A farmer channels water to irrigate his wheat field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, December 15, 2015. Reuters

India is now the world’s fastest-growing major economy, but years of drought and a failure to create jobs for a burgeoning young population has left millions of rural Indians struggling. India’s 120 million farmers are considered the backbone of the country’s food security but disillusionment runs through almost entire rural India. Farming remains the country’s dark spot and a woeful symbol of its abiding distress. Nearly half the country’s labour force still depends on agriculture, though agriculture accounts for just 15 per cent of gross domestic product. With farmlands shrinking on account of urbanisation  and  the pressure of  a growing population which still remains tethered to agriculture, there is fragmentation of holdings. The average landholding has dropped from 2.2 hectares nearly 35 years ago to just over a single hectare today.

With very small parcels of land families are finding it difficult to make farming a viable, sustainable and subsistence business.  A wave of despair is blowing through India’s hinterland which is forcing farmers to take their own lives.  The latest report has very distressing news on the farm front.  Farmer suicides in the country rose by 42% between 2014 and 2015, according to   the just released “Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India 2015” report from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). It recorded 5,650 suicides by farmers and cultivators in 2014. The figure rose to 8,007 in the latest data.

But these figures may not adequately capture or convey the true reality which may still be grimmer. The Indian government defines “farmer” narrowly, usually as holders of a land title, which many farmers do not have, and also excludes agricultural day labourers –a category that is increasing even as the “cultivators” or land titled farmers decrease in number—and many women, who get categorised as simply “wives” – even though they frequently perform the most painstaking farming work.

The causes of farmers’ woes have been consistently documented, but nobody wants to fix them: the tired soil, the high-cost  seeds; the thirsty   crops; the bone-dry skies, the sinking bore-wells; the increasing amounts of fertiliser to rejuvenate the land, pesticides, labour costs, the dowries, the mouths to feed, the debt, the women, the shame.

Farmer suicides are simply a reflection or a symptom of how fragile the farm economy is. Even a small aberration in weather – unseasonal rains, high winds, dry weather and drought – multiplies the risk factor for farmers, taking it to unmanageable levels. Livelihood security for any farming family, therefore, hangs by a slender thread. The suicide rate for farmers is 48 percent higher than any other profession.  In the 20 years since the Indian government first started keeping track of farmer suicides, about 300,000 farmers have ended their own lives. Farmer suicides are a stark shame on the Indian government, particularly when it turns a blind eye to farmers being marginalised. They have   farmed the land for generations, and are now unable to compete against the instruments of economic fundamentalism that is crushing them totally.

Nothing is simple about the farmer suicide phenomenon. In the farmers’ plight, all the strands of the economy intersect. To a degree, the suicides are a manifestation of the gradual, and erratic, withdrawal of the state. They have felt the cost of reforms — but have yet to see the benefits. The high rate of farmer suicides is often first traced to the trauma of the early 1990s — when India, devastated by financial crisis, embraced a raft of free market reforms, kick-starting the current era of economic liberalisation.

There are two triggers for the suicides. The first at the time of sowing, when the cash strapped farmer is pushed to buy seeds he can ill afford, so he takes credit. The next is at the time of harvest, when he arrives in the market and realises that he will not get the price that will enable him to repay the loan. That’s when the desolate fellow has no option but to consume pesticide.

A closer look would suggest that there is a broad pattern to farmer suicides.  Most of these farmers had little appetite for risk earlier. They were happy with the modest yield that kept their homes and hearths running. Lured by promises of new foreign seeds the farmer has started availing   big ticket loans to invest in expensive but highly yielding seeds in what he sees as a fair commercial risk. If his math is right it is certainly worth it. But unfortunately we don’t have the sort of market monitoring and supply chains that should support this type of savvy ventures. Any adverse development can send the farmer into a tailspin and then the familiar script runs through.

According to Vandana Shiva, India’s most prominent environmental activist, the suicide economy of industrialised, globalised agriculture is suicidal at three levels – it is suicidal for farmers, it is suicidal for the poor who are deprived of food, and it is suicidal at the level of the human species as we destroy the natural capital of seed, biodiversity, soil and water on which our biological survival depends.

The jury is still out on the effects of this change. Pesticide use appears to have fallen while yields have increased. But other studies warn that farmers have stepped on to a kind of technology treadmill, in which they must continually run ahead with new technologies or risk falling off into financial ruin.

India’s food pricing policy is built on the premise that we are a poor country, so consumers must be protected. But this means farmers, who are also consumers of food, are not paid remunerative prices for their product. All the big talk about deregulation and ease of doing business never makes it to their fields. They are restrained in where they can sell; prices are artificially “fixed”; and when shortages grow, government rushes to buy from heavily subsidised global farms.

There are no answers as to why farmers get as low as 10-15% of the price the end-buyer gives for the produce, middlemen looting most of it. The government’s lackadaisical approach to developing a mechanism that could minimise middlemen’s interference is inexcusable. Its inability to fix minimum support prices (MSPs) has already drawn flak.

One laudatory step of the government is the crop insurance scheme, christened Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana. Insurance is highly valuable in protecting farmers against shocks but is difficult to scale. However, commercial insurance has received a poor response from farmers. In Ghana, farmers who received rainfall index insurance cultivated more land and spent 13 percent more on fertiliser and labour than those who received just cash, implying that uninsured risk — not lack of access to capital — is a primary constraint on investment by farmers. In India, when farmers were given rainfall index insurance, six percent more farmers focused production towards higher-return, higher-risk cash crops.

But de-risking agriculture does not begin or end with insurance. The assessment of risk should begin much before sowing and proceed beyond harvest. The decision of what to sow and reap is currently not a well informed choice based on a sound assessment of soil, yield and prices.  This can help farmers in making informed strategies.

What is needed is for the government to stretch its financial coffers wide enough to provide a steroidal push to the sector. This is the only way we can make the limping farmer walk or jog, forget sprinting like his counterparts in other sectors.

Moin Qaziis the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has spent more than three decades in the development sector.

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