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The single most frequently used tool by our media to prove a point is sensationalism. Pick up a story or a fact, knead it, buttress it, bake it until it rises up to occupy a volume much greater than the original. Let us take the example of farmer suicides which for most newspapers is damning proof of the government’s failure to provide for them.

When a headline screams: Gujarat Police admit 366 farmers’ suicides; the obvious reaction is one of dismay at the government’s apathy towards its citizens. After reading that headline most people would dismiss it with a weary sigh. But if you are one of the few who do make the effort to read it, then you come to know something totally contrary to your pre conceived notions: Only 16 of these have been classified as having committed suicide over crop failure or financial reasons.

“Government figures!” you scream. They certainly have an incentive to under report suicide figures, but even if the real figures came out, I doubt if they will be earth shatteringly terrible.

There are two myths that are repeated in all these farmers and suicides stories:

1. A huge number of farmers commit suicide. Not so. Approximately 50% of India’s populace is involved in agriculture, its obvious to expect the suicide rates to be heavily skewed towards farmers. But a look at this Chart proves that this is clearly not the case:

2. Almost all farmers take their lives for financial reasons. Probably false again. Let us have a look at the major reasons for suicide:

  • Family conflicts, domestic violence, academic failures, and unfulfilled romantic ideals.
  • Voracious appetite for high-end consumer goods spurred by moneylenders and hire-purchase schemes.
  • The wide gap between people's aspirations and actual capabilities.
  • The disintegration of traditional social support mechanisms as was prevalent in joint families.Emergence of a trend towards nuclear families, alcohol abuse, financial instability and family dysfunction.
  • A growing population of the aged.
  • Failure of crops, huge debt burdens, growing costs of cultivation, and shrinking yield. [Link]

Aren't there equal chances of a farmer taking his own life for any of the reasons mentioned above? Then why should it be the financial reason alone?

This article is not an attempt to state that farmers are well off and that they do not need any assistance. I am just trying to prove that suicides rates are one of the worst metrics for an analysis of their situation.

(The image is via Maithri)


  • Hi,

    Good post. Ajay Shah has called this the "man bites dog" issue. Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that the root cause of this malaise is government control. (see my post on Vidarbha Whodunit?; it links to a EPW article which has a micro-level study of the suicides)

    Farmers are committing suicide due to a lack of economic freedom; and the failure of the state to allow markets to develop to the level of sophistication necessary to cater to the needs of Indian farmers.

  • Very true. The reason that I did not go into the reason for the lack of economic development is that i thought it would distract from the point of the article: That farmer suicides are very bad metrics. Thanks for the comment.

  • As far as your concern about the number of farmer suicides being a bad metric for analysis of the economic situation in India, I agree.

    However, i believe it is a not that important to try to identify the reasons behind their suicides. Its not just the farmers, so many other people kill themselves.

    So leaving aside the point of whether farmers commit suicides for reasons told by media or some other reasons, what is important to note is the fact this issue is trying to suggest.


  • Today our government is trying to tell us that India is very well off considering the near 10% GDP ratio which it has managed to achive. Fair enough. But then GDP or GDP/capita is not the only and in fact not at all a way to measure development as although it is growth, it does not equate to development.

    Disparity between the average annual incomes of say farmers which as you pointed out make 50% of the population and those of the barely 5% higher management or corporate sector employees is HUGE! Income inequality is so horrible!! This para is more a reply to the comment by Nitin. Market can never fix this problem. It will only make it worse. If farmers are given economic freedom, they will concentrate more on cultivating cash crops like tobacco and sugarcane leaving aside the main food crops. If markets are allowed to develop on their own, their will be market failure.

    For example, if prices are allowed to be fixed by the market, with no use whatsoever or buffer stocks or so, then prices will increase over and above the nominal inflation level leaving no buyers but a lot of sellers. This happened in a lot of states in 2005 where collectively more than 200 metric tons of grain rotted away in filthy warehouses as in spite of the huge demand people could not afford the price!!

    If the Indian farmer is indeed to become better off, what he really needs is not market freedom or free trade but balanced growth strategies along with govt. support in terms of basic infrastructure and abolition of private money lenders. There should be maximum pricing for foodcrops and minimum pricing for cashcrops. But this is yet another issue.

    So to conclude, although I agree that farmer suicide figures are not a good measure of economic condition of the country, one does not need ANY research or survey to say that India is still very poor. So it is best not to ignore these figures, no matter how small they are, because they do imply a deeprooted inequality of wealth and income which will RUIN the nation's economy in the longrun. Neo liberalism will take us nowhere..all we will end up becoming will be a neo-colonial enterprise of USA or some such country.

  • Yes there is a disparity in the income distribution between the corporate sector and the farmers. But if you are trying to imply that pro market efforts are not improving the situation, then i suggest you should do some reading over here: Rural India is growing faster than urban India. And this is to be expected, in the same parts of a country if a few sections are lagging behind, then they do catch up with the other parts.[Link]

    Hmm farmers leaving food crops for cash crops? The scenario is kinda improbable. The high prices that these cash crops command is because of scarcity of supply. If tobacco was as freely available as rice, will it still be a lucrative option? No.

    Please explain this statement:if prices are allowed to be fixed by the market, with no use whatsoever or buffer stocks or so, then prices will increase over and above the nominal inflation level leaving no buyers but a lot of sellers.

    As far as ruined countries go, how many communist ones have succeeded when compared to the capitalist ones?

    And as far as economic policies go isn't the objective to try and give a decent lifestyle to the maximum number of people rather than an equal one?

    And btw there is no implication that all the farmers are well off, all I am saying is that the solution is more free markets rather than government controls.

    And a huge thanks for your comments. Hehe somebody to talk with you see...

  • Anonymous said... 11:59 pm

    how much Congress pays you?

    I am serious dude cause i can do better propaganda than you.

  • The usual.. chai nasta and an internet connection.

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