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Updated: June 7, 2011 00:28 IST

Why do farmers commit suicide?

A. Narayanamoorthy
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AGRARIAN CRISIS AND FARMER SUICIDES: Edited by R.S. Deshpande and Saroj Arora; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B 1/I, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 895.
AGRARIAN CRISIS AND FARMER SUICIDES: Edited by R.S. Deshpande and Saroj Arora; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B 1/I, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 895.

Indian agriculture has been going through a serious crisis since 1990s, driving farmers to the point of ending their lives — the number of such cases is disturbingly high. What could be the factors responsible for it — poor returns, indebtedness, increased cultivation cost, inadequate institutional credit, imperfect market condition, or any other? This volume discusses these issues comprehensively.

Burning issues

There are, in all, 19 articles, including the ‘introduction' and the one where the editors spell out the ‘way forward', as they see it. Apart from providing a synoptic account of the essays that follow, the introductory piece sharply brings out the burning issues affecting Indian agriculture. While some of the essays are State-specific, some others analyse the agrarian structures, globalisation-linked issues, and agricultural indebtedness. The behavioural and other dimensions of the crisis are also examined.

There are three essays dealing with the changing agrarian structures and their impact on agrarian crisis. In his essay on “contextualizing the agrarian suicides”, A.R. Vasavi blames the crisis on the green revolution, a line of argument that seems to be far off the mark. Modern farm practices have been in vogue for over four decades now, but there have been no cases of farmer suicides until early 1990s.

Agrarian crisis showed up in mid-1990s, closely following the introduction of economic reforms. Deshpande and Shah, who have clearly brought out the various issues that arose from globalisation, do not take a definitive stand on the role of globalisation in triggering the agrarian crisis. In Sidhu's opinion, the root cause for the crisis lay within the economy, not in any external factor. This seems to be the correct assessment, given that crop cultivation yielded low financial returns even in the pre-globalisation period.

While the agrarian crisis has been fairly widespread in the country, the phenomenon of ‘farmer suicide' figured mostly in Punjab, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Essays based on the situation in Andhra Pradesh identified increasing dependence on commercial crops, reliance on cost-intensive groundwater irrigation and informal credit, and price volatility as the major causes for the farmers' distress.

There is a general perception that farmers in Punjab are affluent. Statistics given in the three Punjab-specific papers hardly support it. They essentially argue that the increase in cultivation cost and the decline in net income are the main causes for the farming community's distress. The story of Karnataka farmers seems to be no different. The plight of cotton cultivators in the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra — the State where the incidence of farmer suicides has been rather high — is highlighted in another essay.

A section of the policymakers seem to believe that farmer suicides can be averted by stepping up the supply of institutional credit. Some of the essays in this volume also reflect this line of thinking. There is no denying that adequate supply of institutional credit is necessary for sustainable farming. But that in itself is not sufficient for resolving the present crisis. In the absence of effective measures to make farming a profitable enterprise, any increase in the flow of credit will only plunge the farmers deeper into indebtedness and heighten their misery.

Options

Increased indebtedness is a consequence of the agrarian crisis, which is attributable mainly to the sharp decline in the profitability of farming. It follows, therefore, that no effort that seeks to address the question of indebtedness without tackling the crucial issue of profitability will yield the desired result of giving a boost to the farm sector.

In their paper on “way forward”, Deshpande and Saroj Arora, editors of the volume, discuss the pros and cons of various options and suggest what needs to be done for ending the present agrarian crisis. Overall, this well-edited and well-organised volume has plenty of material relating to agriculture in general and the agrarian crisis in particular. Researchers and policymakers are sure to find it immensely useful.

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