Staring At A Bleeding Sky: India's Farmer Suicides
"My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher, but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer." - Brenda Schoepp
Just three months ago, amidst a forest area in Bhopal, a 35-year-old farmer was pushed to take his own life. His name was Mukesh Verma. Verma’s crops were failing again and again and, with a pending bank loan, he was helpless. His fourteen-year-old son ventured into the forest to look for him, and found him hanging.
This is the grim reality of thousands of farmers in India. Verma was the fourth farmer that month to die by suicide in his city. We read about these cases almost everyday in the newspaper, and forget them as soon as we turn the page. But their loved ones will carry grief for the rest of their lives. The sky is cracked for them, unleashing a downpour of painful memories. Light may never enter their homes the same way again.
According to the data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 10 677 farmers died by suicide in 2020, accounting for 7% of total suicide victims in India despite representing about 3% of the population. 5 098 agricultural labourers were also pushed to end their life in 2020. These recurring deaths point to a grave issue, and yet silence surrounds it.
What is causing the suicides?
During the 2020-21 Farmer's Protest, we saw an increase in farmer suicides. The Indian Farmers Protest was against three acts passed by India's central government in September 2020. The acts, often called the Farm Bills, are described as "anti-farmer laws" by many farmer unions. The three laws perturbed and created a deep sense of worry amongst farmers, who were concerned they would eliminate Minimum Support Price⏤the guaranteed minimum price for their produce. The farmers also feared that large corporations would dominate the agricultural sector and exploit farmers.
The government proposed, to the contrary, that the Farm Bills would bring about crucial changes in the agricultural sector. It would remove middlemen, allowing farmers to sell their commodities anywhere in the country. In November 2021, the Farm Bills were finally repealed. But the farmers those lost during the Protest will never return home. Their families still sit by their door, waiting for them.
There is never only one reason for suicide and, for Indian farmers, there are various systematic contributors. These factors include crop failures, high cost of inputs such as land or fertilizers, lack of irrigation facilities, and many other obstacles burden farmers. The roots of these problems can be traced back to the Green Revolution.
The Green Revolution initiated in the 1960s ushered in a new era of modern methods of farming, such as high yielding variety seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The Revolution generated ample economic prosperity during its early years. First introduced in Punjab, the Revolution led to significant increase in agricultural output, and helped to make India self-sufficient in food production.
But, in due time, the Green Revolution unveiled repercussions like the deterioration of soil, pest-infected crops, and a plunge in our groundwater levels. This led to a surge in borrowing by farmers, who had to take loans at high interest rates. A mounting interest rate eventually led to farmers getting stuck in a cycle of "debt trap."
The National Sample Survey tells us that 50.2% of agricultural households in India are in debt. The average debt in 2018-19 was 74 100 Indian Rupees per household. When farmers are faced with a crisis, they turn to unofficial moneylenders around them. The farmers are then charged exorbitant interests on their loans. If their crop then fails due to a pest attack or unexpected weather conditions, they are unable to pay back the loans. And the interest keeps on mounting with time. The farmers are then caught in a debt trap, which is painful and nearly impossible to escape from.
The noose of death that hangs around their neck is due to systematically endorsed greed and corruption, where the hard-earned income never reaches their own hands.
How can farmers' lives be stabilized?
The government can take a variety of steps to prevent these deaths. The first is to ensure that farmers are able to approach banks without any fear or hesitation about paperwork. Another is making the legal process of obtaining loans simple to understand. On an individual level, farmers should be encouraged to take up additional sources of income like beekeeping, dairy products or rearing of livestock. With the aid of agricultural consultants and organizations, farmers should also be recommended to diversify the crops grown, according to their respective region and fertility of the soil.
Although there are steps farmers can take, it is the government's onus to shield them from economic instability and exploitation. We cannot lose any more precious lives, like Mukesh Verma's, whose child's anguish will continue for the rest of his life. The government needs to take on the mantle, ensuring that a farmer's plate is never empty. They must ensure no child is deprived of the light that should illuminate their part of the sky.