Any investigation of the appalling increase in farmer suicides has to be set against the backdrop of two crises. While the agrarian crisis in some parts of India has become profoundly intractable, there has also been a general increase in the level of age- adjusted suicide mortality rates across the country. According to data compiled by Srijit Mishra, SMRs for males have risen from 8 per 100,000 in 1980 to 14 per 100, 000 in 2001. The rate for farmers, according to this data is marginally higher than for the population as a whole. What is striking about the data though is that the states that have done economically well over the last decade or so have the highest SMRs, while the proverbial poor performers like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar register amongst the lowest SMRs.
Even if we allow of lapses in data collection, this result is indeed quite striking. It suggests the general validity of 'mile Durkheim's classic insight that suicide could, amongst other things, be seen as an index of the social dissolution that occurs in times of great change. In times of great social change, as traditional structures break down, settled moral norms dissolve, social bonds become less effective and the individual is thrown upon himself. Durkheim argued that both economic disasters and what he called the 'crises of prosperity' could have the same effects. His suggested antidote was to invent new forms of sociability: associations and support structures that reconnect individuals to society.
While the details of this argument have been challenged, the general argument has intuitive plausibility. But how is it relevant to farmer's suicides' Don't we have a more straightforward explanation of the increasing spate of suicides' Agriculture has become less lucrative as a profession, public investment is declining, marketing restrictions still allow middlemen to siphon off revenue, input costs are increasing rapidly putting farmers in greater debt, cash crops have weakened food security systems, official sources of credit are in relative short supply, the procurement price system has broken down, populism has prevented addressing real needs of farmers, and farmers are not insured against price risks. And to top it all, many farmers are in a Catch 22 situation: if the harvest is good the prices come down and they suffer, if it is not they still suffer.
Many of the elements in this story are obviously correct. It is astonishing that the noose of indebtedness is once again tightening around so many farmers, though whether this has to do with lack of official credit, or the fact that farmers' incomes are not keeping pace with input costs is a matter of some debate. Some economists argue that even if you poured in more credit in the current system, the central problem will still remain: some farmers are not earning enough income through either the market or government-supported price mechanism to repay debts. I must confess that the conundrum of providing stable agriculture incomes does not seem to admit of an easy solution. Use of technology, creation of agro-processing industries, high value added agriculture can help increase incomes and productivity. But their effects on employment elasticity, the number of people that can be employed, are still indeterminate. The classic solution to this dilemma was to simply make more and more people move out of agriculture, and continue to subsidize the small numbers that remain. As Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee argued recently, in the long run India needs a strategy for both urbanization and generating employment outside agriculture. The only way to liberate Indian farmers may be to liberate them from agriculture, but this is, at best a very long-term proposal. In the short to medium term, the human costs of the tragedy unfolding in agriculture are appalling.
This brings us back to Durkheim. While farmers need all kinds of investment, credit and technology support they can get, there is another factor in the farmers' suicides that is being less discussed. There is a standard assumption that villages are bound by strong communal bonds and ties of sharing, while urban existence is individualistic and selfish. But one of the striking things about much of rural India, especially in those states that have experienced profound change is this: both economic and social decisionmaking is becoming more individualized. Surveys done in districts with high farmer suicides suggest that they were pretty much on their own: most people, including their own family members, did not have intimations of the depth of their economic problems or suffering.
As they are drawn into wider and more extensive chains of dependency on outside forces: the state and the market, structures of cooperation within villages begin to weaken. But perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the kind of anomie facing most farmers is this: the lack of a real associational life in which they can participate and be recognized. It is absolutely astonishing that the depth of crisis in these districts has not produced anything resembling an agrarian movement, or new forms of farmers' associations. For all the talk of rural India, the slogan 'Jai kisan' seems like a relic of history, farmers' movements have been more or less moribund for a number of years now, kisan rallies have become pale shadows of their own past and there are few farmer leaders who can seem to articulate the problem.
It is almost as if the occupational identity of being a farmer in some areas is being dissolved, because it has nothing but individual will to sustain it. Despite the increasing representation of 'agriculturists' in parliament, farmers are recognized only as abstractions. Political parties that built there support bases amongst farmers like the Lok Dal or the Nationalist Congress Party, now control the oligarchic nexus of the state, cooperative banks, marketing boards that marginalize farmers even further. State-level organizations like the Rashtriya Ryotu Sangh in Karnataka are too ineffective. It should be a matter of considerable disquiet that while agriculture is a state subject, the Centre will now be taking some of the most fateful decisions for Indian agriculture as part of international trade negotiations. Whatever one's views on the globalization of Indian agriculture, there is something disturbing about the way in which the issue of agriculture will be further taken out of the rough-and-tumble of state politics, under the pretext of the treaty powers of the Central government. There are no movements or occupational groups connecting their identity as farmers to the rest of society.
This is all by way of saying that while economic assistance and social support are necessary for farmers, the depth of their despair may be increased by their invisibility and lack of avenues for organized participation. Durkheim was right to think that it is not absolute levels of suffering that determine suicide rates but change. He was also right in thinking that change is better managed if individuals can acquire some semblance of collective control over their destinies. Shortage of credit is easily fixed, but the sense that your vocational identity is under assault and has no place in the unfolding drama of the country is much harder to repair.
Perhaps Sharad Pawar was being a shrewd politician when he sent the signal that ousting Jagmohan Dalmiya and taking control of Indian cricket was just about the most important thing he could do while he was agriculture minister. But it underlies the central social fact that forms the background to farmers' suicides: their anomie is enhanced because they are rendered invisible, their associational life is moribund and their political options closed.