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Why Have Farmers in India Been Killing Themselves for 30 Years?

Updated on September 1, 2018
Deepa damodaran profile image

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

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The Suicides

As per the data provided by the Wikipedia, 300000 farmers in the country committed suicide during 1998 and 2018. It is the inability to pay back the debts availed from banks and private money lenders that have basically driven farmers to this plight. The National Crime Records Bureau of India, the government agency that records crime had no specific category for farmer suicides owing to debt till 2017 but 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, one has to start the 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 farm yard 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 the yields increased and this reform contributed to food self-sufficiency of the country. However a side result 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 no more enough to put the farmyard manure that he gets free of cost from his cows and farm trees as fertilizer to his crops. He/she (mostly he, in the patriarchal rural economy of India where men are the owners of most of the land) wanted more yields naturally, and quickly adopted chemical farming in a big way. So now the farmer has to buy chemical fertilizers and seeds.

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Side Effects of Chemical Farming: More Expense, More Uncertainty

The pest resistance and disease resistance of chemically grown and hybrid origin crops was low as compared to local seeds that are supported by organic, farm-produced fertilizer inputs. So the farmer was faced with a new problem- severe pest attack and diseases damaging his crop. The solution was to try chemical pesticides. Again that cost him money. Farming was really becoming a money-intensive affair.

Small Farmers Bear the Burden

Indian farmers mostly have small land holdings. Half a billion Indians are from small farmer families.[1] Of the total land holdings, 85% are small land holdings with an area of a maximum 2 hectares.[2] Naturally, the income from such small holdings is already low and when one has to invest more as initial cost of agriculture, availing loans become an 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 proper supply chain made things worse as middle men grabbed whatever profit there was in selling an agricultural produce. Indian farm lands 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 middle men, and of course the multinational corporations that sold the farmers seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However the banks and money lenders could not care if the farmer made profit or loss. They wanted their money back. The farmer realized he was 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.

Source

Fading of a Culture

When chemical farming became the norm, the farmers gradually lost their traditional organic and sustainable agricultural practices as 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 in huge quantities in their farms. They took the advice of only fertilizer and pesticide traders. The reach out and extension activities of government agriculture departments and universities to teach the farmers the right practices failed miserably. Farmers were dealing with substances they were totally unfamiliar with and they were not taught responsibly by the officials and the scientists who 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. Even chemical pesticide application began to give 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 decreased further. The small farmer could no more stand upright on his legs. The debt, the loans he took, bent his back. Farmers thus began to consume the chemical pesticides they had bought for their crops and die. It is an irony that a huge number of farmer suicides so far have been 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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    • Deepa damodaran profile imageAUTHOR

      Deepa 

      13 months ago from India

      Thank you Madan, Ashuthosh Joshi. My position is some where midway between you two.

    • emge profile image

      MG Singh 

      13 months ago from Singapore

      Basically because of flawed policy by Nehru. His stress on the industry with 5-year plans modeled on Russia was to be the bane of Indian agriculture. India never recovered from it.

    • AshutoshJoshi06 profile image

      Ashutosh Joshi 

      13 months ago from New Delhi, India

      I think it will be a never ending debate if we start discussing the merits and demerits. The fact is as we evolve and progress, there is really no going back. There are pros and cons to everything.

      My argument is the same, the farmers are sufferring because of government policies and also their own ignorance. Take an example of Bt cotton seeds, the Monsanto brain child. Introduced I guess over a decade back, good yields, pest protection, more money. Win win relationship and now it's reached an estranged phase with all three parties having griviences. May be the government is conniving with the corporate or may be not. But this is exactly where/how science is exploited and this is where we have regulatory policies which actually never get implemented. End result, first everybody is happy and then it becomes a slugfest as the corporations turn greedier.

      I appreciate your reponses and plz don't mind my blabbering :)

    • Deepa damodaran profile imageAUTHOR

      Deepa 

      13 months ago from India

      Thank you again for voicing your valuable thoughts. True, the farmers did not care about the ill effects of pesticides much, but when we say that, we sound as if they have an option to care. As I said, most of them are small, marginal farmers. Even after using all the fertilizers and pesticides, they are getting a yield that brings just an income for survival. And after all it was the responsibility of the government to teach the farmers about a new technology when it introduced and even imposed one upon the people. If not science, the scientists who are part of the government machinery cannot avoid blame. Did they take into consideration the social factors of our rural agrarian situation or were they mechanically implementing their science? Now plastic is creating a similar problem. The plastic waste from modern agricultural practices (green houses, drip irrigation, UV sheets, shade nets, mulching etc.) are left discarded in the farm and most farmers spend one labor day collecting and removing this garbage after they till the land. Even then it is not processed scientifically and the waste heaps are there everywhere. I want to make clear at this point, I am not against change or things we call modern. I am just pointing out there is a lack of foresight and long term vision from the side of science and governance. And the marginal sections of the society always pay the price. I am also not trying to prove you wrong, I agree with you on many points, but a debate is always good for clarity.

    • AshutoshJoshi06 profile image

      Ashutosh Joshi 

      13 months ago from New Delhi, India

      I understand the crux of your argument. My only point was that science cannot be the scapegoat here, while we've conviently been reaping benefits out of it. The real accountability lies with those that misuse it and that includes the farmers too.

      And while this would be deflecting from the topic but if everything was hunky dory, would the farmer have really cared about the health impacts of these pesticides/other chemicals on the end users. Probably not! Ultimately the aim is to make money and that's a fact none of us can deny. I am not gonna delve into the hoplessness of affairs in the country but ultimately it's the government that has the authority to implement as well as regulate this for everyone's benefit.

      Peace!

    • Deepa damodaran profile imageAUTHOR

      Deepa 

      13 months ago from India

      Hi, Ashuthosh Joshi, Thank you for your comment. I think it is a fact that the unscientific application of chemical farming added to the miseries of the farmers indeed along with the anti-farmer policies of the government. Or we would not be talking today about the failure of Punjab farmers and also about the cancer train that plies from Bhatinda to Bikaner. This article is part of a series I am writing. You will see I do not underplay what the governments that came and went, did to the farmers.

    • AshutoshJoshi06 profile image

      Ashutosh Joshi 

      13 months ago from New Delhi, India

      We can blame the modern agricultural practices but that would not only be unfair but also take the blame away from the government. It's the government apathy and poor policies that really fail the farmers. Every election is just a new false promise. Even the representatives of these farmers are government and/or corprate puppets. This is just a never ending scenario.

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