Farm distress: Not just debt, small landholding and poor access to market are also killing farmers: Report

New Delhi: Sohan Lal Kadela, a debt-laden farmer from Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan committed suicide on Sunday. In a video he left behind, Kadela had a message for the Rajasthan government—farm loan waiver did not help. There have been hundreds of studies that try to find out the root cause of farmer’s suicide in India and a majority of the findings claimed debt was the primary trigger and the loan waiver was the solution to the problem.

For the first time, an in-depth study on the agrarian crisis and farmers' suicide conducted by the National Institute of Rural Development & Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR)—an autonomous body under the Union Ministry of Rural Development—has suggested that multiple factors including debt, higher tenancy cost to small land holding farmers and complete breakdown of institutional support are the main reasons for farmers' suicide.

The report has been submitted to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which had commissioned the research study in March 2017. The report said that nowhere in the world is there such a large number of farmers committing suicide like in India.

Based on the number of farmer suicides, four states were selected for the research—Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Further, two districts in each state with a maximum number of suicides and variation in cropping pattern with respect to irrigated and rainfed areas were selected.

Decoding the month-wise suicide cases in the four states with cropping pattern, the NIRDPR report said the maximum number of suicides in Telangana was reported between November-May (after kharif and rabi harvest), Karnataka between May-August (after rabi harvest), Maharashtra between May-December (after rabi and kharif harvest) and Madhya Pradesh in February (after rabi harvest). However, the study makes it clear that no single factor cannot be pointed out as a reason for suicides.

The majority of farmers still rely on money lenders (non-institutional sources) despite a spurt in institutional mechanism to provide credit at a reasonable rate of interest. While the total debt of the sample households from non-institutional sources amount to Rs 2.13 lakh, the same from institutional sources are lower at Rs 1.41 lakhs, the research said.

The NIRDPR study noted that though indebtedness is the root cause for farmer suicides in the four states, each state has its own characteristic phenomenon. In the case of Maharashtra, it was the lack of irrigation facilities and price volatility of cotton, in Karnataka incidence of suicides was found more concentrated in the northern part of the state which is mostly characterised by dryland farming.

The study further pointed out that it is high-interest rates from money lenders that trigger distress in farming households. While the rate of interest of institutional lending ranges from 8 to 12 percent, moneylenders and traders charge a whopping 24 to 36 percent. Almost all the families that were affected by farmers' suicides in the villages had a high amount of debt accumulated over the years from both institutional and non-institutional sources. However, the study found that at the time of suicides, the outstanding dues were higher with private money lenders.

The majority of the suicide victims of Telangana and Karnataka were found to have suffered from depression due to harassment over non-repayment of loans.

 Farm distress: Not just debt, small landholding and poor access to market are also killing farmers: Report

Representational image. Reuters

“There are many institutions that are ready to lend to people with a stable income at lower rates of interest. But, the crux of the matter is, these institutions are very much reluctant to lend to the farming community due to the uncertainty of their income and lower repayment capacity. This drives the farmers to end up with non-institutional credit with private money lenders at an exorbitant rate of interest,” the NIRDPR study said.

The high tenancy rate paid to the original landowners is another reason for farmer suicides. It said leasing land is resulting in a snake and ladder game where the ladder often turns into a snake. The majority of the households where farmer suicides have been reported belong to marginal and small farmers which clearly shows that they were augmenting their land base by leasing land. This has created problems for the farmers to bear the risk as well as distress, as informal tenants are not eligible to access formal credit based on the land and government-sponsored schemes like crop insurance. Therefore, they have to rely on informal money lenders for credit with higher interest rates to meet the cost of farm expenses.

The NIRDPR cited poor implementation of agricultural marketing reforms and low reach of minimum support price (MSP), which was adding to the farmers' distress. While the maximum procurement quantity by agencies like National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED), Food Corporation of India (FCI) is limited to percentage of the total production of a state for that crop, in practice the targets given to these crops was minimal as seen in case of oilseeds —soybean and groundnut, and pulses — urad and moong. The target given by the Central government to various procurement agencies pan-India during kharif 2017 was less than 12 lakh tonne, which accounts for only 4 percent of the total production of these crops.

“Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana are the states with the maximum number of mandis with eNAM (National Agriculture Market) accounting for 58, 54 and 44 respectively. The multiple buyer-transparent-price-discovery chain, as expected from e-NAM, is not happening at present in these states. The supply side bottlenecks of the sector such as fragile asset base, imperfect markets for inputs and outputs, less access to credit, unskilled labour force, less information on high-yield variety seeds, lack of apolitical collectivisation and negative externalities arising from land and management, continue to dog the sector even after seven decades only with changing intensity,” NIRDPR report added.

The study in the four suicide-prone states also noted the poor implementation of supplementary employment programmes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). The implementation of MGNREGA is yet to be a success as the percentage of families who have completed 100 days of employment was as low as 1.40 percent in Karnataka, 3.35 percent in Madhya Pradesh, 6.79 percent in Telangana and 10.75 percent in Maharashtra during 2017-18.

So, what are the problems faced by farmers on a daily basis? The study pointed out that a slew of them—a high number of dependent family members, efforts to augment land size with informal tenancy, poor asset base, absence of multiple livelihood base, higher non-institutional lending, multiple micro-credits for various purposes including increased expenditure for social, health and education, limited coverage under crop insurance and increased individualisation—were alienating poor farmers from the society.

The problems in the agriculture sector are many ranging from a decline in public investment on irrigation, missing links between policy, practice and extension systems, decline in pasture lands, marginal and small farmers out of banking system, market intervention through few crops, limited offtake of employment guarantee programmes, poor physical and social connectivity of rural households.

The report suggested that drought or sudden dry spell during peak season leading to crop failure was the major cause of farmer suicides as revealed by 53 percent of the households. The households that were surveyed in the four states reported this as the major factor of distress to be dealt with in farming. The majority of the suicide victims of Telangana and Karnataka had been found to have slipped into depression due to harassment over non-repayment of loans. This led them to perceive that their social status was impacted in the village.

In the study, it was found that on average 32 percent of the households mentioned that their families had people with marriageable age and this brought them under stress.

“Major reasons identified for change in socio-economic status of the deceased households were addiction to alcohol (62.5 percent), harassment over non-repayment of loans (46.5 percent), deterioration of economic status (36 percent), problem with spouse (36 percent) followed by chronic illness (20.5 percent),” the NIRDPR report said.

The NIRDPR report citing famous sociologist David Émile Durkheim's theory of categorisation of suicides—egoistic, altruistic and anomic—said farmers' suicides seem to belong to all these three categories. It is a case of 'egoistic' when they are harassed by lenders; a case of ‘altruistic’ when agriculture as a livelihood is not in a position to meet the increased cost of living; and a case of ‘anomic’ when a series of adverse negative incidents snowball into distress. “Therefore, it is difficult to draw a one-to-one correspondence between the agrarian distress and corresponding farmers' suicides,” the report stated.

The autonomous body in its report has also suggested some cure for the present agrarian crisis including an increase in the public investment in irrigation with focus on minor irrigation systems, encouraging seed village programme (SVP) in every panchayat, reducing the dependency on agriculture as the major source of livelihood by rural households, implementation of national land use policy by reviving state land use boards with statutory functions, promoting crops which are less irrigation-intensive and nutritive in rainfed areas and promote livestock-based livelihoods extensively in the rural areas.

The NIRDPR has also recommended that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) must ensure the financial inclusion of the peasant communities by providing them in old age pension, accident coverage, health coverage, consumption loans for education, house and marriage, and production-linked loans in a comprehensive manner. It said the RBI should also promote inclusion of tenant farmers for crop loans, interest subvention, crop insurance, loan waiver and direct cash benefit schemes.

Updated Date: Jun 27, 2019 19:16:26 IST