Why Are So Many Farmers Killing Themselves?

Why Are So Many Farmers Killing Themselves?

In India (and beyond), farmers are committing suicide at a shocking rate. Modern Farmer investigates.

On an oven-hot morning in April, Rama Krishna bends over a few oblong coconuts scattered on his front porch. Chipping off the tops with a long machete, he pours the flavorful water trapped inside the husks into the throats of his five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son.

This is when he heard the motorcycles.

Krishna, 35, had woken early, much earlier than anyone else in the house. He lived in a three room building with his wife, his brother and his brother’s wife, his parents and his grandfather, with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Krishna split two acres of dry farmland with his younger brother in eastern Karnataka State, about four hundred miles due north of India’s southernmost tip. On that day, he uses the pre-dawn hours to inspect his peanuts, coconuts, and carcinogenic areca nuts –which are chewed across South Asia. If he got back to the porch fast enough he could experience real silence, before the farm’s small menagerie huddled against the house –the dogs and cows, the two goats— start to complain.

But this morning, the deep gurgling of motorcycles fills the heated air. Krishna’s 25-year-old wife, Shanthamma, his partner of the last six years, opens her eyes but stayed in bed. Her kids quickly pile in. She could hear the moneylenders were close.

Then Shanthamma hears no sound at all. But she knows it would take a good few minutes for the violence to stop. The moneylenders had beaten Krishna before. She had no idea how much money her husband owed but she knew he was in debt to state banks as well as to the moneylenders, their neighbors and of the same South Indian Vokkaliga caste: merchants from town, other farmers like her husband only prosperous or with brothers working in Bangalore or in the Arab Gulf.  Krishna had had no good crop for the past two years. Last year the seeds did not grow, the previous year there were no rains. He had borrowed money to hire a drilling company to dig four bore wells, but only one yielded any water.

He also borrowed money to become a cow trader. But three cows died. A buyer of several others failed to make payment yet was refusing to return the animals.

The next morning Krishna wakes up early as usual. He plays with his daughter, Lakshmi, and at 5:30 am he deposits the girl into his half-dozing wife’s bed. Shanthamma remembers hearing Krishna start his Honda Hero motorcycle before clutching Lakshmi and shutting her eyes. When she wakes again, Krishna is gone. By the afternoon, Krishna’s brother begins to worry and goes out to look for him. He locates Krishna’s bike parked unattended in the middle of a neighbor’s plot of land. A few feet away, he finds Krishna hanging from a tamarind tree.

A Wrenching Issue

Farmer suicide is a wrenching and contentious issue in India. There are more farmers in India than in any other country and the suicide rate for farmers is 48 percent higher than any other profession. Although rapidly urbanizing, 845 million Indians live in predominately rural areas, 20 million more people than in 2009 due to population growth, according to the World Bank. And almost all Indians now living in cities grew up in farming villages or small towns, or are only one generation away from the countryside.

Farming in India is grinding physical work, largely parceled by family with each new generation into increasingly smaller plots of land, and planted, picked, harvested, and hauled by hand. The roots of Indian farmer despair have been well researched and documented: livelihoods drained away by spiraling debt; crops and livestock destroyed by drought or unseasonable monsoon rains associated with climate change; plummeting water tables from rampant groundwater overuse; the loss of agricultural land to development; a collapse in cotton prices and a dependence on expensive genetically modified seeds; a near absence of rural mental health services and of public awareness of mental health disease.

The numbers detailing the shockingly-high rate of farmer suicide come from the 2011 Indian census and the National Crime Records Bureau, which tracks suicides (suicide is a crime in India).  But the Indian government defines “farmer” narrowly, usually as holders of a land title, which many farmers do not have, and also excludes agricultural day laborers –a category that is increasing even as the “cultivators” or land titled farmers decrease—and many women, who get categorized as simply “wives” –even though they frequently perform the most painstaking farming work.

Suicide also carries heavy social stigma, giving an incentive to misrepresent them as accidents to the National Crime Records Bureau. Reporting a suicide also amounts to an admission to the police of a criminal in the family, albeit a dead one. The unemployed have the highest suicide rate in India by job category, which absorbs the stats on farmers who commit suicide after migrating to cities. Some of the states with the highest numbers of farmer suicides, like Chhattisgarh and Karnataka, have begun to report, absurdly, zero new farmer suicides, even as a devastating drought has set in and cotton and other agricultural commodity prices have nosedived.

Still, the statistics are stark. Overall, a person living in a rural area is twice as likely to commit suicide as a person in an urban area, according to an investigation published in the medical journal The Lancet. About 17,000 Indian farmers have killed themselves each year between 2001 and 2011. An Indian farmer has committed suicide every half hour since 2001, according to numbers compiled by Palagummi Sainath, a dogged and unwavering chronicler of rural India at The Hindu newspaper.

The changing climate seems to also have played a part. Karnataka, where Rama Krishna lived, is just across the border from Andhra Pradesh, two of the five states –the other three are Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh— marked by increasingly extensive droughts and disappearing aquifers. In the mid-1990s, these five states accounted for half of all farmer suicides. Now they are where two-thirds of all of India’s farmer suicides occur, according to government census data. Farmer suicides are surging upward even as the number of farmers in these states is going down.

The Global Problem

But India is far from the only place that has seen farmers commit suicide at alarming rates.

The French research institute INVS released in October a preliminary study finding that French farmers commit suicide at a rate of once every two days, 20 percent more than the French population as a whole. Cattle farmers were killing themselves the most, and during a prolonged depression of French milk prices in 2008 a previous INVS investigation discovered suicide among dairy farmers was 47 percent higher than for the rest of France.

In China, farmers are turning to self-immolating or suicide by other means to dramatically protest land expropriation. As reported in a three-part investigative series by Ian Johnson in September in The New York Times, Chinese farmers are turning to suicide while the country’s overall suicide rate has sharply declined. The government’s blueprint to move 250 million rural dwellers to cities by 2025 has roiled the Chinese countryside, instigating tens of thousands of village-level political protests.

Australia, which overall has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, according to the World Health Organization, has an even higher proportional rural suicide morbidity rate –some years 20 percent higher. A spike occurred in the mid-2000s, during the country’s worst drought in a century. The UK’s foot-and-mouth crisis was the backdrop to a study in the academic journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine that concluded, “farmers are one of the professional groups at highest risk of suicide in England and Wales” and even singled out one farming community, in Devon, as a “particular cause of concern.” The paper also found British farmers are twice as likely to contemplate suicide against the overall population. Identified factors for the high farmer suicide including access to firearms, the prospect of unemployment, financial difficulties, and a sense of personal failure.

The same problems may stalk American farmers. There is evidence that farmer suicide, while not surging, is continuing to steadily plateau in the United States. Suicides already occur the most in predominately rural states (the top ten in descending order: Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, South Dakota, and tied for tenth, Arizona and Utah).

‘He Couldn’t Handle His Disappointment’

Chandrashekhariah A. B. sat on a chair in the far southwestern corner of Andra Pradesh, a monsoon-dependent agricultural state, his bare feet planted on the tiled floor, in the middle of the big room in the house where he and his four brothers and their wives and 10 children live. Chandrashekhariah and his brothers live in a village reached after a three hour northwesterly drive from Bangalore, just off the four-lane toll road that passes first the National Bureau of Agriculturally Important Insects and then the busy international airport and then endless residential developments and roadside dosa restaurants.

His eyes seemed to track the cracks on the wall ahead of him as struggled to explain why his fifth brother, Rajanna, killed himself in March. “He couldn’t handle his disappointment,” Chandrashekhariah finally said, his voice soft. “He was always concerned about the water.”

By nature, Rajanna would jump to conclusions very quickly, Chandrashekhariah continued, and got upset very quickly. “Suicide was not really necessary, a hasty decision.” It was difficult for Rajanna to see past immediate problems; and he was an introvert, never speaking about the challenges on the farm, which was his primary responsibility.

Rama Krishna's Honda motorcycle, which he rode to a neighbor's field to hang himself from a tamarind tree. The cow is a gift from the elder sister of Shanthamma, Krishna's widow, so her children would have milk to drink.
25-year-old Shanthamma, standing underneath a photo of her husband, Rama Krishna.
 Rama Krishna's 100-year-old grandfather. He spends all day sitting on the porch. He can no longer speak..
A scarecrow on a farm in Western Karnataka.

    Seven months after Rajanna committed suicide, the farm’s wilted jasmine flowers and meager peanut crop are still unpicked. Prices have recently fallen by half. The most the brothers can hope to recoup is a quarter of what Rajanna spent on seeds and fertilizers. The ground yielded little “because it’s all rain dependent,” said Chandrashekhariah, “and even if we dig bore wells it’s not possible to change things because there’s no ground water.” A changing climate is a factor:  Chandrashekhariah said that during his father’s time, rain was never an issue. “We could have a decent life without loans,” he said. Seventy-percent of Indian farms rely on the subcontinent’s seasonal monsoons.

    Rajanna had gone to the banks and the moneylenders so he could rent equipment to dig a bore well. With help from his brothers and other farmers during the night, Rajanna dug 1,000 feet into the ground before giving up.

    He often slept on his farmland, in the rows of fragrant jasmine meant to decorate women’s hair or for garlands drooped around statues and framed pictures of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu, or as scattered petals for wedding celebrations across India. A few weeks after giving up on finding underground water, Rajanna spent the afternoon lying in his white jasmines. Sometime in the evening a family member found his gnarled body. He had swallowed agricultural pesticides, the most common method for suicide in India. His brothers rushed Rajanna to a hospital in a nearby town called Sire. Ten minutes later a doctor pronounced him dead.

    What To Do

    Nothing is simple about the farmer suicide phenomenon.  That the high rate of farmer suicides is often first traced to the trauma of the early 1990s — when India, devastated by financial crisis, embraced a raft of free market reforms, kickstarting the current era of economic liberalization — further convolutes a tangled debate. Are farmer suicides a byproduct of harsh global economic forces? An indictment of government neglect or ineptitude? Does it implicate a certain direction in public policy?

    In India, forging new strategies to help farmers unlock a better living from agriculture has been maddeningly elusive. Nick Van Der Velde, a Dutch entrepreneur, worked with the National Innovation Foundation, an Indian NGO, to develop a windmill invented by a salt farmer in Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat. The invention had merit, but Van Der Velde realized the real issue is the farmers can’t sell their salt for a profit. “The windmill required government support, making it unsustainable. And sustainability is the problem,” he said, Farmers aren’t opposed to innovation, but making a profit trumps any need for labor-saving technology. “While they appreciate any intervention the bottom line is they just want to sell their product for a good price.” Van Der Velde has since started a company called Chakri Originals to sell organic, fair-trade Gujarat salt and Kerala pepper in India and for export.

    The push for solutions continues. “I have seen many suicides,” Kurubar Shantkumar, chairman of the Indian Sugarcane Farmers Association, a group that has been advocating for more government support on the issue, told me over tea in the antique lobby of a colonial-era government guesthouse in Mysore, the old capital of the southern Indian state of Karnataka famous for its gold palaces and fierce resistance to the British..

    Shantkumar, the Indian Sugarcane Farmers Association chairman, has lobbied the state and national governments for farming reform legislation. His prescription includes programs to reduce the number of family members dependent on small plots by encouraging alternative industries like fisheries, fostering direct-to-market business relationships that “eradicate the menace of the middleman,” a reduction in lending interest rates at state-owned banks, and fair pricing mandates based on fertilizer and seed prices. And Shantkumar would like state interventions to better traverse the galaxy of isolation separating farmers from the rest of planet earth by sending actual people into farmer villages rather than the current practice of trying to educate via mass media. “The farming community uses [newspapers and television] for entertainment and not education,” he said.

    Bad Numbers

    The breaching of a taboo like suicide can sometimes act as a Rorschach inkblot test suggesting how the culture –or chunks of the culture — would prefer to understand behavior viewed as social transgression. In a New York Times article by Ellen Barry on how village elders attempt to impose suffocating village traditions on young women who have moved to cities, a member of a khap panchayat, the all-male ruling council which governs many Indian villages, is quoted as saying “It starts with a small lie. Then they get into borrowing money and other bad things. The end result is that she will commit suicide or someone else will kill her.”

    In India, the grim prospect of suicide is often understood not as a terrible result of clinical depression — although in a major research study published in 2011, India was found to have the worst rate of severe depression across eighteen diverse countries — or as a desperate escape from grinding impoverishment or harrowing emotional distress, but as the natural consequence of bad moral choices.

    Within India, heavy media coverage of farmer suicides has produced a regular argument over numbers: whether Indian farmers truly outpace other demographic categories, like Indian teenagers. With so many deficiencies in self-reporting, government misreporting, and definitions over who qualifies as a farmer, it seems unlikely the country will produce trustworthy statistics on farmer suicides. That makes quarreling over suicide rates seem more like another interpretive inkblot — this one taking measure of how much to think about the metastasizing misery overtaking the lives of small farmers in India and increasingly beyond.

    The Lingering Debt

    To the side of the porch where Rama Krishna opened coconuts and played with his children, where the unpaid moneylenders would park their motorcycles before beating him, a stack of unpicked peanuts bleached in the sun. “Rama never shared his problems,” Shanthamma said to me, sitting on the floor of that porch with her son, across from her in-laws and Krisha’s 100-year-old grandfather.. “He shouldn’t have done it. He was the only earning member of the family. There’s no cattle left. The one we do have is given from my elder sister for the sake of the children so they drink milk. The poor people who earn should not be so irresponsible. The people who are living then fall into trouble.”

    Shanthamma and her mother-in-law now believe Rama borrowed about $14,000. They used the $1,600 dollars the government gives to farmer widows and the money they received from selling their gold jewelry to keep the moneylenders temporarily at bay. Krishna’s debt now belongs to the family. Lakshmi has moved in with Shanthamma’s parents –maybe she will attend a government school next year. Shanthamma, meanwhile, has taken a job picking peanuts for 100 rupees a day, about $1.60.

    “A lot of people are taunting me about the suicide, about the loans — other women in the village, everyone does, men and women,” said Shanthamma. “Those who are close to the family treat me well. But those who lent Rama money, they taunt me: ‘give us money, do whatever you need to do.’” I asked if they were demanding she become a prostitute but she turned her face away, refusing to answer. Still, Shanthamma is fortunate: she has a son, which is likely the reason her in-laws, unable to adequately feed themselves, did not toss her out of the house.

     (Photo at top via Reuters. All other photos by Ilan Greenberg.)