Everybody loves farm suicides

Remember the book Every-body Loves a Drought, exposing how many vested interests benefit from drought relief? We need another book titled Everybody Loves Farm Suicides.

Politicians love suicides. These helped the Congress to win the recent Andhra Pradesh election. They may help the Opposition to win the Maharashtra election in September, and the Kerala election in 2006.

Chandrababu Naidu says 750 farmers have committed suicide since the Congress came to power in AP, since government compensation is inducing suicide in desperate farmers seeking money for their families (like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman).

Naidu hopes to return to power using the suicide theme that just ousted him.

NGOs campaigning against commercial crops and globalisation will claim that the suicides vindicate their ideologies, and so will get more donations and seminar invitations. Many journalists will win awards for suicide reportage.

Bureaucrats will get their usual cut. Those who love suicides most are moneylenders.

Earlier, they had little hope of recovering money from indebted farmers. Now they will claw back the compensation: cash for bereaved families will end up with delighted moneylenders.

NGOs have estimated suicides in AP at over 900 last year, and at 3,000 in the last five years. These are actually gross under-estimates. As I showed last week, suicides are common the world over (14.5 per lakh people), and in AP (13.6 per lakh).

Despite under-reporting, AP recorded 9,905 suicides in 2000. Since over half the population consists of farmers, farm suicides must have exceeded 5,000 that year alone.

So, what looks like a sudden wave of farm suicides in various states is, in fair measure, a wave of media reports discovering what has long been happening.

In Bangladesh, a newspaper studying the Gazipur garment belt discovered 47 suicides and concluded that garment-making causes suicide. The truth is that you can look at any occupation or region and find suicides aplenty, so common is the tragedy.

As I showed last week, suicides have limited correlation with financial stress, and most correlation with psychological and genetic problems. In the US, up to one-tenth of people in various states take anti-depressants.

In India, anti-depressant medicines could help curb suicides, yet this is barely mentioned in the current debate since it will not advance the ideological or political interests of most actors.

Ideally, anti-depressants should be taken under expert medical supervision. But so should all prescription drugs, and in India that is rarely the case.

We need an awareness campaign on early warning signs of depression and precautionary medicine. Of the millions facing financial stress, only a few thousand commit suicide, and some of these can be saved by medicine.

Easy availability of means of death is correlated globally with suicide rates. In the US, guns are easily available. In India, pesticides are.

We should tax rather than subsidise pesticides, to discourage not just suicides but poisoning of groundwater by excess pesticide use.

Official records show that only 5% of suicides in India are caused by poverty and financial stress: family problems and illness are the main causes.

Spending on pesticides and fertilisers is a minor cause of debt, much smaller than debt incurred for marriages, death feasts and other social obligations. Suicide is not linked to poverty.

Many AP farmers committing suicide owed lakhs, and nobody lends such large sums to the poor.

According to C Hanumantha Rao, former Planning Commission Member, many suicides have been committed by farmers spending lakhs on digging wells, finding no water, and then borrowing to dig further in desperation.

Even those who find water may find their wells running dry after a few years, so systematic is the depletion of the water table by excessive pumping. Water is life-blood for farmers, but that life-blood is ebbing along with the water table.

Free power leads to excess pumping, falling water tables, and ultimately to suicides. Groundwater is scarce and precious, yet it is free for farmers.

Groundwater use should be regulated, and electricity should be charged at full cost to discourage over-pumping. Instead, politicians compete to provide free power and water.

Governments need to subsidise the poor and provide safety nets. They should not subsidise inputs, which ultimately mean subsidising suicide.

Ideally, governments should tax instead of subsidising inputs like power, water and pesticides, and regulate groundwater use. Higher input costs for farmers should be offset by higher agricultural prices.

Politicians must know that such subsidies lead, in the long run, to suicides. But what do they care as long as they can use suicides to get elected? What do ideologues care as long as they can blame globalisation, capitalism, and everything other than free power? What do moneylenders care as long as they can claw back compensation from bereaved families?

Everybody loves farm suicides.

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