Neoliberal deaths

In India over the past decade, farmer suicides are linked to an agrarian crisis brought about by market reforms gone wrong.

That the agricultural sector in India is in the grips of a crisis is no longer denied even by the most ardent advocate of neoliberal policies. The economic reforms implemented from around the middle of 1991 have had far-reaching – and, mostly adverse – consequences for almost every aspect of socio-economic and cultural life in the country. The impact of these policies on the agrarian economy has been particularly severe, often with tragic consequences. For several years, though, this situation was hardly noticed, even by the critics of the neoliberal policies. It thus remained a 'silent crisis' until about the middle of the 1990s, when the news of large-scale farmer suicides was suddenly picked up and widely reported upon – at which point it became a major political issue.

Today, the agrarian crisis is no longer a 'silent crisis'. Yet the advocates of neoliberal policies remain in a state of denial with respect to the underlying causes. They would like the rest of the country to believe that there has not been enough market-oriented economic reform in agriculture – and that this is the reason for the poor state of the sector. In fact, this is a complete misrepresentation of what is taking place on Indian farms today. With regard to farmer suicides, too, initially there were attempts to dismiss press reports as the product of fevered imaginations. Such dismissals were certainly helped along by the fact that the sources that both the journalists and activists were depending upon were rather uncoordinated and sporadic in the initial phase of the suicide epidemic. These denials were short-lived, however, because the data brought out by the government's own agencies soon clearly established the magnitude of the crisis.

Once the volume of farmer suicides could no longer be denied, another set of denials cropped up. The reason why farmers commit suicide, it was claimed, has nothing to do with the agrarian crisis; in fact, it was suggested, most would have committed suicide anyway, due to problems with alcoholism, conspicuous spending on marriages or mental depression. Ultimately, such allegations were made to guard the 'sacrosanct' nature of neoliberal reforms: if there are farmer suicides, they are not due to an agrarian crisis; and if there is an agrarian crisis, it is not due to neoliberal reforms. Such arguments are cynical and outright dangerous. The data clearly points to the magnitude of the problem of farmer suicides – and all evidence points to the strong relationship between this phenomenon and the farm crisis, which in turn is the product of neoliberal policies implemented by India starting in 1991.

From the mid-1990s, official data from the National Crime Records Bureau (the NCRB, part of the Home Ministry) proved that, far from being products of fevered imaginations, large-scale farmer suicides were taking place in India during the period of liberalisation. The NCRB started publishing such data beginning in 1995, and information for all states is available from 1997 onwards, put together from police records. The latest figures available on farmer suicides are from 2008. If anything, this underestimates the actual magnitude of the problem for the simple reason that the definition of a farmer in these records is far too narrow, since only someone who owns and operates land is considered a farmer. Thus, a poor tenant who owns no land, operating only on leased land, would not be considered a farmer by this definition. Yet even these figures, underestimates though they are, paint a horrendous picture.

Over the period of 12 years from 1997 to 2008, as many as 199,132 farmers committed suicide in India. This works out to an average of 16,594 farmer suicides per year during this period, or 45 farmers every day – one every half-hour. Furthermore, this number increased almost steadily from year to year. In 1997, 13,622 farmers committed suicide, in itself not an inconsiderable figure; but by 2008, the latest year for which data is available, the number had increased to 16,196 – a jump of nearly 19 percent from less than a decade earlier. Noteworthy here is that, during this period of acute crisis in agriculture, more and more farmers had given up farming. So while the number of farmers was steadily declining during this period, the number of farmers who were committing suicides was undergoing a steady increase. For 2001, the suicide rate among farmers – defined as the number of suicides per 100,000 – was 15.8, nearly 50 percent higher than the suicide rate in the general population. In all probability, this rate has been increasing every year over the last decade.

While farmer suicides were reported during this 12-year period from all the states in India, the situation in certain parts of the country was particularly acute. Things seem to be especially bad in the heartland states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where 122,822 farmer suicides took place between 1997 and 2008, thus accounting for 62 percent of the country's total. Again, the number of farmer suicides in this area increased very rapidly over the 12-year period, from 7236 to 10,796. In addition, it appears that there is a contiguous sub-region within these five states where the problem is acute: the large, poor, semi-arid area consisting of Vidarbha in Maharashtra, the Deccan and Hyderabad region in Karnataka, Telangana and Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. This desperately poor, vulnerable part of the country has been called the farmers' graveyard.

Policy impetus
India's severe agrarian crisis has largely been a consequence of a number of neoliberal policy measures that the governments – both at the Centre and in the states – have instituted as part of economic reforms since 1991. Sharp reductions in public investments in rural areas, for instance, led to stagnation in agriculture; the withdrawal of various support systems – in subsidised credit and inputs, in remunerative prices, etc – increased the cost of production and rendered the sector completely unviable for large sections of farmers. On top of this, prices received by farmers, particularly by those growing cash crops, collapsed due to trade liberalisation. Together, reductions in public expenditure in rural areas and stagnation in agricultural production resulted in a loss of gainful employment for large sections of poor farmers. In turn, the space that was vacated by the state in credit, trade, extension services and supply of inputs was taken up by commercial, often predatory, private interests – typically from nearby urban centres – which led to increased exploitation of farmers. A combination of all these factors resulted in the agrarian crisis that has debilitated a large section of farmers in India.

Those who disclaim such a relationship often place the blame on alcoholism, profligacy and depression. Yet as long as a century ago, the well-known sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his classic study on suicides, demolished such single-cause explanations for suicide. Apart from the impossibility of identifying unique behavioural causes, Durkheim pointed out that suicides are essentially structural, social problems; and these behavioural 'causes', even if they can be identified, can only be the symptoms affected by these larger social, structural factors. It is such larger structural, social issues that we should look for as explanatory causes for the epidemic of suicides, rather than trying to blame the victims. And the fact that acute agrarian crisis has set in almost simultaneously with this epidemic of farmer suicides is far too strong a relationship to be overlooked.

Why has this problem been so significant in the few semi-arid areas noted earlier? It is due to a combination of factors: the region is highly vulnerable due to poor soil quality, high water stress, distress-induced and forced commercialisation and diversification of crops, etc. Due to its high vulnerability, the impact of economic reforms was particularly sharp; moreover, being a very poor, backward area, there was an almost complete absence of alternative livelihoods.

If farmer suicides are related to these larger structural, social factors, it stands to reason that sporadic, disjointed, single-point policy interventions to deal with the problem would be inadequate. This is not to dismiss the role of 'package measures' – like a combination of debt relief, remunerative prices, employment-guarantee schemes, etc – which, by providing a degree of relief and hope to farmers, can bring down the number of suicides at least in the short term. (Indeed, this already seems to have happened in Kerala.) But by themselves, these measures are not a substitute for a comprehensive policy intervention to both the pre-existing vulnerability on the one hand and the agrarian crisis on the other.

Instead, what is called for is a complete reorientation of India's agrarian policies. In the immediate context, this would mean giving up all neoliberal measures that have precipitated the crisis. But that would not mean reverting to earlier agrarian policies that, while giving rise to a number of new economic and ecological problems, had resulted only in sporadic, halting modernisation of the sector. One has to recognise that basic institutional transformations in the rural sector are a pre-condition if a socially equitable, ecologically sustainable process of modernisation is possible in the agricultural sector.

Such basic changes in state policies, and in society, rarely come about without pressure from mass movements of deprived sections of the population. India has had an enviable tradition of farmer movements, with large-scale mobilisations taking place even as late as the 1980s. But today such movements seem to have dried up: large numbers of farmers seem to be taking their lives, rather than taking to the streets. And suicide is a cry of desperation, rather than a form of social protest. It is this aspect that is as disturbing as the epidemic of farmer suicides that is taking place today – and understanding the reasons for this is as important as understanding the reasons for that epidemic itself.

~ K Nagaraj teaches at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai and was a professor of economics at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

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Himal Southasian