Five States did manage a significant decline in the average number of farm suicides between 2003 and 2010. However, more States have reported increases over the same period.

The television story was genuine and sensitive. At least 90 farmers, it said, had committed suicide in two months in Andhra Pradesh. These were cotton growers. Actually, last year, Andhra farmers killed themselves at the rate of 210 each month on average, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. But it is heartening that somebody took note of what's going on. The more so when dishonest bureaucrats feed gullible sections of the press awful crud on farm suicides being at ‘a 15-year low.' NCRB data show Andhra Pradesh has seen the second worst increase in farm suicides among all States (after Maharashtra) over the last eight years for which data exist.

However, five States did manage a significant decline in the average number of farm suicides each year between 2003 and 2010. Andhra Pradesh was not amongst them. Of those who did, only Karnataka is amongst the worst five States which account for nearly two-thirds of farm suicides in the country. On average, 2,259 farmers killed themselves each year in Karnataka between 1995 and 2002. In the next eight-year period, that figure was 2,123 — a fall of 136 in yearly average. But the fall is fragile, and the last two years 2009 and 2010 have seen the State's numbers rising again. And Karnataka remains the second worst State for farm suicides (in absolute numbers) after Maharashtra. It has seen 35,053 farmers kill themselves since 1995, according to the NCRB.

The NCRB data on farm suicides now cover 16 years. Let's divide that into two halves of eight years each. By comparing the first half (1995-2002) with the second (2003-10), we can figure out whether things are getting better or worse in the major States.

What qualifies as a significant decline? That's when a State's yearly average in the second eight years is at least 100 farm suicides less than in the first eight-year period. Tamil Nadu (-126) and Uttar Pradesh (-109) are two others in this bracket. But there's better. Kerala managed a drop of 221. And West Bengal pulled off the biggest decline among all States. Its 2003-10 average is 436 lower than its figure for 1995-2002.

Except Karnataka, all the Big 5 States show terrible upward spikes in their 2003-10 annual averages. The yearly average of farm suicides in Andhra Pradesh in this period was 711 higher than it was in 1995-02. In Maharashtra, the figure was 1,294 higher. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were one composite State for six of the 16 years and what has happened in that region is best understood by still treating them as one unit in terms of data. They show a rise of 525 in the second eight years.

But comparing the two eight-year periods doesn't work for the smallest States with very few farm suicides. For instance, Manipur's average for 1995-2002 was one farm suicide. It was two during 2003-10, a massive ‘increase' in percentage terms — and quite meaningless. However, among small States that have seen farm suicides, Tripura brought down its annual average by 90 in the second half, a drop of 78 per cent.

The decline Kerala has managed (-221) is in many ways the most significant one. Kerala is perhaps India's most globalised economy. Its agriculture is hugely cash crop-based and fragile at the best of times. Cash crop prices are highly volatile, and often rigged by powerful corporations at the global level. This makes Kerala more vulnerable to price shocks than any other State in India. In the early years of the last decade, for instance, vanilla fetched Kerala farmers prices of up to Rs. 4,000 a kilogram. It then crashed to under Rs. 80 a kg or less (where it remains), wrecking farmers who had invested huge amounts of (borrowed) money in its cultivation. Most plunged into debt, several committed suicide in despair.

Price shocks have also hit Kerala in coffee, pepper, and other cash crops into which the State is deeply locked. The price of coffee, for instance, is controlled by about four major global corporations. These companies always seek to drive down the share of the original producers to boost their own profits. They will do that even more strongly as economic problems mount in Europe — to where much of our coffee is exported. Across India, suicides amongst cash crop farmers are far higher than those amongst food crop growers. Cash crop farmers run far greater risks, incur much higher cultivation costs, and have to borrow a lot more money than their food crop-growing counterparts.

So that drop of 221 in Kerala's yearly farm suicide average is remarkable and came against the odds. The period from 2008 to 2010 was better for that State than any other in the entire 16 years for which data are available. Kerala set up a debt relief tribunal in 2005, raised support to the farm sector and took other steps to mitigate distress. Even its troubled food crop sector received a boost. Between 2005 and 2010, Kerala doubled the support price for paddy from Rs. 700 to Rs.1,400. Yet, the State will take a worse hit than any other due to the multiple free trade agreements the Union government has signed or will enter. And reports of rising farm suicides again in the cash-crop citadel of Wayanad signal which way Kerala is now headed.

West Bengal's (-436) drop in farm suicide yearly averages is perhaps best understood in comparison with Maharashtra. Bengal has a smaller population (91 million) than Maharashtra (112 million), but is a more rural State and has many more farmers. Yet, the annual averages are starkly different. During 2003-10, almost four times as many farmers (3,802) killed themselves each year in Maharashtra. In West Bengal that figure was 990. Though Bengal has its own sharp concentrations of cash crop, it produces more food crop than Maharashtra and has been the country's largest producer of rice for some years. In the latter, cash crops continue to overwhelm food crop. In 2010-11, as Maharashtra's Chief Minister informed his colleagues at a kharif review meeting earlier this year, the area under cereals and pulses dropped further by about 3.7 million acres. (BusinessLine May 28, 2011). West Bengal had, in fact, begun procuring grain through the panchayats (a scheme derailed by the Centre) and pushed other measures to promote rice and vegetable cultivation.

Overall, 15 of 28 States showed worse averages in the second eight years. Across the entire 16 years from 1995-2010, more than a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide.

More In: Sainath | Columns | Lead | Opinion