According to NCRB data for 2014, the suicide rate for ‘housewives’ was more than double that of farmers, though the latter gets far more media attention. What does this really indicate?
In 2014, National Crime Records Bureau data showed that 20,148 housewives took then own lives across the country. This amounts to approximately 18% of all suicides that year.
A recent article in the Economic and Political Weekly by political scientist Peter Mayer takes this data as the basis for questioning why media coverage on suicide by housewives is strikingly low. He compares coverage on farmers’ suicides to that of “housewives”, saying that the Indian media has a sensationalist, stereotyped approach to covering farmers’ suicides that does not follow any ethical guidelines.
When talking about farmers’ suicides, Mayer argues that the media almost never treats the individual suicide in question as the principal subject. Rather, it is an example to highlight the plight of a larger section of workers. He compares the vignettes from surviving family members to pictures of malnourished children from Africa – portrayals that have been criticised for their stereotypical nature and lack of complexity, and even for reinforcing regional hierarchies.
Mayer also makes the point that the media would have you believe that all farmers who take their lives are male, based mainly in central India, and are driven to suicide because of economic distress. None of these inferences are factual, he goes on to say. The highest number of farmer suicides are in fact in the south. NCRB data show that the suicide rate of female farmers was only very slightly lower than their male counterparts in 1997, though the gap between the two has grown dramatically in recent times. However, in 2014, the suicide rates of both male and female agricultural labourers were higher than for farm owners – something that is “invisibilised” in discussions.
Comparing the 2014 number for housewife suicides (20,148) to the number of farmer suicides in that same year yields an answer very different from the one media reports articulate, Mayer argues. The number of housewife suicides is 250% higher than the number of farmer suicides (5,650 in 2014). In the same year, the suicide rate for housewives was 13.3 per lakh, and the equivalent for self-employed in agriculture was 6.3 (male) and 1.4 (female).
Yet media coverage on the suicides of married women remains close to zero, Mayer argues.
‘Ideologically driven reporting’
For Mayer, this is because of the way that agricultural suicides are “framed” in media reports, showing an ideological preference for the agricultural policies of pre-1990s liberalisation. This is why, he says, farmer suicides are immediately linked to economic distress resulting from various post-liberalisation policies: BT cotton, competition from cheap imports and higher input prices. Suicides resulting from depression or other mental illness, drug abuse, etc. are not equally highlighted, “because they do not fit into the anti-globalisation frame which dominates much of Indian media”.
Irrespective of how one feels about economic liberalisation and the policies that came with it, Mayer sees this kind of framing of Indian suicides as “destructive”. It does not bring in the psychiatric factors that may lead to suicides – the lack of support services and mental illness awareness and care. Public policy needs to respond to these issues, and according to him for that it is essential that the media not portray them as non-existent.
Mayer is not alone in his views. Vikram Patel, professor of international mental health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Wire that the “sensational reporting of farmer suicides represents a strong ideologically driven bias in how health issues are reported in India.”
On why the rate of married women committing suicide is so high, Patel said: “We can only speculate on this, but the most plausible reason is related to gender disadvantage, i.e. the limited agency that young women, the group of married women who have the highest suicide rates, have to choose their own partners and to enjoy equal rights in a marital relationship, notably the right to freedom from harassment and violence. Add to that the lack of mental health literacy and access to services, and you have a perfect storm.”
P. Sainath is arguably the most prolific journalistic writer about agrarian distress and farmers’ suicides in India, and the first name that comes to mind when thinking about Indian media coverage of these issues. For him, Mayer’s article did not do justice to the reality of the situation. “This debate is not new,” he told The Wire, referring to Mayer’s article. “But all these arguments [like Mayer’s] take no note of how the data is collected.”
“The first thing I want to say is that we are not into comparing victimhoods. Women’s suicides are terribly high. But here’s the problem – many of those groups overlap strongly. Thousands of those “housewives” are in fact women farmers who are not counted as such … The easiest thing to do in this country is to classify a woman as a housewife. She may be a petty vendor, or doing some sort of piece-rate work at home, but she’ll be called ‘housewife’.”
Sainath’s work has in fact mentioned this problem, well before the release of Mayer’s article. In an August 2015 article in Frontline, he wrote:
“Women farmers’ suicides are routinely undercounted because conventional societies mostly do not acknowledge women as farmers. And only a few have their names on title deeds or pattas. One result of this is that the ‘housewives’ category explodes in those years when states claim nil women farmers’ suicides. In some states, ‘housewives’ (including many who are farmers but not so acknowledged) make up 70% of all women suicides in certain years.” He made a similar argument in an article published by the India International Centre in 2010, saying, “Why I say that the [NCRB] numbers are authentic but not accurate is because a lot of social and other prejudice goes into defining who is a farmer. Perhaps thousands of women farmers have not had their suicides recorded. Their suicides are recorded as suicides by farmers’ wives or daughters. Now if you take the data too literally, then the best place in the world to be a farmer is Haryana, which has never had a woman farmer suicide because they don’t concede that women can be farmers.”
Sainath also critiqued Mayer’s point on the “invisible” suicides of tenant farmers. “It is worth noting that these arguments always use 2014 as an example,” he told The Wire. “That was the year where the government changed the way it classified suicide data. Before, there was one broad category called ‘farmer suicides’. But the agriculture ministry under Sharad Pawar changed the classification in order to make the numbers appear smaller – they created different categories for farmers, tenant farmers and agricultural labourers. Tenant farmers are regularly classified as agricultural labourers in India, since there is no document signed between the landowner and the tenant, it is a completely informal arrangement. Top policemen have said that they don’t know how the NCRB could create this new classification, as the police are not equipped to make these distinctions. Thousands of tenant farmer suicides are then placed in the agricultural labourer category. This is not to say that there is no suicide among agricultural labourers, but that the suicide of tenant farmers is under reported by incorrect classification.”
Others working on issues of agrarian distress as well as gender were also critical of Mayer’s approach, saying that his arguments were as “politically motivated” as the ones he was critiquing. They also felt that the two important issues of suicides by farmers’ and married women both need to be looked at, and not presented in a way that makes it seem as if one is taking away from the other.
Economist and activist Jean Dreze, who has worked on issues around rural distress in India for years, said to The Wire that while the issue of farmers’ suicides is real, it may arise in waves and in certain regional pockets such that they do have a big impact in terms of figures and aggregate suicide rates. “The observation that suicide rates among married women are much higher is important,” he added. “But I see it more as a pointer to a further neglected problem than as evidence that the problem of farmer suicides is a figment of the imagination.”
Feminist activist and researcher Kalyani Menon-Sen had more serious problems with Mayer’s views after an initial reading of the article, saying that he was being not just apolitical but “anti-political”. She questioned why the the author felt the political “framing” of suicides is wrong, and how he could imply the agrarian crisis was a creation of the media’s imagination.
Speaking on the issue of the under reporting on the suicides of married women, Menon-Sen told The Wire that being surprised by that meant that the author was “completely blind to gender politics”, since feminists have been routinely talking about “the patriarchal filters that media reports are passed through”.
In addition, she also questioned the gender bias in the NCRB’s data. “Gender politics also plays out in the NCRB data on women’s suicides. In many cases, the police refuse to treat deaths of married women inside the marital home as murder, and register them as suicide despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” she said. “Husbands literally get away with murder in this country, especially if they are from privileged families that can bring their class and caste power to bear on the police and ensure that the unnatural death of a wife or daughter-in-law (or mother for that matter) is made into a suicide for which the woman herself can be blamed.”
“On the point of mental health being one of the most neglected areas in India, and of the almost total absence of any kind of support for are the risk of suicide – I agree with the author,” Menon-Sen added.
Economist Utsa Patnaik seconded what Menon-Sen said on the politics of Mayer’s view. Farmers suicides, she said, are qualitatively different from the suicides of married women. “The evidence suggests that the rate of farmers’ suicide has gone up in the last two decades, owing to particular public policy measures which have increased greatly the risk to their incomes, and these policy measures have been undertaken by our successive governments not so much because they independently thought of it, but at the insistence of advanced countries and international financial institutions that everything should be left to the market. So, if specific policy measures have increased risk of suddenly reduced incomes for farmers, driven them into debt-trap, and driven a section to suicide then clearly the question will arise: why continue to follow these policies?”
Both sides of this debate put a spotlight on the prevalence of suicides in India, and the disproportionate rates of suicide within certain population cohorts (whether farmers or women who work at home). This points to certain social, economic and cultural inequalities that need to be studied and addressed – ranging from material conditions to access to mental health support.