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The truth about farmer suicides in Chhattisgarh

By Shubhranshu Choudhary

A group of citizen journalists in Chhattisgarh is finding out why four farmers in the state are committing suicide every day, and why the government continues to deny this. They found that in a single district, Durg, 11 farmers had committed suicide due to debt, while 52 labourers took their lives for “economic reasons”

Why does India need a bunch of city-dwelling computerwallahs to discover that farmers in its villages are committing suicide in alarmingly high numbers? Does it tell us something about the health of our other institutions as well?

The journey that led to this discovery started at a Dream Chhattisgarh meet in December 2007. The Dream Chhattisgarh meet is an annual event of the Internet-based citizen’s journalism group CGnet.

Generally, people connected to the Internet are city-dwellers with limited understanding of the world of farming. This is true for most members of our group too.

To dream of a better future for Chhattisgarh it is important to understand the issues surrounding the profession that sustains 80% of the state’s population.

And so, at Dream Chhattisgarh meets, the first session is usually on agriculture; last year, farmers and agricultural experts were invited to inaugurate the meet at Champaran.

No, this is not the Champaran of indigo farmers where Gandhi experimented with his first satyagraha in India in 1917 (though it is a coincidence that the indigo farmers of Champaran, Bihar, were from the Kurmi caste and many farmers in Chhattisgarh’s Champaran too are Kurmis).

This Champaran is a village in Chhattisgarh, around 60 km from the state capital Raipur.

Chhattisgarh is not Vidarbha

At the meet, farmers described their pathetic condition to CGnet members. “The situation of the farmer is so bad today that a labourer working for me can eat a cauliflower,” one of them said, “but I must be satisfied with the stubs that we earlier used to feed to the animals.”

The issue of farmer suicides also came up.

We wanted to invite a specialist from Vidarbha to speak about what Chhattisgarh could learn from Vidarbha about farmer distress, and, perhaps, avoid making the same mistakes. But no one was able to join us from Vidarbha.

During the discussion, experts told us that they had never heard of any farmer suicides in Chhattisgarh. They had read a few news items on farmer suicides in Madhya Pradesh and how that state was amongst the top five states with respect to this issue. The figures for Madhya Pradesh included Chhattisgarh.

Participants also discussed an article by P Sainath, published a few weeks before the meet. The article referred to a study by Professor K Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies which states that over 2,000 farmers commit suicide in Madhya Pradesh (including Chhattisgarh) every year.

The meet concluded that most of these suicides were probably happening in the cash crop areas of Madhya Pradesh, as we had never heard of any farmer suicides in Chhattisgarh.

The agriculture sub-committee of CGnet decided to explore the matter further.

The investigation begins

A Google search with the words “farmer suicide” and “Chhattisgarh” yielded the same P Sainath article discussed at the meet which gives the farmer suicide figures for Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh jointly.

Was there no separate data on farmer suicides in Chhattisgarh, I wondered.

A call to Professor Nagaraj revealed that the data was indeed available and could be obtained from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

Nagaraj said: “There was no Chhattisgarh when I started the study in 1997. And after 2000, when the data for the three new states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand were made available, I simply added them to the parent states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for my convenience.”

So, were the figures for Chhattisgarh never investigated on their own?

A visit to the NCRB showed that, contrary to our assumption at the Dream Chhattisgarh meet, out of the 2,000-odd farmers who had committed suicide in undivided Madhya Pradesh, more than 1,200 were from Chhattisgarh!

The next week, I expressed my shock over this revelation in my weekly column in a local Chhattisgarh newspaper: ‘Four farmers commit suicide in Chhattisgarh every day, says the NCRB. Are the figures fudged?’

The next morning there was an article on the front page of the same paper ridiculing the figures. ‘Everybody loves a good fraud: The untruth of farmer suicide figures in Chhattisgarh’ was the title of the piece.

The article claimed that a survey done by the author had come across only six cases of farmer suicide in the state from the year 2000, when Chhattisgarh was formed. The author observed that many farmers had committed suicide but that the cause had nothing to do with livelihood.

Laughing at these claims, P Sainath told us: “If one farmer is committing suicide annually in Chhattisgarh, then the state must be a heaven! I would advise farmers from the US and Europe to shift to Chhattisgarh.”

More articles debating the issue followed.

The arguments presented claimed that Chhattisgarh was not Vidarbha. Farmers did not grow cash crops here; paddy does not need that much investment. So, farmers were committing suicide for non-farming reasons.

Jacob Nellithanam, who has been working with farmers for a number of years, contradicts this argument by saying: “Paddy is a cash crop for the farmers of Chhattisgarh.”

Meanwhile, the police chief of Chhattisgarh told the local press that the figures quoted were bogus and asked for proof.

The National Crime Records Bureau in Delhi responded: “If the figures are bogus then please ask the government of Chhattisgarh why they are sending bogus figures. We do not have any offices in the state; we publish what we get from the State Crime Records Bureaus.”

Why are farmers so prone to suicide?

I found the figures too disturbing to let go of the matter.

Professor Nagaraj had gone as far as to say that, according to his study, police records show only landowners as farmers. In reality therefore the number of farmers committing suicide would be greater than that reflected in the data.

The number of landowning farmers in Chhattisgarh, according to the economic survey of 2008, is 32.55 lakhs, which is a little less than 15% of the state’s total population. But farmers constitute 32.2% of the total number of suicides in Chhattisgarh.

What is it about a farmer’s livelihood that makes him twice as vulnerable to suicide as any other profession?

CGnet decided to investigate some cases on the ground.

The three cases we picked up from the local newspapers had not been recorded as farmer suicide cases in the police records. But all were directly linked to farming distress.

Highest rate of farmer suicides

Dr Yuvraj Gajpal, a CGnet member and post-doctoral student in Canada, calculated the farmer suicide rate per 100,000 population for the states and found, to his astonishment, that Chhattisgarh tops the list every year!

Around 6.49 farmers committed suicide in Chhattisgarh per 100,000 population in 2006. Maharashtra is a distant second, with 4.28, and Kerala third with 3.37. After that comes Andhra Pradesh, with 3.24, and Karnataka with 2.57.

Dr Gajpal wrote an article asking why farmer suicides in Chhattisgarh were not getting the attention they deserved, despite the fact that the state has more farmer suicide deaths per 100,000 population than the four states that have received so much attention on the matter.

We linked up with Professor Srijit Mishra of the Mumbai-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research who has been asking the same question in his research papers for years.

Unlike Nagaraj and Gajpal, Mishra calculates the number of farmer suicides per 100,000 male farmers; he calls it ‘suicide mortality rate’.

Mishra wrote: “Whichever way you calculate, Chhattisgarh remains in the top five states as far as farmer suicides is concerned. But it is puzzling why neither the media nor the politicians have taken note of it.”

These articles managed to convince some leaders of the opposition Congress to raise the issue in the Vidhan Sabha.

The chief minister replied: “I have checked with all the collectors. No farmer has committed suicide in Chhattisgarh due to debt. Not the issue but the people writing about it need to be investigated.”

Discussing agriculture is a dangerous business

These threatening words were just the start of the suppression of the right to know the truth.

Applications under the Right to Information Act with the police yielded no results. Instead, I began receiving calls to “stop politicking in the name of journalism”. And my column was stopped on charges of writing “lies”, though it was unclear how the editor suddenly discovered they were “lies” after two years of carrying my articles every week!

It only strengthened my resolve to get to the bottom of the matter.

We started working like detectives; a simple story was turning out to be a crash course in investigative journalism.

Finally, through a circuitous route, we managed to get some figures from the State Crime Records Bureau.

The figures tell us that farmer suicides are concentrated in the paddy-growing districts of central Chhattisgarh; the tribal districts of the north and south have less than half the number of farmer suicides compared to the central region.

Was additional income from the forests saving farmers in the tribal region?

Districts with a higher suicide rate were the same as districts with the greatest fertiliser use. Is there a connection?

We realised that much of the resistance to our investigation centred around the argument that linked our claims directly to Vidarbha and farmer suicides resulting out of large loans taken for cash crops. Since the farmer in Chhattisgarh had no large loans, he was not committing suicide!

We were in fact not claiming that the situation in Chhattisgarh was the same as in Vidarbha; we were only asking for deeper investigation. Our request was being buried in irrelevant arguments.

Farming: a loss-making business

Our understanding of the seriousness of the issue is based on our exchange with a paddy farmer in Chhattisgarh who said: “Economic deterioration is being measured against incomes. A farmer growing paddy in Chhattisgarh has hardly any income these days. Agriculture is a loss-making business and is being sustained by the sale of assets!”

Farm scientist Sanket Thakur explains: “If you calculate the cost of labour at a minimum wage, then the production cost of paddy should be at least double the current support price.”

In most areas of Chhattisgarh, the wage rate is around Rs 30 per day. That is how the farmer saves some money. But with growing input costs, profits drop every year.

In places closer to cities, where one pays Rs 80 in labour costs, farmers make huge losses and survive only by selling bits of their land every year.

“This continuously decreasing income creates a feeling of hopelessness,” Thakur says. “Many times, this translates to suicide. You may find random immediate causes for a farmer’s suicide, but if you explore deeper, most of the time it is farming distress which is the main cause.”

Who is lying, the CM or police records?

Meanwhile, a CGnet member was busy collecting the police records for 24 thanas in the district of Durg. We were shocked to find 11 cases of farmer suicide on this small list. The cause of suicide was “debt”. Against the backdrop of the chief minister’s statement that no farmer in Chhattisgarh was committing suicide due to debt, we had expected the police records to match this claim.

It may be noted here that:

  • Durg is not the district with the highest number of suicides in the state.
  • The list available with us for Durg district is not complete.
  • The figures available are for 2004 only although the state has been in existence since 2000.

If this sample were extrapolated to the entire district, the figures for farmer suicides due to economic reasons would be higher.

Apart from the 11 farmers who committed suicide due to debt there are 21 cases on the list where cause of death has been listed as “economic reasons”.

The list also has the names of 52 labourers who committed suicide due to “economic reasons”. And, six labourers who committed suicide due to debt. It is indeed likely that, in rural areas, labourers are farm labourers who have taken land on lease from rich farmers; this is a common practice in Chhattisgarh. Many of the causes on this list are ambiguous and need to be examined by a competent agency. Mental and physical illness, tension, fights -– all could be linked to farm distress, says Sanket Thakur. Then there is the glaringly large number of cases where the cause has been listed as “unknown”.

We are trying to collect similar data for other districts too. We understand that suicide is a complex issue, possibly beyond the analytical capabilities of a citizen journalism investigative team.

In search of Gandhi

The 1916 Lucknow session of the Indian National Congress passed a resolution demanding the appointment of a committee by the British government to enquire into the agrarian crisis in Champaran. But the Congress in Chhattisgarh is satisfied with a statement from the chief minister saying that “no farmer has committed suicide due to debt”.

After the Lucknow Congress, Gandhi went to Champaran to lead the first satyagraha in India that resulted in the formation of the Frank Shy Committee to investigate the crisis. Gandhi was a member of that committee. The recommendation of the Shy Committee resulted in the passing of the Champaran Agrarian Law of 1918.

History tells us that what started in Champaran in Bihar resulted in India getting independence.

Will what’s happening in Champaran in Chhattisgarh lead to a better life for the Chhattisgarhi farmer?

(Shubhranshu Choudhary is a founder-member of the Citizens Journalism initiative in Chhattisgarh, CGnet [])

InfoChange News & Features, January 2009