Over the period of 12 years from 1997 to 2008, as many as 199,132 farmers committed suicide in India. This works out to an average of 16,594 farmer suicides per year during this period, or 45 farmers every day – one every half-hour. Furthermore, this number increased almost steadily from year to year. In 1997, 13,622 farmers committed suicide, in itself not an inconsiderable figure; but by 2008, the latest year for which data is available, the number had increased to 16,196 – a jump of nearly 19 percent from less than a decade earlier.(The latest figures available on farmer suicides are from 2008. If anything, this underestimates the actual magnitude of the problem for the simple reason that the definition of a farmer in these records is far too narrow, since only someone who owns and operates land is considered a farmer. Thus, a poor tenant who owns no land, operating only on leased land, would not be considered a farmer by this definition.)
With regard to the farmer suicides there were attempts to dismiss press reports as the product of fevered imaginations. These denials were short-lived, however, because the data brought out by the government’s own agencies soon clearly established the magnitude of the crisis. Once the volume of farmer suicides could no longer be denied, another set of denials cropped up. The reason why farmers commit suicide, it was claimed, has nothing to do with the agrarian crisis; in fact, it was suggested, most would have committed suicide anyway, due to problems with alcoholism, conspicuous spending on marriages or mental depression.Yet as long as a century ago, the well-known sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his classic study on suicides, demolished such single-cause explanations for suicide.
If there are farmer suicides, they are not due to an agrarian crisis; and if there is an agrarian crisis, it is not due to neoliberal reforms. However , all evidence though points to the strong relationship between this phenomenon and the farm crisis, which in turn is the product of neoliberal policies implemented by India starting in 1991.India’s severe agrarian crisis has largely been a consequence of a number of neoliberal policy measures.Sharp reductions in public investments in rural areas, for instance, led to stagnation in agriculture; the withdrawal of various support systems – in subsidised credit and inputs, in remunerative prices, etc – increased the cost of production and rendered the sector completely unviable for large sections of farmers. On top of this, prices received by farmers, particularly by those growing cash crops, collapsed due to trade liberalisation. Together, reductions in public expenditure in rural areas and stagnation in agricultural production resulted in a loss of gainful employment for large sections of poor farmers. In turn, the space that was vacated by the state in credit, trade, extension services and supply of inputs was taken up by commercial, often predatory, private interests which led to increased exploitation of farmers. A combination of all these factors resulted in the agrarian crisis that has debilitated a large section of farmers in India.
Things seem to be especially bad in the heartland states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where 122,822 farmer suicides took place between 1997 and 2008, thus accounting for 62 percent of the country’s total farmer suicides .This desperately poor, vulnerable part of the country has been called the farmers’ graveyard.It is due to a combination of factors: the region is highly vulnerable due to poor soil quality, high water stress, distress-induced and forced commercialisation and diversification of crops, etc. Due to its high vulnerability, the impact of economic reforms was particularly sharp; moreover, being a very poor, backward area, there was an almost complete absence of alternative livelihoods.
India has had an enviable tradition of farmer movements, with large-scale mobilisations taking place even as late as the 1980s. But today such movements seem to have dried up: large numbers of farmers seem to be taking their lives, rather than taking to the streets. And suicide is a cry of desperation, rather than a form of social protest. It is this aspect that is as disturbing as the epidemic of farmer suicides that is taking place today