Governments in India do not have to address farmer suicides or rural distress. They get to power by other means. The week of April 25-30 demonstrated how governments elected by farmers, forget the farmers.
In the last month alone, at least 15 have taken place in Punjab due to debts and crop failure. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won the recent state election on the promise that there would be from 1 April. Similar promises were made last week by the same party in Karnataka, a state that has the second-highest number of farmer suicides in the country after Maharashtra.
Also in the last week, the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre celebrated Amrit Mahotsav with the slogan Kisan Bhagidari, Prathmikta Hamari (partnership with farmers is our priority). The Agriculture Minister had a ‘ with farmers where they were advised to keep up and ‘change with times’.
This is the same government that promised to double farmers' income by 2022, and failed to do so.
The Data Game
The following are a few examples of how the Centre and state governments do not want to see the farmers:
One. Farmer suicides due to debt and crop failure are a direct indictment of governments. That is the reason why the numbers are hidden or manipulated. Several in the nation do not even provide data on farmer suicides to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). West Bengal, Bihar and Uttarakhand are a few examples. This keeps their image clean, their narrative guilt-free, and their policies untested.
Two. States that provide data resort to heavy data suppression of farmer suicide numbers. This is done at two levels. First is through stringent rules to recognise farmer suicides. The paperwork and procedure make it difficult for widows to prove that their husband’s death was indeed a suicide due to rural distress. The second way is through the decision on ‘eligibility’ for compensation by district-level committees. These committees are usually populated by influential representatives, and that does not include poor farmers.
Which Death Is 'Eligible', and Which Isn't?
Three. District-level data on farmer suicides is based on cases registered by the police. The numbers get diluted as they move up the administration from district to state and central levels. A few examples will illustrate this point: in the Yavatmal district in Maharashtra, there were 319 suicides in the district in 2020 as per the district administration. Of these, 188 or 58.9% were found ineligible for compensation and did not reflect in the final numbers by the NCRB.
Another example is the Khammam district of Telangana. In reply to an RTI by this author, the administration said there were 107 total suicides by farmers between 2014 and 2021. Of these, 45.79% were found ineligible for compensation, and therefore, were not recognised as farmer suicides.
Numbers have been dubiously falling in Telangana, even though rural distress has only increased post-COVID-19, and, more recently, due to the procurement crisis in every season.
Four. In the 17th Lok Sabha, to date since 2019, over 25 questions were raised by the Members of Parliament on farmer suicides, the data collected, compensation, remedies, and prevention. The government’s response was similar in all instances, and included findings of a study on farmer suicides.
The , titled Farmer Suicides in India: Causes and Policy Prescription (2016-17), broadly identified causes and suggested remedies such as crop insurance, MSP, crop diversification and control of private moneylending. Answering elected representatives in the highest decision-making body of the country, it is tragic that the Union Government should repeat findings known since 2006 (Swaminathan report).
Amrit Kaal, But Only for Governments
Lastly, economic indicators reveal how little governments are focusing on farmers. First, over 50% of agricultural households are in debt (NSSO ). This is significant because as many as 86% of farmers in India are small and marginal. Also, the average outstanding loan per farm household is Rs 74,121. This is significant as the average monthly receipt from agriculture for such a household is Rs 6,960. Additionally, over 57% of loans were taken for agriculture, but almost 70% formal loans are outstanding. In contrast, only 20% of are outstanding, revealing the dependence on and responsiveness of private moneylenders.
Governments leave farmers to their fate, use them as props for elections and make promises they never wish to keep. Whether governments see them or not, farmer suicides continue, exposing the state’s indifference towards each painful death, whether it's by drinking pesticides or hanging.
, over 3,70,000 farmer suicides have taken place in India (1995-2020), and, as research shows, an equal number may have been refused recognition. This may be the Amrit Kaal for the governments, but it remains a Mrit Kaal for farmers.
(Dr Kota Neelima is author, researcher and Director of Institute of Perception Studies, New Delhi. She writes on rural-urban distress and citizen visibility. She tweets @KotaNeelima. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)