NCRB's silence on farmer suicides: RTI reply reveals why organisation has not released data since 2016
The number of farmer suicides is the tip of the iceberg of an agricultural crisis, and by not making “uncomfortable” figures public under various pretexts, the government is doing a disservice to itself and to the public at large
An RTI response demanding the number of farmer suicides from 2016-2018 has revealed that while data for 2016 is underfinalisation, data for 2017 and 2018 is not with the NCRB yet.
Data is being collected under different categories, skewing the numbers, and activists have reported that survivors have to go through undue stress to to establish the legitimacy of the suicide and get compensation.
With elections round the corner, there is a dim chance of any official data being published in the event that will upset the apple cart.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, has been reporting the numbers of farmer suicides unfailingly from 1995 to 2015. It is part of the annual report on Accidental Deaths and Suicides (ADSI) for the whole country.
Since 2015, there has been no annual report of Accidental Deaths and Suicides (ADSI); the last one was released in 2016, with data for the previous year. It is in this report that the NCRB provides the data it compiles on farmers’ suicides.
An application under the Right to Information (RTI) act, filed by the author, demanding farmers’ suicides data for the whole country from 2016 to 2018 (three years) and the reasons for not making them public, elicited the response that the data for accidental deaths and suicides for 2016 is under finalisation. In a reply dated 8 January, 2019, senior statistical officer Sanjay Kumar said that the data for 2017 and 2018 is not with the Bureau as yet. He then went on to give navigational details of how to access the 2015 data and the general information available on the website.
It is surprising that the Bureau, which been collecting annual records and publishing them for 20 years, does not have data for 2017 and 2018, and it is only in the process of finalising data for 2016. While this is not the only data that has not been made public, and data on jobs and the employment rate has been suppressed, farm suicides data are a low priority anyway. When 108 Indian economists wrote a public letter raising concerns over political interference in statistical data, farm suicides numbers — or the lack of them — did not figure in their litany.
The economists demanded that voices be raised against this tendency to suppress uncomfortable data, and the suicides of farmers can easily fit into that category. Some states had already reported zero farm suicides, and there is an attempt by the NCRB to introduce new categories and reduce the farm suicide numbers since 2014.
However, it did have a special section for farm suicides since its 2015 report. “Considering the paramount importance of this issue, the NCRB in consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare and Ministry of Home Affairs started collecting data on exclusively farmer suicides since 2014. Data on suicides in farming sector now include suicides committed by farmers/cultivators as well as agricultural labourers,” according to the NCRB. So where is that data now?
Till 2013, the NCRB compiled suicide data for farmers in a single category — “self-employed persons in agriculture". From 2014 onward, the NCRB introduced agricultural labourers as a category as well. “For the purpose of this report, ‘Farmers/Cultivators’ include persons whose profession is farming and who either cultivates his/her own land or who cultivates lease land with or without the assistance of agricultural labourers. ‘Agricultural Labourers’ are those persons who primarily work in farming sector (agriculture/horticulture) and whose main source of income is from agricultural labour activities,” it said. This led to data being collected under different categories, skewing the numbers.
The data for 2015 clearly shows that the percentage share of farm suicides as a percentage of total suicides has gone up from 8.7 percent in 2013 to 9.4 percent in 2015. The NCRB report said that, “A total of 12,602 persons involved in farming sector (consisting of 8,007 farmers/cultivators and 4,595 agricultural labourers) have committed suicides during 2015, accounting for 9.4 percent of total suicide victims (1, 33,623) in the country.” The nine-page chapter analyses the causes of suicides, as well as land holding patterns in various states.
Not publishing data since 2015 is a major lacuna and points to another possible case of suppressing facts. From 1995 to 2015, nearly 321,428 farmers have committed suicide in India, according to data from the NCRB. In 2015, “State/Union Territory (UT)-wise analysis reveals that majority of suicides by persons engaged in farming sector were reported in Maharashtra (4,291 suicides) followed by Karnataka (1,569 suicides), Telangana (1,400 suicides), Madhya Pradesh (1,290 suicides), Chhattisgarh (954 suicides), Andhra Pradesh (916 suicides) and Tamil Nadu (606 suicides) during 2015, they together accounted for 87.5 percent of total such suicides in the country (11,026 out of 12,602 suicides)."
Agrarian distress and farmers suicides cannot be wished away. By not publishing the numbers as regularly as it used to, the NCRB and the government are inviting suspicion. The proposed merger of the NCRB with the Bureau of Police Research and Development has been kept in abeyance in 2018, according to a letter uploaded on the NCRB website. The data is collected from police stations, and is in existence, as another RTI application revealed, though the data is restricted to Maharashtra alone.
Mumbai-based RTI activist Jeetendra Ghadge sought information on farmer suicides in Maharashtra from 2014 to 2019 and got it. The data shows that in 2014, 2039 farmers committed suicide; in 2015, it was 3263 suicides; in 2016, it was 3052 suicides; in 2017, it was 2919 suicides; and in 2018, it was 2761 suicides. The numbers seem to be going down. However, there is a discrepancy in the data from NCRB and Maharashtra for 2014 and 2015, which includes agricultural labourers. Some states like Chhattisgarh have reported zero suicides in the past, and some suicides are entered under other heads like “self-employed others”. That is also the reason why the National Commission on Farmers had recommended a suicide census to standardise and validate figures from all states, but this is something that has not happened.
Farm suicides are also not recorded due to agrarian distress and are passed off as due to depression or alcoholism. Activists working on the issue have lamented the undue stress the survivors have to go through to establish the legitimacy of the suicide and get compensation. Since 2001, barely a quarter of the families where the farmer has committed suicide in the Amravati division, which is the worst affected in Maharashtra, are granted the one lakh rupee compensation, according to official figures. While the government proposed to increase this to Rs 5 lakh, nothing has been finalised, according to the information given to Jeetendra Ghadge.
The number of suicides is the tip of the iceberg of the crisis in agriculture and by not making “uncomfortable” figures public under various pretexts, the government is doing a disservice to itself and to the public at large. With elections round the corner, there is a dim chance of any official data being published in the event that will upset the apple cart.
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