Even as the Indian economy progresses on several fronts, the question of farmer suicides remains a relevant concern which needs to be addressed. Why do farmer suicides occur? Is the distress due to man-made factors such as inefficient minimum support pricing policies and inadequate marketing support, or are there are deeper reasons for the malaise? We also have to think what can be done, in addition to providing immediate relief, to tackle this pressing problem before more lives are lost?
Also, which agency should be made responsible for implementing the necessary policy measures?
Farmers end their lives when they find themselves acutely distressed due to outstanding loans, rising debts and successive crop failures. Erratic monsoons, decline in ground water level, inadequate support prices, all contribute to the dismal scenario. The common underlying denominator is very often the dependence on the market economy. Farmers who earlier produced for sustenance of their families now take loans to produce for distant and uncertain markets. Seeds, earlier carried forward from year to year, are often replaced by high yielding yet expensive and unpredictable varieties. Similar is the case with respect to chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Indigenous knowledge and solutions have been increasingly replaced by commercial alternatives in a rapidly globalising market economy, which may not in itself be bad, for it brings in its wake the possibilities of greater well-being and a higher standard of living for most.
Problems, however, arise when adverse events, for one reason or the other, occur simultaneously, as the so-called Black Swan events. Finding it difficult to meet outstanding loan repayments, because of crop failures, pest attacks on plants which are yet to develop adequate resistance to indigenous conditions, and because of the inability to feed their families, farmers opt to end their lives as an option of last resort. While the number of such deaths due to farmer suicides may appear small as a percentage of the total number of those depending on agriculture, it cannot be and should not be callously dismissed.
While there is a need for short-term palliatives in the form of relief measures, including waiver of loans, marketing assistance and higher minimum support prices, there is also a need for a lot more thinking, by way of a comprehensive solution which can provide farmers with a “safety net” in times of such crises.
Interestingly, comprehensive solutions lie hidden, within the folds of the village communities themselves—in the form of rich and diverse traditions of indigenous knowledge bases which are fast being forgotten, thanks to the spread of commercial practices, the growth in cash crops, and the ease with which high yielding varieties and genetically modified seeds can be purchased. The lure of higher yields and greater productivity is not something that farmers will easily dismiss. Nor is it one which any rational economist will advise as something to be ignored. Yet if commercialisation and market-driven approaches for development of agrarian economy can be combined with a renewed focus and emphasis on tapping the untapped potential of indigenous and traditional knowledge of agrarian communities, malnutrition, hunger and unnecessary deaths due to suicides can be prevented.
To mention just a few of the nuggets which contain possibilities of building a comprehensive solution to the problem of farmer suicides, there are several unconventional crops, and even high value products and produce, which are currently underutilised. Enhancing awareness with respect to the existing knowledge base on these fronts and facilitating growing of these agricultural products, alongside the production for the market economy, can act as a buffer to crises, and Black Swan situations, which lead to farmer suicides.
Underutilised crops include, inter alia, tamarind, amla, kokum, papaya, sapota, jackfruit, custard apple, ber, bananas and others. These have high nutritional content and yet have been virtually forgotten amidst the glitz and glamour of market-based solutions. Some other high value products include cultivation of prawns, mushrooms, bee-keeping and honey. There are also many medicinal and aromatic plants which can provide farmers with additional earnings. Ornamental plants such as dracaena sanderiana and orchids, which are currently imported, can easily be grown in some of the poorest regions of the country.
The box of unexplored indigenous riches and treasures waiting to be discovered is large, and would require making available planting material through community seed networks. Media could be utilised to spread awareness of how indigenous resources can be harnessed to build safety nets. Small-scale processing units can also be set up with appropriate market linkages. The government and interested civil society organisations can take these steps, alongside measures to achieve technological gains and improvement in productivity. This is because these are not an alternative to market-based solutions but are the ones which enable productivity and incomes to be enhanced without risking the weakest to the randomness and uncertainty of a market economy.
The author is a retired IAS officer