We know from a quick glance at this map that the issue of farmer suicide in Karnataka is widespread and current. With some geographical knowledge, we also know the situation is worse in Mandya, Haveri, Tumakuru, and Mysuru. However, we are left with more unknown than known, and more questions than answers. Let’s put the data into perspective and understand the why.
Tenuous data, robust trend
First, it is important to remember that demographic data is not just numbers. It represents real people — individuals with hopes and dreams, families, and personal stories. The national suicide rate in India is 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people, which equates to more than 130,000 suicides per year. The 5,650 recorded farmer suicides in India in 2014 account for 4.3% of this total. In Karnataka, the 2014 suicide rate was higher: 17.8 suicides per 100,000 people. This is 10,945 total recorded suicides in the state during 2014; farmer suicides account for only 321 of these.
In 2015, farmer suicides in Karnataka increased from 321 to over 600, according to independent policy and trade analyst Devinder Sharma.
The surge in farmer suicides in Karnataka is drawing attention, but the plight of farmers might be even more grim. Mortality data is known for its low quality, and suicide statistics are especially poor due to underreporting or misclassification. A change in data collection methodology by Indian police starting in 2014 adds to the confusion.
Rural reporter P. Sainath brought light to the data discrepancy that minimizes the prevalence of farmer suicides. Beginning in 2014, suicides by people in the agricultural sector are split across more categories. Data is usually disaggregated in order to collect more detailed information, but this change is misleading. The new methodology shows a reduction in farmer suicides from 2013 to 2014 because it divides the total across several categories. A farmer might be categorized as a daily wage earner, an agricultural laborer, a farmer, or as “other” in the new format. While government agents might try to shine a positive light on falling farmer suicide numbers, there has been a 245% increase in suicides by “others”. Recent estimates by Devinder Sharma and others will be higher than the above rates from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) because their estimates are aggregated.
Why do farmers commit suicide in Karnataka?
Understanding a problem is the first step towards a solution. An issue as complex and sensitive as suicide requires an investigation into the non-proximate causes. What economic, socio-cultural, and personal factors are fueling this public health crisis? The Karnataka government cites debt as the main cause of recent farmer suicides. This is consistent with case-by-case media reports and representative of farmer suicides across India. The NCRB provides data on the reasons for farmer suicides at the national level, listing indebtedness (20%) and family issues (20%) as the top two causes for farmer suicides in 2014. Farming issues (17%), illness (13%), and other (15%) followed. Unfortunately, these categories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, each reason almost certainly overlaps with another reason.
Someone with debt or illness will likely have farming issues. Debt or farming issues will likely strain relationships and cause family issues. Our lives are not compartmentalized so simply, and suicide is rarely attributed to one thing.
What causes farmer indebtedness? At a basic micro-economic level, farmers spend more money than they make. Devinder Sharma explains that the net return for many crops, including bajra, ragi, and sunflower, is in the negative and even the most profitable crops do not provide a living wage. Using data from the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices on Karnataka, Sharma explains that commercial crop sugarcane yields only Rs 86,150 per hectare annually (Rs. 7,180 per month). This estimate gives Karnataka sugarcane growers the highest margins per hectare, due to variations in input costs by state. The average land holdings in Karnataka is also slightly higher than the national average of 1.16 hectares, providing a further advantage to income (based on 2010-11 data from the National Bank for Agriculture and Development).
However, these optimistic estimates by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices are three-year projections, not reality. Desperation forces farmers to take high-interest loans and to sell their products below the government set minimum support price. Frontline explains of farmers in Karnataka, “Cotton growers were forced to sell their produce to the seed dealer who also doubled as the dealer of all inputs as well as the source of credit.” Adding to this, delayed payments bring hardship to farmers. In speculation of why no government agency took swift action to combat the crisis in Karnataka, journalist BY V. Sridhar alleged, “Perhaps that has to do with the fact that several Ministers in the Siddaramaiah Cabinet and several BJP MLAs (and former Ministers) own the sugar mills that not only have brazenly delayed this year’s cane-crushing season but also owe several thousand crore rupees in arrears to farmers.”
The sugarcane crisis might explain the flux in suicides in Mandya, but farmers of a variety of crops — including banana, coconut, tobacco, cotton, pomegranate, potato, ginger, ragi, and vegetables — also committed suicide. Farmers’ precarious financial situation in Karnataka typifies Indian farmers’ volatile incomes, which average Rs. 6,426 per month.
Mental health and suicide
The WHO concludes that “Suicide results from many complex sociocultural factors and is more likely to occur particularly during periods of socioeconomic, family and individual crisis situations (e.g. loss of a loved one, employment, honor).” Farmer suicide data in India supports this. However, the WHO also states that more than 90% of all suicide cases are associated with mental health disorders. Here there is a disparity in data. Only 5.4% of suicides are attributed to mental health in India. A discussion of suicides in Karnataka or in India at large would be incomplete without addressing this inconsistency.
While farmers undoubtedly deserve a profitable and fair economic playing field, it is futile to believe that eliminating indebtedness will also eliminate farmer suicides.
Students account for 6.1% of suicide victims in India, which is more than the official count for farmers. A culture of shame surrounding poor academic performance and indebtedness alters rational thought and leads to extreme behavior. Indian’s notoriously low acceptance of the legitimacy of mental illness and poor accessibility to mental health services prevents the treatment and education to manage these issues. Without professional, family, and community support to manage feelings of despondency, such drastic escalations will continue.
Mental health education and treatment should be at the forefront of farmer suicide conversations rather than the periphery. The focus on eliminating debt to prevent suicides is convenient because advocates believe it will solve an economic problem and a public health issue. Although a multi-angled approach is not as easy, it is necessary. Farmers need drastic assistance in both areas.
Preventing farmer suicides
Indian farmers have everything going against them: rising input costs, high interest rates, indebtedness, erratic weather, climate change, falling crop prices, open markets, subsidized competition, a culture of honor, asymmetric information, middle men, delayed payments, and more. The current economic system robs farmers of their autonomy and freedom to build a better life. The game is rigged so that farmers lose and lose again. Insult and injury worsen over time damaging farmers’ psyche, relationships, and quality of life. No cognitive training, counseling, or support exists to help manage the load. It is easy for the secure and mentally stable to question what logic can lead to suicide, but we have not experienced such tolls on our physical and mental health. We do not know a life playing on the losing side of a fraudulent and pre-determined game.
Some people say that if farming is unprofitable, it will be a natural push for people to stop farming and pursue a profession more beneficial to the economy. While some farmers have found work in construction and others in urban areas, it isn’t easy to transition out of farming to an economically viable profession because of a lack of opportunities. As long as world markets and governments artificially lower the cost of food, farmers will bear the cost of the subsidy.
Bearing witness to a rigged game feels cruel and uncomfortable, which is why farmer suicides in Karnataka or elsewhere in India go largely undetected by city dwellers. Customers make their grocery selections without giving thought to the farmer who harvested the grains and produce. Whether the farmer carries debt and considers suicide is not in the mind of the consumer trying to make ends meet for his own family.
Government schemes are in place to provide aid to qualifying widows who inherit debt, but this does nothing to prevent suicides. Comprehensive government policies need to be in place to adjust farmer income and food prices in order to make farming profitable. States should also organize to provide better education and support for farming families, and consumers must be aware of the power of their purchasing choices.