When peasants take their own lives
Nirmal Sandhu

Farmers Suicide
by Meeta and Rajivlochan. Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration. Pages 263. Rs 495.

Farmers SuicideDriven by competition and profit, the media quite often loses balance and resorts to exaggeration, little realising the inherent dangers. One familiar instance is the recent "spate of suicides by farmers".

Sources of media reports are often of doubtful nature. Until recently no separate data have been maintained about farmers’ suicides. To quote from the book under review, "farmers constitute only 17% of the suicides reported in the country in one year".

Not just the inexperienced media staff, some researchers too have fortified the impression that indebtedness and poor returns from agriculture are forcing farmers to end their lives in desperation at a mass scale. The data on which research studies are based are usually unreliable and taken from police stations and media reports.

To ensure that such alarmist reports do not spoil their political prospects, those at the helm of affairs come out with quick-fix solutions like announcing packages, waiving interest/loans, raising institutional credit and providing free power.

Meeta and Rajivlochan’s book, analysing some of the existing studies on farmers’ suicides in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, goes beyond the familiar, exposes flawed research and debunks the tendency to offer "tangible and quantifiable" solutions to as complex a problem as "the epidemic of suicides".

The authors have questioned the conclusions of two studies—one carried out by a team of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences on the instructions of the Bombay High Court and the other by a researcher from the Mumbai-based Indira Gandh institute of Development Research. Broadly, both had blamed indebtedness for farmers’ suicides in Yavatmal district.

The authors—one an IAS officer currently posted in Pune and the other a history teacher at Panjab University, Chandigarh—did a lot of legwork in cross-checking some of the case studies cited in the studies. "In fact when we personally checked with more than a 10% sample of those who were interviewed in these two studies we discovered that these studies did not reveal significant information given by the families themselves that indicated that neither agricultural distress nor debt was responsible for the suicide". Those who distrust academic research should feel justified.

All this, however, should not give the impression that farmers’ suicides or agricultural slowdown is not a serious issue. Even a single suicide should make society and the government introspect and take corrective steps. Only each case should be honestly and rightly examined in the broad socio-economic context.

In an otherwise carefully argued book, the authors make a hurried, but significant observation—"the condition of the Indian farmer worsened with the beginning of liberalisation in the 1990s"—but do not substantiate it. It is a fact after the 1991 reforms unfolded, agricultural growth has decelerated, but whether government policies have contributed to the slowdown needs to be studied.

Agriculture still has not been exposed to competition from the developed world and cheap farm imports are restricted despite pressure from the EU and the USA at the WTO. In fact, economists like Jagdish Bhagwati feel the Indian farmer, like the Indian industrialist, can stand up to and benefit from competition.