The vast majority of suicides are of non farmers. Why are their deaths treated as lesser tragedies than those of farmers?
Because presenting farm suicides as a single mass tragedy can win awards for journalists, TRPs for TV anchors, donations for NGOs opposing commercial crops and globalization, slogans for leftists attributing everything to class war, and votes for opposition parties. Many states now compensate suicide-hit families, delighting moneylenders who had lent to these families and can now use muscle to claw back their dues from the compensation money.
That’s why I titled an earlier Swaminomics in August 2004 “Everybody loves farm suicides”. India’s suicide rate of 11 per lakh people is roughly the global average. The highest rates are in Greenland (83 lakh), Lithuania (38 lakh) and South Korea (28.5 lakh). China’s rate (22.2 lakh) is double India’s. The Indian rate is lower than in rich countries with big welfare systems and very few farmers: Belgium (19), France (14.7), US (12.6), Japan (12.3), Germany (12.5) and the UK (11.8).
A field-based research study in The Lancet (by Pandit et al) suggests that actual suicides may be 35-40% higher than officially recorded. Many people are reluctant to corded. Many people are reluctant to report suicides. If so, India’s rate is close to Belgium’s. Underestimation is common in developing countries. Islam views suicide as a terrible sin, so Pakistan claims a suicide rate of just 1.1 lakh! The global suicide pattern shows no close link with farming, poverty or welfare. The overwhelming cause of suicide is mental stress, not financial stress. In the US, 2-15% of depressed people commit suicide. Up to two-thirds of suicide victims are depressed. Mental stress (and hence suicides) will doubtless rise in times of financial stress. But the underlying mental issues cannot be cured by loan waivers and subsidies.
Using non-official data, the Lancet study says suicide rates are no higher for farmers than non-farmers. This has been contested by some Cambridge researchers, whose work I find very unconvincing. Some studies based on official farm suicides show them 20-40% higher than for non-farmers in recent years. But economist Pramit Bhattacharya shows that in 2013 even the official farm suicide rate fell below that of non-farmers.
Instead of tom-tomming this, the media have ignored it.They would rather focus on the suicide of a farmer at an AAP rally against land acquisition, suggesting (wrongly) that this causes suicide.
Why is the media ignoring the fall in the farm suicide rate to below the national rate? Because no journalist will get a medal and no TV anchor will get TRPs for revealing that farmers have become less suicidal than others. Rather, this will suggest that the awards and eyeballs that journalists, academics and TV anchors got in past years were perhaps undeserved, and who wants to admit that?
Opposition politicians, left academics and NGOs portray farm suicides as the result of despair and poverty. But the Lancet study shows conclusively that most suicide deaths occurred in richer states and highly educated people.Suicides are ten times more likely in the relatively rich south than the poor north.
One California study showed that the risk of a person committing suicide in the first week after buying a handgun was 57 times higher than for other gun owners. In Washington DC, a temporary ban on handguns produced a 23% fall in the suicide rate. Why? Because, during a period of depression, the mere availability of a lethal weapon increases the chances of suicide.
India proves that too. Pesticide poisoning is the biggest form of suicide. Farmers growing fruit, vegetables and commercial crops keep more pesticides at home than grain farmers. Unsurprisingly, insecticide-using farmers have by far the highest suicide rates.
Many suicides (notably in Andhra Pradesh) were of farmers who borrowed heavily to drill tubewells that quickly ran dry. Free electricity in many states (including AP) has greatly lowered water tables, ruining tubewells. Thus free electricity causes suicide. But will any politician, NGO, or award-winning journalist campaign against free farm electricity? Will they campaign for anti depressants and psychiatric subsidies and freebies? Sadly, no. treatment rather than subsidies and freebies? Sadly, no.
The Lancet study concludes, “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. Reductions in binge alcohol drinking through regulations, higher alcohol taxation, or brief interventions in primary care might also reduce suicide deaths.” Reduced pesticides use would help. Genetically modified crops reduce pesticide use drastically, and might check suicides. So, activists opposing GM crops may actually be promoting suicides. Please abandon ideological agendas and get medical help to those who need it most.