Farmer Suicides In Karimnagar & Kentucky

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Aug 9 2004, 05:30am hrs
Last weekend, five farmers committed suicide in Karimnagar district of Andhra Pradesh . Four were aged between 30 and 45. The official figure is that 900 AP farmers had committed suicide during the last seven years. In the one month since the new CM assumed charge, 245 suicides have been reported. As the risks taken earlier give poor yields and poorer prices, the farmer is racing to death.

In the US, a Farmers Suicide Study is underway covering Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina. It estimates that 1,100 farmers committed suicide in these three states during 1990-1999. These states are producers of tobacco and changes in the tobacco market coupled with high pressure from financiers have resulted in dire consequences.

Another study by the Medical College of Wisconsin estimates that dairy farmers have been committing more suicides than the others (18.2 per one lakh standardised population as against 11.3) due to higher indebtedness, low milk prices, and significant income losses. A recent study examined suicides in Australian farming from 1988 to 1997. There were 921 of them. The study found that suicides rates have been increasing over the years and that there is a strong correlation between farmer suicides and unfavourable terms of trade.

Whether in Karimnagar, Kentucky or New South Wales the common farmer is faced with ratcheting abnormal risks and narrowing options for survival. As one commentator pointed out, the farmer is being pulverised between the anvil of debt and the hammer of demand and systematically dispossessed of his meagre assets.

The AP government has announced a slew of measures to prevent suicides. It announced free power; one-time waiver of electricity arrears; extension of interest waiver on crop loans; and increased loan targets for banks. It has announced ex-gratia compensation of Rs 1 lakh and a one-time debt clearance upto Rs 50,000 for victims families. These measures have mass appeal but will they stop the growing momentum in suicides

We need to go beyond psychological & sociological factors behind suicides
Look at the structural changes which have increased risk exponentially
The problem has to do with a deadly combination of expensive credit, depleting yields, drying water sources, and poor prices. Years of neglect of the rural economy has increased farmer risk manifold. The risks start with the failures of bore wells for which bank credit has not been forthcoming amidst falling water tables. A couple of failed bores pushes the farmer into an irretrievable situation.

The risks mount with the choice of the crop and seed quality. It is reported that corporate seeds suppliers assure even lower yields than those supplied earlier by the government. Further risk arises from the quality of pesticides and fertilisers and the combination, quantum and timing of their application under dynamic agro-climatic and pest conditions.

Analysts of the rural economy also report the emergence of new power centres that take a stranglehold on the benefits and multiply the risks for the farmer. They come in the form of pesticide-fertiliser-seed dealers who could also be lenders of private finance at exorbitant rates. There are water lords also who control the sources and flow of water, further pushing the small farmer to the precipice of disaster. To top this, the middle-men, including those in the market yards and government monopolies, have formed compacts to depress purchase prices and increase their margins, leaving the small farmer little choice. No wonder, often he gets less than the minimum support price for his grain.

In such a disconnected, heartless and illogical world, the farmer will perhaps be absurd, in Albert Camus argument, if he did not opt for suicide as a rational solution!

Some states have constituted committees to go into farmers suicides which have only come out with part solutions, symptomatic redresses, or theoretical findings such as those relating to sociological and psychological factors behind suicides. They miss the point that over the years there have been structural changes that have increased the farmers risks at all stages, at an exponential rate. Farming today is a compulsive life than a choice worth living for. The policy solution is to build comprehensive mechanisms to reduce farmers risk to reasonable levels in a composite and sustainable manner.

The author can be reached at yrk@yagaconsulting.com