Deaths by Suicide Among Farmers in Punjab Signal the Dire Need For Reform

A recent report on farmer suicides in Punjab reveals the circumstances which lead farmers and farm labourers to take their own lives, debunks popular myths regarding the same, and points to policy measures needed to tackle the problem.

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Suicides are a sign of a deep crisis in a society. And in Punjab’s so-called ‘agriculturally developed society’, suicides of farmers and farm labourers have been taking place unabated for the last two decades.

On June 18, 2022. a report regarding the phenomenon in Punjab by a team of prominent economists from Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, comprising Sukhpal Singh, Manjeet Kaur and H.S. Kingra, was published in Economic and Political Weekly, confirming that the state is undergoing a deep farm crisis.

This report is based on a door-to-door survey of the families of individuals who died by suicide in six districts of Punjab from 2000-2018. In this time, these districts saw 16,594 suicides, of which 9,291 were farmers and 7,303 were farm labourers.

According to the report, Sangrur – Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann’s home district – topped the list with a total of 2,506 farmers’ suicides in the given time frame. Mansa district came in second with 2,098 farmer suicides, followed by Bathinda, Barnala, Moga and Ludhiana districts with 1,956, 1,126, 880 and 725 suicides, respectively.

The year with the highest number of such suicides was 2008 (630), after which the number of deaths by suicide among farmers began to decline year-by-year. The report makes evident that the ‘debt waiver scheme’ of the Manmohan Singh government that year was one of the factors that led to this decline.

Unfortunately, deaths by suicide among farmers started to increase again after that, reaching another peak in 2015 (515). The reason behind this increase was the failure of the Bt cotton crop due to pest attacks.

Also read: In Punjab and Haryana, Acres of Infestation Leave Cotton Farmers Devastated

The cotton crop, popularly known as ‘white gold’, is the main commercial crop of South-Western Punjab. In 2015, the yield of cotton crop was just 1.97 quintals per hectare, the lowest in three decades. Therefore, it is clear that the incidence of farmer suicides can be reduced if farmers’ debts are waived off and adequate compensation is given to them in case of crop failure. But our rulers did not learn any lessons from these events.

Disproportionate impact on small farmers

The economic conditions of farmers, particularly small farmers, are precarious. According to the report, 77% of deaths by suicide were among small farmers (with holdings of less than two hectares). What’s more, small farmers make up only 33% of the total numbers of farmers (1.09 million) in the state.

From 1991-2011, 200,000 small farmers were thrown out of farming, out of which a large number joined the labour market. Although some big farmers have also left farming, none of them became labourers. Moreover, the suicide rate among large farmers is the lowest (0.47%). Clearly, the crisis of the small farmer is far more serious.

As such, a compensation of Rs 5 lakh; total debt waiver; a government job to the next kin; free education to the children of the family; and free health care for the family should be provided for the rehabilitation of the family of those farmers who died by suicide; something farmers’ unions have demanded regularly.

In addition, cooperative farming should be encouraged to increase economies of scale by reducing fixed farm costs. Moreover, the state must extend subsidies and undertake massive investment to enhance farm profitability and the efficient marketing of farm produce. These measures are necessary to mitigate farmer suicides in the state.

The report also details that, of the families of those farmers who died by suicide, one-third had only one bread winner. These single earners could not endure the farm crisis in the state and chose to end their lives. It is not difficult to imagine what will happen to these families without the support of the sole earner.

According to the report, a large number of the members of these families suffer from mental stress and 11% of the children had to leave education. Moreover, in 3.4% of cases, it became difficult to secure marriages for their children. In our social fabric, people are reluctant to enter into a relationship with a financially stressed family. When we met such families as part of a farmers’ organisation, we, too, shared in their pain.

Media myth of ‘unproductive expenditures’

The state-sponsored media has been propagating, on a large scale, that farmer suicides occur due to farmers’ unproductive expenditures, but this report has exposed that lie. In fact, the report revealed that farmers generally do not take loans for weddings and non-productive activities.

As many as 75% of loans were taken for agricultural activity; for example, 12.7% of loans were taken for tractors; 44% for agricultural inputs (like seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, and the like); 2.47% for irrigation and 15.5% for miscellaneous expenses. For consumption expenditure, 10.3% was for housing; 7.7% for weddings and 3.7% for domestic expenditure.

The profits of capital intensive agriculture are taken away by the market. Farmers are indebted basically due to the unfavourable terms of trade in the farm sector.

The toiling masses are fed up and disillusioned with the current policy regime. The youth seems pessimistic and hopeless in this society; that is why 75% of the farmers who died by suicide were young (below the age of 35). The facts of the report are a stark reply to the false propaganda spread against the farmers, which says that the farmers borrow for the wasteful spending; for building lavish houses or buying big cars. In reality, Punjab Agricultural University, insisted on the slogan, “Sade viah sade bhog, na karja na chinta rog (“Simple wedding and simple last rites, no debt no anxiety disorder”).

Also read: 88% of Over 9,000 Punjab Farmers Who Died by Suicide in 18 Years Were Debt-Ridden: Study

Many self-styled ‘wise men’ of the aristocracy slander farmers by chanting slogans and advising simple marriages. This report is a response to those leaders/ people who say that farmer suicides take place due to domestic conflicts, because, according to the report, 88% of suicides occurred due to debt, of which domestic conflicts made up only 17.18%.

Crop failure accounted for 8.32% and disease, 6.27%, of total suicides.

Empty political promises and the need for policy action

Ahead of the 2017 Punjab assembly elections, former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh had said, “Don’t commit suicide for a while, the debt problem will be solved completely.” Karja kurki khatam, Fasal di puri rakam (‘No debt no attachment, full price of crop’) was his main slogan. But the policy of a Rs 2 lakh debt waiver for small farmers, drafted by the debt waiver committee under chairman T. Haq, was full of discrepancies and completely hopeless.

While the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which claims to be a pro-farmer party, had assigned the door-to-door survey of rural suicides, no steps have been taken to address the debt problems of the farmers. Further, although the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had said, in the run-up to the 2022 assembly elections, that the problem of farmer suicides would be eliminated as soon as the government is formed, the problem still persists, despite the party sweeping the elections.

These parties have given the people nothing but despair. According to reports from three Punjab universities – Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana; Punjabi University, Patiala; and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar – the state government had formulated a policy in 2015 to immediately pay Rs 3 lakh compensation to the families of farmers who died by suicide. However, many such family members have now grown tired of walking around government offices and waiting for the compensation to come.

Many are disappointed and stressed, but our ruling class is completely ignoring these ground realities.

Deaths by suicide among farmers should be a matter of grave concern for all of us. In such a critical situation, the state must form an effective plan for resolving the agrarian crisis.

Farmers should start mounting struggles. The report also shows that farmers who are affiliated with an organisation or group have a much lower tendency to die by suicide than others. We must learn from this. History had shown that struggle is the only solution to our problems.

Even in the current situation, only struggles can put pressure on the government to compensate the families of the victims, fix remunerative prices for crops, waive off farmers’ debts, make huge public investment, and provide financial assistance and subsidies to develop a profitable farming sector.

Any decent society can only be formed by making its working people prosperous.

Darshan Pal is the state president of the Krantikari Kisan Union, Punjab.

If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers they can call to speak in confidence. Icall, a counselling service run by TISS, has maintained a crowdsourced list of therapists across the country. You could also take them to the nearest hospital.