People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 52

December 25, 2011


Farmer Suicides: A Neo-liberal

State Induced Human Tragedy

Archana Prasad

IN his statement to the parliament in the Rajya Sabha, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar contested the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) claim that there were 15,964 farmer suicides in the country during 2010. He stated that these figures were exaggerated and that 16 out of the 26 state governments covered in the NCRB survey had given to him in writing that the number of ‘farmer suicides’ was indeed coming down. “Yes farmers were committing suicides, but they were not committing suicides because of agrarian distress”. The number of ‘actual farmer suicides’ reported by state governments to the minister of agriculture was reportedly 800 as against the recorded cases by NCRB. Due to this gap the Minister has suggested the constitution of a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) to visit these states and report on the ‘true facts’. While the suggestion was welcomed by most members, the debate once again highlighted the fact that both state and central governments were in a state of denial and were refusing to reverse the neoliberal public policies that were driving agrarian distress since the last two decades.




As reported by the minister, state governments are claiming that not all farmer suicides are due to ‘agrarian distress’. The reasons for farmer suicides “include indebtedness, crop failure, drought, social, economic and personal reasons”. Of these, crop failures and inability to pay back agricultural loans have been identified as ‘agrarian reasons’. The social reasons and indebtedness leading to penury and subsequently even suicides by women farmers who have lost their husbands are not counted as ‘deaths because of agrarian reasons’. In order to be eligible for compensation, a family has to prove that he/she had a title to land and was thus a ‘farmer’. Hence many suicides by women from farming families are considered as ‘suicides because of social and personal reasons’. Similarly, suicides by tenants and agricultural workers themselves are highly underestimated because state governments are unwilling to recognise them as farmer suicides. A typical case is that of suicides in Punjab, a state known for export oriented agriculture and contract farming. According to a study done by Punjab Agricultural University (2009) in the Sangrur and Bhatinda districts, agricultural labourers made up 39.2 per cent of these total suicides till 2008. Most of these suicides occurred due to debts. The average annual income of an agricultural labourer in 2008 was Rs 19,419. But the average debt owed is Rs 70,036. The average debt-income ratio  was thus Rs 3.6 for every one rupee earned by the labourer. Such suicides were not recognised by the Punjab government as ‘farmer’ suicides. Similarly, in Gujarat 6055 suicides of farmers were categorised as ‘accidental deaths’ and only 579 deaths were considered farmer suicides. Thus the minister stated that the Andhra Pradesh government has reported a declining trend where the recorded instances were only 188 in 2010 and 71 in 2011. However a census by the activists of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture revealed a starkly different picture. In the period between October 1 and November 22, 2011 alone, there were 157 suicides with 94 occurring in October and 63 occurring in November. In Madhya Pradesh too, the state government refuses to register suicides by farmers as being induced by agrarian distress. As the home minister of the state reported to the assembly as many as 5838 farmers ended their lives during the period from 2006 to 2010, with 89 farmers having committed suicides in the last two and half months. But only six of these were recorded as ‘farmers suicides’, once again hiding the real picture.




Such underestimation of farmers suicides is a deliberate attempt to hide the systemic failures that have been a result of export oriented agriculture and corporate led contract farming. The lack of control over agricultural markets, lack of remunerative prices, cut backs on subsidies and the failure to control the rising costs of agriculture have been identified as the dominant causes for the agrarian crisis. Imported external inputs and export oriented farming have also had long term consequences for the falling productivity of farms adding to these policy failures and threatening food security. Small and marginal farmers who have been forced to cultivate crops like cotton and soya due to contracts with large companies are largely dependent on the market for their own food. Hence the structural characteristics of agriculture in times of neo-liberalism are inducing and are responsible for the present crisis as pointed out by the Left parties in their interventions in the Rajya Sabha. On his part, the agriculture minister reminded the members of the steps that the government had taken to aid farmers. The UPA-I had provided a special package of Rs 3750 crore to the Vidharba farmers and announced a debt moratorium of Rs 40,000 crore and crop loans of Rs 46,000 crore to farmers in 2010-11. In addition the minister claimed that 10 crore Kisan Credit Cards are being provided to farmers and the interest rate on loans is being brought down to 4 per cent in the current year. But the character of the agrarian distress and its unimaginable human dimensions has not altered despite these measures.


As critics had pointed out such methods were highly inadequate to provide succour to the farmers and revive the agrarian economy and this is evident in the continuing spate of suicides. Thus in Vidarbha, 11 farmers committed suicide in the first ten days of this December month immediately after the chief minister announced a Rs 2000 crore relief package for farmers growing soya bean, paddy and cotton.  These farmers have been demanding a package of Rs 10,000 per hectare and had barely managed to get Rs 1000 per hectare under the current package. This inadequate relief was also inaccessible to many because of “technical reasons” leading to their suicides. Similarly in Chhattisgarh 20,000 farmers attending a mass rally on December 16, 2011 are reported to have threatened mass suicides if the state did not ensure remunerative prices for their crops, and in Mandya district of Karnataka 11 silk farmers committed suicides because of the sudden fall in the prices of raw silk. Hence, it is clear that opening up agrarian markets through corporate led agriculture has made farmers more vulnerable to losses and risks ultimately leading to their suicides.




With 2.56 lakh farmers committing suicides between 1995 and 2010, almost one third of the farming households are female headed. Farm widows bear the burden of repaying debts and also fending for their families. The death of a male farmer also starts a new cycle of indebtedness, with women farmers struggling to make ends meet. In the Sangrur district of Punjab the agricultural university survey noticed that in a number of cases, the widows of male farmers and agricultural labourers also committed suicides. About 50 such cases were reported where women committed suicide owing to debt after their husbands’ death. In many cases the children of these families are also forced to work. Many farm widows are unaware of the relief and compensation packages or the way in which they can access them as reported by a fact finding report of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. Thus, Allam Sattemma, a 35-year-old farmer from Perkalaguda, a small hamlet near Utnoor in Adilabad district of AP, states that no government official approached her for relief after her husband committed suicide. Other farm widows of the region were forced into daily wage labour due to lack of water and credit for maintaining their farms. In Vidarbha, Chandrakala, a farmer, spends 11 hours tilling her 5 acre land, sometimes even working as a contract labourer to repay the Rs1 lakh loan taken by her late husband who hanged himself in 2006 because of the debt. She did not receive any help from the government. Given this situation, there is an urgent need to provide special assistance to rehabilitate these farm widows and to ensure that their families have access to basic social services and infrastructure.


While the democratic women’s movement has been demanding a special package for such women farmers, other aspects of their lives also need to be focused upon. For example in Sangrur and Bhatinda (Punjab) widows of agricultural labourers and farmers married their daughters off in mass marriages as they could not afford to support their daughters any more. Similarly child labour had become common in these districts since the agrarian crisis. Four per cent of the attached labour in farms was children and 37 per cent of the labourers were between 14-20 years old. Further, widows of agricultural labourers had locked up their houses and migrated for work as they could not make their ends meet within the village.


Thus the unfolding impact of the agrarian crisis is reflected not only in terms of the rising intensity of farmer suicides but also in terms of its larger human and social implications. Given this situation, any proposed JPC on the issue of farmer suicides should not merely focus on the revival of agriculture, but also on the plight of the affected families. Democratic forces should intensify their efforts to organise united struggles of agricultural labourers, marginal and small farmers in order to force a reversal of neo-liberal policies and promote a sustainable model of agriculture that will reduce their risk and protect their interests. Further, the condition of the affected families and farm widows needs to find an important place in any discussion of the agrarian crisis. The fight for their right to adequate compensation and a comprehensive rehabilitation package needs to be intensified.