Behind India’s ‘Epidemic’ Of Farmer Suicides


A woman works in a cotton field near Pandarkawhda, India, Thursday, April 24, 2008. India's cotton belt, a land of searing temperatures and backbreaking work, has been hit hardest by an epidemic of suicides. Life has never been easy in this swath of central India, but the current generation of farmers say it has become unbearable. With debts larger than their incomes, these steadiest of workers have become gamblers of the highest stakes, betting their land -- and their lives -- on one more good crop.

About every 30 minutes, a farmer in India commits suicide. The unseasonably heavy rains and unexpected hailstorms that have pounded down across the country threaten to up that already alarming figure.

According to one expert, a sudden downpour of hail in the Indian state of Maharashtra laid waste to more than $150 million worth of crops.

One farmer there didn’t even wait for the March storm to abate. After seeing his crops collapse into the mud, 27-year-old Sandeep Shinde hung himself from a tree in his field, leaving behind his wife and two young children.

“I cannot even afford milk for the children,” his widow, Shoba, told the Times of India.

Farmer suicides are doubly devastating because they mark the death of a bread winner, and often mean the loss of a season of crops as well. While the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi increased compensation to farming families who’ve lost a loved one to suicide, the vast majority of those promised government aid claim they haven’t received it, even 20 years on.

According to state government records, there have been 40 percent more suicides in Maharashtra in the last seven months than during the same period last year. Similarly harrowing reports have come from other parts of India.

So far this year, twelve farmers in the state of Bengal and more than 36 farmers in Uttar Pradesh have killed themselves.

In the 20 years since the Indian government first started keeping track of farmer suicides, about 300,000 farmers have ended their own lives. According to the 2011 census, the suicide rate for farmers is 47 percent higher than the national average.

That rate is even higher in the United States where male farmers are twice as likely to commit suicide than the general population.

While the phenomenon is oft-discussed in India, it’s not limited to the South Asian state. Farmers around the world have turned to the suicide amid crops failures and livestock diseases. A recent Newsweek article called the phenomenon an “international crises.” Its author, Max Kutner, pointed to several countries where farms have been devastated by suicide:

In France, a farmer dies by suicide every two days. In China, farmers are killing themselves to protest the government’s seizing of their land for urbanization. In Ireland, the number of suicides jumped following an unusually wet winter in 2012 that resulted in trouble growing hay for animal feed. In the U.K., the farmer suicide rate went up by 10 times during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, when the government required farmers to slaughter their animals. And in Australia, the rate is at an all-time high following two years of drought.

While the increased rates Kutner cited for farmer suicide are often tied to exceptionally difficult years for farming, experts, advocates, and industry leaders have all put forth their own reasons to attribute India’s “epidemic” of farmer suicides to one issue or another. But in reality, the driving force behind the bleak phenomenon is a complex array of intertwining issues make farming an increasingly precarious vocation in India.

Vandana Shiva, India’s most prominent environmental activist, believes genetically-modified seeds — specifically, those sold by the agricultural behemoth Monsanto — are driving farmers to lose control of their own farming practices. She’s claimed that the frustrations over Monsanto’s proprietary policies which forbid farmers from planting, selling, or even accidentally growing seeds from Monsanto’s patented crops push farmers to the brink. Shiva and other environmental activists have come to refer to Monsanto seeds as “suicide seeds.”

In 2013, she explained her argument, citing one of Monsanto’s genitically-modified cotton seeds as an example.

“Monsanto’s seed monopolies, the destruction of alternatives, the collection of superprofits in the form of royalties, and the increasing vulnerability of monocultures has created a context for debt, suicides and agrarian distress which is driving the farmers’ suicide epidemic in India,” Shiva wrote. “This systemic control has been intensified with Bt cotton. That is why most suicides are in the cotton belt.”

But many researchers have started to take issue with the notion that genetically-modified crops like Monsanto’s Bt cotton are to blame for India’s epidemic of farmer suicides. Some have pointed out that Indian farmers continued to purchase Monsanto seeds even as activists railed against them — and for good reason: because it proved profitable to do so.

For its part, Monsanto has argued that its crops require less pesticide purchase and less loss of yield — meaning that farmers who opted for its genetically-modified seeds would be more successful than those who use traditional seeds.

But Shiva has countered, claiming that Monsanto drove up the price of seeds 8,000 percent — and that “the high costs of purchased seed and chemicals have created a debt trap.”

Since debt is a major cause to farmers’ despair, however, it’s not just agricultural companies like Monsanto who are responsible. For those seeking loans to pay higher up-front costs for Monsanto seeds, unfair lending practices increase their financial woes.

Anoop Sadanadan, a professor of political science based at Syracuse University, has argued that farmer suicides should be attributed not to agricultural practices but rather financial ones. In a paper published last year, he noted that farmer suicides were concentrated in five of India’s 28 states — and that those five offered the least institutional credit to farmers, forcing them to take out private loans at interest rates as high as 45 percent.

Government policies towards agriculture may also bear a part of the blame for imposing additional hardship on farmers — or rather, for suddenly stopping to insulate them from it. The rate at which farmers committed suicide saw a spike in 1997 — the same year that the government removed subsidies for cotton.

Climate change has increasingly been cited as a major culprit to farmer suicides in India. Although it’s a difficult trend to measure, farmer suicides tend to increase along with extreme weather phenomenons. And extreme weather is becoming more and more common in India.

In 2013, Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index ranked India as one of the three countries affected by the most extreme weather events in 2013. The sort of sudden downpours that has wrought havoc on the country’s cotton belt, are on the rise. Scientists have found that they’ve increased by 50 percent over the last 50 years. Scientists believe that such devastating events will only increase. India’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that “rainfall patterns in peninsular India will become more and more erratic, with a possible decrease in overall rainfall, but an increase in extreme weather events.”

Often, years with the most calamitous weather mean hikes in farmer suicide. In 2009, for example, more than 17,000 farmers killed themselves — a six year high, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. That year India saw the worst drought it had seen since 1972.

Its affects may still be felt by farmers. Devinder Sharma, of the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security told the Wall Street Journal in 2009, “The severe drought has pushed back the household economy of farmers in the rural areas by 10 years.”

Six years later its effects may still be being felt in unbearable ways.