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644 farmer suicides in Maharashtra since 2001, says TISS report

A comprehensive socio-economic investigation into the issue of farmer suicides in Maharashtra by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences finds that while the victims hailed from diverse class, caste and income categories, the reasons for their poverty and indebtedness were remarkably similar

A new survey on farmer suicides in Maharashtra by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai has come up with a far greater estimate of farm deaths in the state than previously cited, either by the state government or by media reports. The survey found that 644 farmers committed suicide in Vidarbha, Marathwada and Khandesh regions of the state between January 2001 and December 2004. Worse, only 20% of the suicide victims' families received any compensation from the Maharashtra government. The TISS survey has cited government apathy, the absence of a safety net for farmers, and lack of access to information related to agriculture as the chief causes for the desperate condition of farmers in the state.

Widely regarded as the most comprehensive survey on farmer suicides (it relied on both primary and secondary data), the survey focussed largely on socio-economic variables such as family composition, education, history of agriculture, cropping pattern, landholding, input costs incurred, expected output, holding capacity, history of loans taken by the head of the household and causes for taking the loans, mental state of the person, addictions, and any other information the family wished to share.

Acting on a public interest petition filed by the All India Biodynamic and Organic Farming Association, in December 2004, the Bombay High Court requested the TISS to submit a report on possible causes for the suicides.

A team from the TISS's rural campus in Tuljapur, Osmanabad district, spent eight weeks in 12 districts in the three regions of the state reported to have witnessed the largest number of suicides in early 2005. It investigated 36 of the 644 cases of suicide, studying their causes and the reasons for the desperate state of farmers. The TISS submitted its findings to the high court in March 2005.

"Just getting the total number of deaths that have occurred in the past few years was a tedious task. We arrived at the final number of 644 after extensive cross-checking in the field," says Ajay Dandekar, who led the survey team. The government did not have all the figures, and the data it had seemed far too conservative. The team's correspondence with district collectors asking for figures and details of deaths was either met with silence or, as in the two cases where it did receive some information, proved wrong on cross-checking, Dandekar adds.

Key findings of the TISS survey:

  • The suicides are not restricted to income level or landholding category. They occurred both among large landholding owners and the landless, and across all caste groups.
  • The causes, however, are common -- repeated crop failure, inability to meet the rising cost of cultivation, and indebtedness. In all cases, this extreme step was taken only after all avenues were exhausted.
  • Understanding the profile of the victims in their social and economic contexts can help gauge the depth and spread of the tragic phenomenon, says the report. Fifty per cent of the total sample constituted small landholders who owned up to five acres, 43% medium landholders who owned between five and 15 acres, and 5% large landholders who owned more than 15 acres. The remaining 2% did not own land. "The overwhelming numbers are reflected in the small and medium-sized holdings across caste groups. This is suggestive of a problem that is widespread, cutting across caste and class barriers," says the report.
  • Of the sample, 89% were married. This indicates the pressure to provide for a household. A startling 81% were literate, primarily because most of the people who committed suicide were men.
  • Seventy per cent of the total number of suicide victims grew cotton as their primary cash crop. The cost of cotton cultivation is between Rs 2,500 and Rs 3,000 an acre. Another 5% took up horticulture as the major occupation, while the remaining 20% cultivated tur, urad, soybean, jowar, vegetables and sugarcane. Once again, the data suggests that cultivators of all sorts of crops are affected.
  • The survey enumerates a host of interlinked reasons that put farmers in debt. Cost of cultivation of most crops has increased owing to higher input prices. Thus, the purchase of large quantities of inputs, and high cost of labour, has increased the demand for cash. The absence of a corresponding increase in the prices of produce affects the viability of farming. The complete mismatch between cost of production and low minimum support price and market price creates huge losses for the farmer.
  • Money is also required for social needs such as marriages and education. In some of the cases studied, the debts were as low as Rs 10,000. According to the report, the loans ranged from Rs 10,000 to Rs 3 lakh.
  • In a detailed break-up of the loans, which includes size of land held by farmers and their sources of funds, the report states: "The largest group of borrowers are the small and medium landholders. As most of the time the victims have run out of credit with the banks, the only other source of funds is private lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates as high as 5% per month. Some even pledge their crop to the moneylender. If it fails there is little recourse left."
  • According to the report, the private lending component, which includes borrowing from relatives, accounts for about 50% of the total lending. Primary agricultural credit cooperatives contribute 21% of loans, and commercial banks and land development banks together contribute 18%. The rest comes from a number of small sources. "This lends itself to an argument that the largest off-take of credit is still being met by private sources," says the report. Essentially, "the resultant debt trap is due to the inadequate credit supply to cultivators at affordable prices and due to the rising cost of production that cannot be met".

While discussing the links between farmer suicides and the larger economic scenario, the TISS report observes that heavy rural indebtedness is not a phenomenon that came about overnight but one that has its roots in the credit policy being followed by the country over time. With the decline in investment in agriculture, there is a direct shortfall in credit given to cultivators. This is clear from the Planning Commission's Tenth Plan documents -- total investment in the agricultural sector as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) declined from 1.6% in 1994 to 1.3% in 2001. Also, allocation to agriculture and allied sectors from the total outlay for the Five-Year Plans has fallen from 14.9% during the First Plan to 5.2% during the Tenth Plan.

Field data suggests that crops have failed repeatedly over the past four years. This was not entirely due to the failure of the monsoons. It occurred also because of a reduction in land productivity owing to overuse of fertilisers and pesticides, and the reliance on hybrid seeds and, to some extent, genetically modified seeds such as BT cotton. "Thus crop failure becomes a cyclical phenomenon and not a one-time occurrence," the report says.

Moreover, regions where suicides have occurred have little irrigation. Almost 60% of irrigation projects cater to western parts of Maharashtra that produce sugarcane and account for just 30% of the total area under agriculture in the state.

In its final recommendations to the high court, the report suggests that a compensation of Rs 2.5 lakh be given immediately to each of the bereaved families. It recommends the constitution of a committee comprising experts in the field, activists and government officials to distribute the funds.

Since the investigations revealed that the suicides were not properly recorded and investigated by the government, the report suggests that a team put together a list of the deaths. It requests the court to direct government insurance agencies to create an insurance safety net assuring a minimum life support system to cultivators.

The report asks the court to instruct the state to provide information about cultivation to farmers through e-networks. It says the government must be told to propagate alternative low-cost organic farming in these areas through its agencies and voluntary organisations.

The report concludes: "Any relief is a short-term measure. Long-term measures should be the rehabilitation of a system, in this case the agrarian production system itself." Until the Indian government overhauls its agricultural policies, the situation will not improve, says the report. It suggests that the high court direct the central government to frame policies that encourage marginal and small farmers, as millions of them have no livelihood options outside the agricultural sector. These policies must support cultivation so that farmers stay out of the debt trap. The report recommends that the court make the Indian government party to the present suit so that it is forced to take cognisance of the magnitude of the problem.

InfoChange News and Features, August 2005