A study on suicides in India that was released today seems to have busted one of the most repetitive rural development stories in recent times: the farmer suicides.
The study published in the latest edition of the Lancet medical journal (dated 23 June) says that most of the suicides in India occur in rural areas, but agricultural workers are not at higher risk than others.
“Although most suicide deaths occur in rural areas, our findings do not suggest that suicide is any more prevalent in agricultural workers (including farmers) than it is in any other profession,” says the report.
The findings of the study show that the farmer suicide story, dramatically played up by certain sections of the media, had been mere conjecture derived out of certain visible signs than a fact.
Perhaps that majority of the suicides occurred in rural areas and about half of them were due to consumption of pesticides, had led to the media conclusion that more farmers, than others, died in many parts of India. In fact, during the height of the farmer suicide stories, some research specialists had pointed out the need for case-controlled studies for arriving at such conclusions.
Interestingly, the real story is exactly the opposite, going by the Lancet report.
“Suicide deaths in unemployed individuals and individuals in professions other than agricultural work were, collectively, about three times greater than they were in agricultural workers,” says the study.
However, this is not to refute the fact that a large number of India’s farmers are in debt and despair, particularly after economic liberalisation. However, this phenomenon requires more rigorous research and nuanced analysis for effective policy interventions.
The report also demolishes a few other unsubstantiated myths about suicides in India, particularly on the underlying socio-economic factors.
For instance, the rate of suicide in the richer southern states is about 10 times higher than in the poorer northern states. And a substantially higher number occurs among the “individuals with higher levels of education compared with those who had below primary education.”
This facet should call for a detailed analysis of the socio-economic causes of despair and suicide. The linkages between poverty and despair are more complex than what is apparent. Additionally, the element of mental health, suicidal tendencies and socio-cultural factors among rural populations figure nowhere in the usual debates on the issue.
“The high suicide rates in south India might be partly attributable to a combination of prevalent suicidal thinking or planning and social acceptance of suicide as a method to deal with difficulties,” says the report. Of course, they also may have “ready access to highly lethal pesticides.”
The most startling finding, however, is the incidence of suicide in young people and what it forebodes for the country: about 60 per cent women and 40 per cent men who killed themselves belonged to the age group of 15-29 years. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people and will soon top maternal mortality among young women.
The report also highlights the magnitude of the problem in comparison to, say the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in the country. Suicide kills twice as many people as HIV/AIDS. The former hardly gets any public health attention while the latter gets a billion dollars.
Within the policy vacuum in addressing the endemic phenomenon of suicides, the most striking is the lack of attention from a public health perspective.
“Most Indians do not have community or support services for the prevention of suicide and have restricted access to care for mental illnesses associated with suicide, especially access to treatment for depression, which has been shown to reduce suicidal behaviours,” says the report.
It also notes that reductions in binge alcohol drinking through regulations, higher alcohol taxation, or brief interventions in primary care might also reduce suicide deaths in men and violence against women, which is often a determinant of suicide among them.
The report also proposes additional research on suicide among young people and comprehensive suicide prevention strategies.
However, the most immediate that the government can do is to control the availability of organophosphate pesticides. It costs nothing, but can save a few thousand rural lives.