When the Going Gets Tough: Farmer Suicides
Earlier this month, Lens – The NYT Photography Blog profiled Egyptian photojournalist Laura El-Tantawy’s ongoing project I’ll Die For You that explores the epidemic of farmer suicides in India. Her pursuit to visually capture the relationship between man and the land he cultivates is embedded in a much deeper and tragic narrative.
From Punjab to Andhra Pradesh, more than 250,000 farmers in rural India have committed suicide over the past decade. (This reported figure is said to be an underestimate since it doesn’t take into account women farmers, dalits, adivasis and tenant farmers who do not have land registered in their names). The suicides are situated within a perfect storm of crises with ecological, economic and social dimensions. The proximate cause of the suicides is rural poverty and extreme indebtedness but behind this lies a complex interaction of systemic factors, which have led to the current state of affairs. Many attribute the origins of India’s agrarian crisis to the economically and environmentally unsustainable practices of the Green Revolution that achieved relative success in boosting yields in certain crops but neglected to take into account issues such as land distribution and the long-term economic costs of an input-intensive agricultural model.
About half of all the suicides occur in the four states of India’s cotton belt. The link between cotton crop failure and suicides is not coincidental. In 1997, the Indian government lifted subsidies from cotton farming and widely introduced genetically modified seeds. While production improved with the use of these seeds, yield increased only when combined with expensive chemical fertilizers and irrigation practices. As small-scale farmers were unable to afford sufficient quantities of these expensive inputs, they found their holdings becoming progressively less profitable. Meanwhile, world cotton prices remained comparatively low even as input costs increased. Farmers in Maharashtra, specifically, have also had to cope with the removal of a government safety net that guaranteed them fixed cotton prices. Previously, the state of Maharashtra would purchase all cotton production at a price independent of world prices. However, mismanagement and financial losses led the state to open up cotton trade to private traders in 2003 and to discontinue the price guarantee. Farmer’s access to formal credit has also become more difficult. Crisis in the Indian rural credit market led state banks to tighten their lending requirements or even reducing their operations in rural areas. As a result, farmers had to resort to informal sources of credit such as village moneylenders who tend to charge exorbitant interest rates that are financially unsustainable for farmers.
Climate shocks have also played a vital role. In a recent conversation with a friend who has produced a documentary on climate issues in India it emerged that the issue is not about climate change but climate variance – the magnitude of which is difficult to predict. Erratic changes in weather patterns significantly impact the productivity of soil. If an exceptionally late monsoon causes water tables to fall, the farmer risks losing his entire source of income especially since conventional wisdom passed on through generations of oral traditions in farming families can no longer explain how to adapt to such climate shocks.
As I read through material on this topic, I wondered why the extent of this practice is specific to India? Low productivity, crop failure and climatic shocks plague farmers in other parts of the world as well but farmers adopt other coping mechanisms – not necessarily going the suicide route. This crisis is not indigenous to India – farmer suicides do take place in developed countries such as the US and UK as well as in other high-growth economies such as amongst tobacco farmers in Brazil, maize farmers in Eastern Kenya and women farmers in China. These cases have not been widely documented or analyzed in-depth (at least not to my knowledge) and they do not appear to be prevalent at the same scale as they are in India.
A partial explanation could be that cases in other countries may be under-reported, hence we lack access to much information regarding them. In India, the media has given this issue extensive coverage to the extent of even sensationalizing the issue including attracting the attention of popular film-makers.
Some questions for further exploration could be: is there existing gender-disaggregated data and analysis on farmer suicides that sheds light on whether women farmers are particularly vulnerable to reaching a tipping point? What is the economic and psychosocial impact of farmer suicides on the women, children and elderly parents they leave behind? What coping mechanisms do these households adopt in the face of severe economic hardship and outstanding debt?