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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 27

Indepth Study of Farmers’ Suicides, their Causes and Remedies

Wednesday 25 June 2008, by P R Dubhashi

BOOK REVIEW

Farmers’ Suicides—Facts and Possible Policy Interventions by Meeta and Rajivlochan; published by: Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration; first published 2006; first reprint 2007; pages 263; price: Rs 495.

One of the most disquieting development in the era of the neo-liberal policy in India has been widespread occurrence of farmers’ suicides in different parts of the country including not only the drought prone areas of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra but also a State of heavy rainfall like Kerala, as also a State like Punjab with large areas under irrigation. With the preoccupation of the Government with the rate of economic growth and promotion of the private sector in the secondary and tertiary sectors, that is, industrial and service sectors, the agricultural sector and the sector of rural development were neglected. The government did not wake up for many years to attend to this phenomenon. The Finance Minister was disturbed by the fall in the stock exchange and elated when the stock exchange rose. The Reserve Bank, forgetting its responsibility for the agricultural and rural sector, started concentrating on what it considered to be its legitimate concern, namely, monetary policy and sound banking, mainly measured in terms of profit and loss. It is estimated that more than one-and-a-half lakh farmers committed suicide. This is indeed a black mark on the economic performance of the government.

Even though the phenomenon of farmers’ suicides started assuming serious proportions, the then Chief Minister of Karnataka, S.M. Krishna, and the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, looked upon themselves as the CEOs of their States and found a sense of achievement in making Bangalore the Silicon Valley of India and Hyderabad, a cyber city. While they thought that this was the touchstone of their achievement, the rural voters suffering from drought rejected them and both lost power. In Maharashtra, the government neglected the phenomenon which was most striking in the Vidarbha area, until the High Court got seized of it and asked the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to study the subject. The Government of Maharashtra then woke up and asked the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development and Research to make a survey and submit its findings. The Planning Commission also sent a team at the instance of the Prime Minister to study the causes of farmers’ suicides and propose suitable measures and programmes. The State Government under pressure made some provisions and after the Prime Minister’s visit, the Central Government provided a financial package. Both these failed to stem the tide of farmers’ suicides, suggesting that the package was not based on a correct understanding of the causes of farmers’ suicides. As the general elections are drawing near, the Finance Minister, in his Budget speech, made a dramatic announcement of the write-off of loans of small and marginal farmers and made a provision of Rs 60,000 crores, later increased to Rs 71,000 crores, to enable the banks to write off the loans. This still leaves out the farmers’ debts to the private moneylenders, which are a substantial part of indebtedness. In the era of neo-liberalisation, since 1991, the nationalised banks started reducing their commitment below the prescribed 18 per cent, while the cooperative banks turned sick and failed to provide adequate credit. This forced the farmers to turn from institutional credit to the moneylenders, despite the usurious interest rates charged by them.

THE problem cannot be solved unless the causes of farmers’ suicides are properly pinpointed and comprehensive policies and programmes are formulated. This is what the book under review endeavours to do. It concentrates its research on the districts in the Vidarbha area, whose epicentre is the Yavatmal district. The study, based on a wealth of statistics and case studies, shows that farmers commit suicides because they are driven to do so by the desperate conditions in which they find themselves. These farmers belong to different caste groups and not only small and marginal farmers but even those owning larger holdings, which in the context of dry agriculture are not enough to enable the farmers’ families to eke out livelihood. The suicide of the breadwinner, whether young or old, leave the families desolate and disrupt the social order. The causes of farmers’ suicides are both economic and social. The economic causes are :
- (i) growing expenditure, specially on bought inputs
- (ii) low productivity
- (iii) inadequate prices of agriculture produce
- (iv) difficulties in marketing and marketing hazards
- (v) natural hazards caused by drought
- (vi) absence of proper crop planning
- (vii) unsatisfactory agriculture credit
- (viii) accumulated burden of debt

Amongst the social causes are :
- (i) the drinking habit which atrophies the productivity of the farmer
- (ii) extravagant expenditure on marriages
- (iii) bad health and illness and inability to meet the necessary expenditure on medicine and health services

The study rightly comes to the conclusion that unless all these causes are simultaneously dealt with the situation cannot improve. It requires large public investment in irrigation and rural infrastructure, rejuvenation of the cooperative credit, marketing and processing system, strengthening of the agricultural extension services and sympathetic administration working closely with the farming community.

Prof Dubhashi is a former Vice-Chancellor, Goa University, and an erstwhile Secretary, Government of India.

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