmers in India committed suicide between 1998 and 2018. It is the inability to pay back the debts availed from banks and private money lenders that basically drove farmers to this plight. The National Crime Records Bureau of India, the government agency that records crime had no specific category for farmer suicides caused by debt, till 2017. When for the first time the agency started having this data, under a new category, the first data came out was for 2015.[1] The data showed 3000 farmers in India committed suicide in 2015 alone.[2]

[1] NCRB 2017 data

[2] NCRB 2017 data

Why are Debt and Bankruptcy Prevalent among Farmers?

To understand the problem, I started my investigation at the point of entry of modern agriculture to India, that is, in the early 1960s. This was when a major government-sponsored agrarian reform termed the ‘Green Revolution’ started. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides were introduced as part of the program to the hitherto-organic-by-default farmlands of India. For the first time, instead of putting farmyard manure as fertilizer, and sowing local variety seeds, the farmers were asked, and in some instances even compelled by government agencies, to use chemical fertilizers like urea and hybrid seeds.

Indeed, chemical farming increased the yields and contributed to the food self-sufficiency of the country. However, a side effect was that agriculture became an investment-driven activity. For the farmer, it was no more sufficient to sow the seeds he had stored from the previous harvest and to fertilize with the farmyard manure that he/she gets free of cost from the cows and trees of the farm. The Green Revolution, the government-sponsored chemical farming campaign that began in the 1950s in India, changed the entire farming dynamics in a big way. Apart from increasing the yield and income of the farmer for a short span, it left the farmers with no choice but to buy and use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds.


Side Effects of Chemical Farming: More Expense, More Uncertainty

The hybrid origin crops had low pest resistance and disease resistance as compared to local varieties traditionally cultivated by organic, farm-produced fertilizer inputs. The farmer was faced with a new problem- severe pest attack and diseases damaging his crop. The solution was to try chemical pesticides which costed extra money. Farming gradually turned into a money-intensive affair. It put the farmer into a never-ending loop of agricultural and personal loans.

Small Farmers Bear the Burden

Indian farmers mostly have small landholdings. Half a billion Indians are from small farmer families.[1] Of the total land holdings, 85% are small landholdings with an area of a maximum of 2 hectares.[2] Naturally, the income from such smallholdings is already low, and when one has to invest more as the initial cost of agriculture, availing of loans becomes the only option. Soon Indian farming sector became saturated with agrarian farm loans. However, the market for agrarian produce did not grow in parallel to these developments. The flexible import policies of the government in a globalization scenario hit the markets badly. The lack of a proper supply chain made things worse as middlemen grabbed whatever profit there was in selling agricultural produce. Indian farmlands are frequented by extreme climatic disturbances such as droughts and floods. The bad rural infrastructure and poor crisis management always led to crop loss in such extreme climate events. These added to the already set misfortune of the peasants. There was no more profit to make in agriculture. It was at the mercy of the market, the climate, the middlemen, and of course the multinational corporations that sold the farmers seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. However, the banks and money lenders could care if the farmer made a profit or loss. They want their money back and the farmer is left neck-deep in a debt trap.

[1] Swaminathan, M. and Bakshi, S. (2018) How do small farmers fare?: Evidence from village studies in India (Project on Agrarian Relations in India), Chennai: Tulika Books.

[2] Swaminathan, M. and Bakshi, S. (2018) How do small farmers fare?: Evidence from village studies in India (Project on Agrarian Relations in India), Chennai: Tulika Books.


Fading of the Agrarian Culture

When chemical farming became the norm, the farmers gradually lost their traditional organic and sustainable agricultural practices, and the generation with that knowledge passed. The new generation relied mainly on purchased inputs and hardly knew what it was like to do farming before the chemical inputs came. Though the universities published packages of practices for each fertilizer and pesticide in each crop, in a country where literacy rates are very low, the farmers could not understand the nuances of chemical farming correctly. They bought all kinds of fertilizers and pesticides and applied them in huge quantities on their farms. They often had access to the advice of only fertilizer and pesticide traders instead of farming experts. The reach-out and extension activities of the government agriculture departments and universities failed miserably. Farmers were dealing with substances they were totally unfamiliar with. They were not taught the proper use of fertilizers and pesticides by the responsible officials and the scientists who were not in the field and sat in their offices mainly. There was real chaos in the field which was for the time being masked by the good yields but was waiting in the wings to spread death and deprivation.

Death by Pesticide

After a couple of decades, the yields began to decrease as the unscientific use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides diminished the organic nature of the soil and environment. Even chemical fertilizer and pesticide application gave poor results. New pests and diseases appeared in many crops. By then the soil was saturated and destroyed by the over-application of fertilizers. All the beneficial bacteria in the soil were gone. All the beneficial insects similarly were destroyed by application of pesticides in excess. The already pathetic income of the farmer fell further. The small farmer could no more stand upright on his legs. The debt, the loans he took, bent his back. In an irony of their lifetime, a huge number of farmers began to commit suicide by consuming pesticides. It is as if the farmer is leaving an unwritten suicide note that tells how the chemical paradigm of farming destroyed his life.

© 2018 Deepa


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