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Climate change and droughts: Why Indian farmers are taking their own lives?

10:37 AM May 20, 2023 IST | Ground report
climate change and droughts  why indian farmers are taking their own lives

Once a thriving farming community, the villages of rural India now faced an alarming crisis. Rising suicide rates among farmers had aroused concern from experts and activists. They acknowledged a worrying link between increasingly severe weather events and the despair gripping India's agricultural workforce. Effective action was urgently needed to address the risk factors that endanger farmers and the climatic events that exacerbate their hardships.

A research report from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has uncovered a disturbing trend: climate change is causing a rise in farmer suicides in rural India.

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The report suggests that below-average rainfall and resulting dry conditions are major contributing factors to the rise in farmer suicides. The National Crime Records Office reports that farmers accounted for 15.08 per cent of suicides in India in 2021.

Farmers dying by suicide due to drought

A study by researchers examined the correlation between weather and suicide in five states with high suicide rates: Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Telangana.

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The study period spanned from 2014-2015 to 2020-2021. The research findings indicated that below-normal rainfall during this period was linked to an increase in farmer suicides. The research revealed that when annual rainfall was five per cent below average, an average of 810 farmers died by suicide.

The study also used a regression model to determine that a 25 per cent reduction in rainfall could result in an annual increase in farmer suicides to 1,188.

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The researchers behind the study noted that climate change has caused an increase in the frequency of droughts, and these conditions are now spreading to previously unaffected regions. According to the United Nations, drought caused a 2-5% decline in India's GDP between 1998 and 2017.

More than 75% of Chhattisgarh and nearly two-thirds of Maharashtra have been identified as highly drought-prone regions. Similarly, 44% of Madhya Pradesh is also at risk of drought. Nationally, approximately two-thirds of the country is susceptible to drought.

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"Climate chaos is already here and many countries are already feeling its effects," said Ritu Bharadwaj, principal researcher with the IIED. However, since their income is highly dependent on the weather, farmers are on the front lines of this crisis. Climate change is making farming an extremely risky, potentially dangerous and loss-making endeavor for farmers, increasing their risk of suicide."

Researchers have already confirmed that droughts and floods are the main causes of farmer suicides in India. The research highlights several factors that put farmers at risk. Especially in those rural areas where farmers' income is lower, it is becoming the reason for farmer suicides.

Why are India’s farmers at risk?

Indian farmers face a multitude of risks that contribute to their alarming suicide rates. Compared to urban areas, rural regions witness nearly double the suicide rate.

Several factors that put farmers at risk can be identified, falling into broad categories:

Economic Factors: Approximately 85% of farmers are classified as small or marginal, operating at subsistence levels without the ability to save for emergencies. Studies show that states that focus on cash crops like cotton tend to have higher suicide rates among farmers. Higher costs associated with growing cash crops, limited access to formal credit, and inadequate savings to deal with crop or market failures all contribute to the risk of farmers accumulating debt.

Political factors: The liberalization of the agricultural sector has led to a shift from subsistence farming to cash crops. India now produces about 23% of the world's cotton, but this dominance has also contributed to the land crisis. Small farmers, in particular, face a higher risk of suicide. The bulk of India's cotton crop consists of genetically modified 'Bt' cotton, which has proven to be less resistant to pests, diseases and water stress. Despite a significant increase in the area devoted to growing Bt cotton, productivity has declined. By 2021/22, the national cotton yield per hectare was only 60% of the world average.

Demographic factors: Empirical studies have established a link between illiteracy and the suicide risk of farmers. While lack of education is not a direct cause, it exacerbates the distress and isolation experienced by individual farmers and their families, making them more vulnerable.

Social Factors: A multi-state survey conducted in 2017 identified several factors commonly cited as contributing to farmer suicides. These include drug or alcohol addiction, diminished social reputation, family conflicts, and the health of family members.

How is climate change having an effect?

The impact of climate change on farmers in India cannot be ignored. Droughts, which have become more frequent and widespread due to climate change, have significantly affected the agricultural sector. In recent years, almost two-thirds of the country, including badly affected states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, have been prone to drought. Alarmingly, these states also report high suicide rates among farmers.

To understand the relationship between rainfall variations and farmer suicides, an extensive analysis was conducted using annual data from Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Telangana. The findings revealed a negative correlation between rainfall deficits and the number of farmers who die by suicide in the five states. This means that suicide rates are consistently higher during years with below normal rainfall.

In the states with the highest suicide rates, farmers are heavily involved in growing cotton, which requires significant investments in seeds, pesticides, and insecticides. To finance these expenses, farmers often borrow from formal and informal sources.

However, if drought or erratic rains cause the cotton crop to fail, farmers will be unable to pay their debts. Unfortunately, such crop losses are not uncommon. In recent years, around a third or more of all crops have been lost on approximately 35 million hectares of land, a staggering area slightly larger than Germany.

MNREGA can save lives of farmers

IIED's research report also suggests that farmers' suicide rates were lower when they had access to employment and wages through India's Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA) social security program.

The study found that as the number of working days provided under the scheme rose from 50 million to 150 million, the number of farmer suicides fell from 1,800 to 398 per year. It is important to note that the MNREGA scheme ensures 100 days of employment and wages to rural households each year.

The researchers highlighted several factors that contribute to high suicide rates among Indian farmers, such as poor harvests, reliance on cash crops like cotton, poverty, limited savings, drug and alcohol addiction, and the lack of education and awareness about social protection programs.

Expensive debt is also a major problem, as farmers often have to rely on informal sources due to lack of access to information about government schemes, leading to financial stress when crops fail.

The researchers, Ritu Bharadwaj, N Karthikeyan and Ira Deulgaonkar, quantified the impact of rainfall deficits on farmer suicides. They found that even a five percent variation from normal rainfall caused an average of 810 farmers to die by suicide in a year. Disturbingly, their regression model predicted that a 25 percent rainfall deficit would result in an alarming increase of 1,188 farmer suicides per year.

29 suicides everyday

The agricultural sector in India witnessed a higher number of suicides in 2020 compared to the previous year, with a significant increase in the proportion of victims among agricultural workers, which increased by 18%.

Maharashtra had the highest number of suicides with 4,006 in the agricultural sector, followed by Karnataka (2016), Andhra Pradesh (889), Madhya Pradesh (735) and Chhattisgarh (537), making a total of 10,677 suicides in 2020. The same four states topped the list in 2019.

The rise in the number of suicides among farmworkers may indicate increased distress among landless farmers who are ineligible for financial support under the flagship "income support plan" centre: PM Kisan. Most of these farmers work as day labourers due to a lack of means to farm on rented land.

Data from the National Bureau of Crime Records on suicides in India, released on Thursday, revealed that the country reported a higher number of suicides in the sector last year, after a decline in such numbers for three consecutive years since 2016 when it recorded suicides of 11, 379 people in the sector.

Although the number of suicides among farmers/growers decreased from 5,957 in 2019 to 5,579 in 2020, the number of such cases among farmworkers increased from 4,324 in 2019 to 5,098 last year. The data only reflects the profession of the people who died by suicide and has no link to the cause of the suicide, as stated in the NCRB report.

Agriculture: India's economic backbone

With more than 50% of the population dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, India's land crisis is coming to a head. Falling crop prices, rising transport and storage costs, and a rise in farmer suicides pose a major challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's promise to double farm income in five years when he came to power in 2014.

Despite the repeal of controversial agricultural laws aimed at modernizing the sector, farmer groups argue that the government does not comply with the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for crops.

The situation is particularly dire in Maharashtra, where smaller farm holdings, debt cycles and erratic weather patterns only exacerbate the problem. With the burden on farmers increasing, there is a need for the government to understand the gravity of the situation and take decisive action to support those in the agricultural sector.

Recommendations

To address this problem, the researchers recommend that governments implement social insurance schemes to provide farmers with food or cash security during climate and economic crises. Creating long-term assets that can provide security during humanitarian crises may also be a viable solution. By taking these steps, it is possible to prevent the tragic loss of life among India's struggling farmers.

Farmers require support to manage the amplified risks associated with production and markets due to climate change. The main risk farmers face is market risk in the form of price fluctuations of which they are unaware. It is crucial that farmers have access to forward-looking commodity prices while planning their crops or borrowing for inputs. Policymakers must also consider the impact of climate change on farmers when formulating policy.

Insurance can play an important role in preventing and mitigating the impact of the climate crisis on farmers. Furthermore, it is essential to prioritize mental health care for farmers to prevent them from taking such tragic steps.

Suicide is a preventable public health issue that can be addressed with timely and evidence-based interventions, often at low cost. In case you or someone you know is displaying signs of distress, please reach out to iCALL at 9152987821, a helpline run by TISS. Also, visit www.aasra.info or call 91-9820466726 (English/Hindi)

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