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May 6, 2015

Farmer suicides: A global phenomenon

Beyond the poverty and inequality debate, farmer suicides is a sensitive matter and needs to be analysed in much more detail.

Farmer suicides were back in the limelight after the recent suicide of Gajendra Singh, who was left penniless, after a rainstorm destroyed all his crops. Even though the main issue sidetracked into becoming a subject of political discourse, this incident served as a reminder of the risks associated with farming as an occupation. These risks are not only limited to India, as farmer suicide rates have become highest amongst all occupations across the world.

Agriculture

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), at least, 2,70,940 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1995. This occurred at an average of 46 farmer’s suicides a day. The matter is also becoming a global concern. In France, there is a farmer suicide every two days, in the United States of America (US) the rate of farmer suicide is just under two times that of suicide amongst the general population, and Australia reports one farmer suicide every four days. Broadly speaking, the causes of farmer suicide can be divided into three factors: the economic, social and the physical factors. Each of these has been explored below.

First the economic factors. Most farms are exposed to the volatility of commodity markets, the variability of weather patterns and the influence of respective government regulations. In the long term, the financialisation of commodity market in hedging the risk and in price discovery may be the solution. However, in the short term, it leads to the prices in agriculture market being unpredictable, driven mainly by speculations and hoarding. The volatility in price rises as speculators or intermediaries in the commodities market determine the prices rather than the farmers and consumer. These speculators are short-term investors and buy and sell based on their expectations of future prices of the commodity. This creates volatility in the derivative market, which seeps into the value of the underlying commodity. Therefore, farmers who opt for derivatives as a mode for hedging their risk are negatively affected. The financialisation of the derivatives make the instrument volatile and even those farmers who remained uninvolved, find themselves affected.

Farming requires fixed investments and consistent liquidity. However, there is no assurance of consistent returns as it depends upon changeable factors. The reasons for failure in returns may vary from the uncertainties arising from unfavourable weather conditions, impact of pest infestation or unpredictable animal disease. For instance, in Ireland, an unusually wet winter in 2012 resulted in trouble growing hay for animal feed. Similarly, during to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 in the United Kingdom, the government made all farmers slaughter their animals. In countries such as India, the insurance market has not developed enough to deal with such uncertainties. Thus, after intense labour and capital investments, often through loans from informal markets, farmers like Gajendra Singh are left penniless after the unseasonal rainstorm.

Second, are the social factors. As mentioned in an article in The Huffington Post, farming in India is a fairly isolated occupation with a small, close-knit community of co-workers and family. Such concentrated communities tend to be highly affected and pressurised by the social norms. The stigma attached to metal illnesses is common across the globe. A farmer who talks about his depression is often labeled outlandish or irrational, by his fellow farmers and acquaintances. Even curable mental illnesses like depression are left untreated. Being a family-owned and operated business, roles between work, home and family are often blurred. Hence, unlike other occupations, farming becomes a way of life. The severe misdistribution of psychiatrists and psychologists among the rural and urban population is a global problem. The lack of education plays an important role in narrowing the outlook and career scope for farmers. These factors together lead to high stress levels and without a support system, farmers tend to opt for options such as self-mutilation or suicide. Recent studies and articles show farming as one of the most dangerous industries associated with a suicide rate.

In a paper titled “Farming and mental health problems and mental illness”, the authors conclude that farming is associated with a unique set of characteristics, potentially hazardous to mental health. They also note the lack of conclusive data on farmer suicides. A reason for this may be that data collection suffers from problems such as misreporting of suicides. For example, in US the farmer deaths are often reported as accidents (hunting, equipment or farming) instead of suicides. In India, a ‘farmer’ is defined as a holder of a land title. This excludes farmers without land holding, agricultural day labourers, and women, who often get categorised simply as ‘wives’. Suicide is also often misrepresented as an ‘accident’ to the NCRB. Suicide being a crime, further deters the intentions to reveal the facts.

Third, are factors associated with the physical environment. PB Behere and MC Bhise in their paper Farmer suicide: Across culture mention that farming environments are characterised by a broad and changeable range of physical, biological and chemical hazards that are similar across cultures. The increase in the number of pesticides has a detrimental effect on the health of farmers. Instead, there is a global debate about the correlation between the Genetically Modified (GM) crops and suicide rates amongst farmers. Arguments in support fall short of substance when they start holding incidents of farmers drinking pesticides to commit suicide, against GM crops. Factors such as declining ground water level, falling levels of soil nutrients and climate change affect farmers and farming negatively. Additionally, agriculture in India and in most developing countries is still a physically stressful task as many of the processes within farming are still labour intensive.

Correlating the complex issue of farmer suicides with only the Land Acquisition Bill cannot solve the problem. It needs a broad approach, delving into each of the three factors. The solutions vary according to the factors that are being addressed. The three important steps that need to be taken are:

One, the volatile and unpredictable nature of farming can be curbed by, what is called as portfolio diversification in market terminology. The farmers can be given various platforms such that they can invest their revenue in various sources. Some of the examples would be to open a fixed account in a bank, like the scheme Kisan Vikas Patra followed in India, or join a mutual fund, which does not invest in the commodity market. There is an immediate need to extend access to formal credit and introduction of crop insurance schemes. Alongside, conscious attempts need to be made, to reduce the exposure of the farmer to volatile financial markets. Reducing information asymmetry and chain of middlemen and traders can help stabilise the prices.

Two, removing all social stigmas attached to mental health issues. This needs a two-pronged approach. First, would be to make mental health services accessible. The second would be to work with NGOs, to campaign and host information activities that help remove the negative perception of mental health issues. A major step in this direction would be to set up rural support networks. These networks can have General Practitioners (GPs), mental health councelors, and farming experts. An example for is the charity organisation YANA (You Are Not Alone) in the UK. Even in Australia, an incentive based programme has been implemented to provide special grants to medical practitioners within rural areas.

Finally, providing financial support and expert knowledge to farmers would help them fight the shortcoming of the physical environment. In India, Kisan Call Centres were setup with the objective of providing agricultural information free of cost to the farmers. Such provisions can help in ensuring that farmers are more informed about market prices.

Beyond, the poverty and inequality debate, farmer suicides is a sensitive matter and needs to be analysed in much more detail. The first step would be to reconsider the financial profitability model for agriculture, work towards changing the narrative about mental illnesses and provide better infrastructure to the rural ends of the country.

Photo: wikimedia


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