New farmer suicide data showcases continuing social inequalities

NCRB 2020 data shows 18 percent rise of deaths among agriculture labourers compared to 2019

Farmers suicide

Another Punjab farmer died by suicide at the Singhu border on November 10, 2021 blaming the ruling central government party for the agrarian crisis and nation-wide farmers’ protest. This brings the toll to at least 38 farmers, who died this way over the last year, all the while demanding the repeal of the three farm laws – or so say the records maintained by the leaders of the farmers’ struggle.

While the suicide data of 2021 is yet to be updated by the government, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) earlier released data that showed an 18 percent increase in agriculture labourer suicides. As many as 10,677 persons involved in the farming sector died in 2020 accounting for 7.0 percent of the total suicides victims (1,53,052) in India. Among them, 5,579 persons were identified as farmers or cultivators and 5,098 persons were named agricultural labourers. In 2019, as many as 4,324 agricultural labourer deaths were recorded.

Maharashtra recorded the highest number of farmer suicides once again with 4,006 deaths followed by 2,016 deaths in Karnataka, 889 deaths in Andhra Pradesh and 735 deaths in Madhya Pradesh. Punjab and Haryana that have been dubbed the “epicentre” of the farmers’ struggle recorded 257 and 280 deaths respectively.

Reacting to the data, the All India Kisan Sabha condemned the central government for its false promise of “ache din.”

“This is a result of the government’s persistent anti-peasant policies and allowances to its corporate allies to plunder the country’s wealth. Due to the three agricultural laws, the situation of farmers and the general public is going to get worse. The NCRB report also found that labour suicides accounted for 24.6 per cent of the total suicides,” said President Ashok Dhawale in a press release.

Dhawale was referring to the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance & Farm Services Act, the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act. Farmers across India have mobilised in large numbers to express their dissent against these laws.

Researchers Nanda Kishore Kannuri and Sushrut Jadhav even stated in their recent report that farmer groups have likened these laws as a ‘death penalty’. Mass gatherings and rallies have taken place in states near New Delhi like Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, with over half a million farmers camping at Delhi’s borders.

“This resistance has resulted in several clashes with State police that have frequently led to violence including injuries, suicides and deaths, and storming of the Red Fort in Delhi on India’s Republic Day celebrations. Several nationwide strikes in support of the farmers have so far involved over 250 million Indian citizens participating in solidarity,” as per their paper titled ‘Cultivating distress: cotton, caste and farmer suicides in India’.

Understanding role of caste in farmer suicide

However, aside from these laws, the paper also focused on other socio-economic reasons for such agrarian deaths. Authors pointed out that approximately 48 suicides were recorded every day between 1995 2018 with a majority of persons being from ‘backwarded’ castes including the Dalit community.

The study found that financial and moral debt, when accrued within a web of family and caste-related relationships, result in personal and familial humiliation, resulting in a sense of hopelessness. “This loss of hope and pervasive humiliation is ‘cultivated’ by a cascade of decisions taken by others with little or no responsibility to the farmers and the land they hope to cultivate as they follow different cultural and financial logic. Suicide resolves farmers’ humiliation and is a logical conclusion to their distress, which results from a reconfiguration of agricultural spaces into socially toxic places,” said the report.

Observing case studies of cotton farmers in the Warangal district of Telangana, Kannuri and Jadhav talk about how the crop largely benefits large farmers. Farming as a profession requires cultural, social, economic and symbolic capital for sustenance.

For example, while The Hindu Business Line reported a “stress-free” Diwali for Gujarat cotton farmers, Punjab and Haryana growers voiced grievances about their damaged cotton crops by heavy pink bollworm infestation. Farmers in several districts suffered severe losses at a time when government data of different chemical fertilisers in 2020 and 2019 showed a significant shortage of fertilisers like DAP. Several suicide reports came up when the government compensation of Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 12,000 per acre failed to cover farmer losses estimated at Rs. Rs.60,000 per acre.

“Socially-disadvantaged groups like Dalits already lack symbolic capital available on the basis of a person’s position, honour or prestige, which functions as an authoritative embodiment of cultural values,” say the authors. Case studies in the paper show that the dearth of required capital results in excessive social stress. “Individuals’ psychosocial contexts and stressors, such as financial hardships, poor education and unfulfilled expectations at work, have been identified as the most common correlates of suicide,” they added.

Therefore, they suggest culturally sensitive healthcare systems that encourage co-ordination and dialogue among cotton farmers, local agricultural and mental health policy makers, clinicians, social scientists, and public health professionals.

Bearing such socio-political conditions, farmers continue their demands for the repeal of anti-people laws including the Electricity (Amendment) Bill 2021 that takes away subsidies for farmers and legislations like the Air Quality Management law that penalises farmers near New Delhi. As farmers near a year-long struggle against the ruling regime, leaders demand the repeal of all oppressive laws, a legal guarantee to MSP and protest the privatisation of India’s PSUs.


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