Reapers And The Grim Truth: Farmer Suicides


The woes of Indian farmers has been often discussed, but the ever increasing number of suicides is troublesome. Source: HuffingtonPost

For two days, Indian news channels have been continuously displaying the last moments of a man’s death. We’ve all seen him climb a tree, try to hang himself and as the branch snapped, fall plummeting to the ground. The man who has, for a brief period of time, become a household name in the country was a farmer — Gajendra Singh.

He came from the west Indian state of Rajasthan, was not a poor farmer, and died on national television. His family has contested the veracity and legitimacy of the suicide note and most political parties, police authorities, and media houses have scrambled to make yet another farmer’s death a mud-slinging match.

The death was at a political rally held by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, translating to the ‘Common Man’s Party’) and there was significant police and political presence. There were also several people in attendance and all this ensured was that we managed to get to see the suicide from multiple angles. Long live the smartphone revolution. News reports have indicated that there might be a chance this was an accident, since there seems to be ambiguity about the motive, the suicide note and the death itself.

While it goes without saying that this has been handled badly, I want to look into why there are a shocking number of farmers in India who commit suicide. The death of one farmer who was not in the worst economic percentiles has captured the nation’s imagination but it should, in fact, re-direct attention to what is a major concern for the nation.

Is it sociological systemic failure or a policy measure gone awry or bad economic decision-making that prompts poor farmers to believe that death is the only way out?

As per the Ministry of Home Affairs’ records in 2012, almost 14,000 farmers/agriculturalists committed suicide in India. There have been reports of deaths due to failure to pay back loans taken to buy genetically modified BT Cotton after the crop failed. There have also been reports that indicate that climate changes — lack of rainfall and unseasonable rainfall both — have lead to ruined harvests and subsequently, suicides. There is no dearth of sociological archaic pressure on cultivators from informal money lenders and local political authorities (or their proxies), leading to a situation where being a poor food-maker in India is slowly becoming akin to a being handed a death sentence.

While the governments, both current and past, have stated their intent to combat this problem, as recently as 23 April this year, the Prime Minister has indicated that they’ve fallen short in a spectacular fashion.

“For many years, farmers’ suicide have been a cause of concern for the nation and governments,” PM Modi said in Parliament. The government and the opposition were to “work together to find a solution to this age old problem.”

Is the farmer at risk, again? Source: Reuters

While there are farmers dying at political rallies and the Prime Minister has admitted that this is a national political priority, there seems to be undeniable popularity in the government for the Land Acquisition Act. Why is this a bad thing for farmers?

Allow me to give context.

Till 2013, the Land Acquisition Act 1894 was in operation. Operating under the idea of Salus populi suprema lex (the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few), it was designed by the British to allow them to take land for governmental purposes. Subsequently, late amendments threw in aspects of compensation and gave farmers and other land holders the right to deny a sale. To do so, however, their reasons for not wanting to sell were taken to trial and failure to justify led to the land changing hands. Parameters of compensation were also decided on the basis of location, market value (often ignoring the black money that usually finds its way into property dealing) and proportion of land needed that the authority already has available.

Rahul Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, tried to pass land reforms in 2011 and succeeded much later. Source: India Today

Since the Indian independence in 1947, land acquisition in India was done through the aforementioned act. In 1998 and 2007, two attempts to modify this act were initiated.  The 2007 amendment cleared the Indian Lower House as the “Land Acquisition (Amendment) Act, 2009” , and the government returned in May with the desire to pass the bill, only for it to fail in the Upper House. In its second breath, modified as the  “Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011” or LARR, 2011, it proposed new compensation and denial/acceptance norms. The bill was cleared as “The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013” and was executed on January 1, 2014.

These changes were short-lived and in May 2014, the new Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government took charge and initiated reform of the land acquisition policies and norms. On a new proposed ordinance, the Finance minister wrote:

“The present amendment carves out five exceptions for which this complicated process of acquisition will not apply.  However, the compensation provisions remain untouched.  The five exempted purposes are discussed herein below:

The defence and security of India has been made an exempted purpose.  The 2013 Act completely ignored it.

Rural infrastructure, including electrification, is an exempted purpose.  Roads, highways, flyover, electrification and irrigation will all add to the value of the farmer’s lands.  This exemption is entirely in the interest of rural India. 

Affordable housing and housing for poor is an exempted purpose.  Migration from rural areas to urban and sub-urban centres where employment opportunities are available, is a reality.  It is the migrants from rural areas who would benefit from this exception.

Industrial corridors which run for a narrow distance alongwith various highways, give a fillip to the entire development of those rural areas.  A Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor would benefit thousand of villages while running alongwith national highway.  There could not be a greater opportunity for the rural areas than an industrial corridor running close to agricultural lands.  This would generate employment opportunities and enhance the value of the land itself. 

Infrastructure and social infrastructure projects, including those under public private partnership, where ownership of the land vests with the Governments.  This is bound to benefit the entire country, particularly the people in rural areas where infrastructure and social infrastructure is inadequate.”

Modi was supported by rural India. Is he risking that support? Source: Dawn

Essentially, for all projects that the government deems fit, including private partnerships, the government can give the farmer his compensation and not the right or the option to keep his land.

While a statement from the BJP states that rural land taken shall be compensated in four times the value of the land, there exists a loophole that allows states to decide the rate at which minimum compensation would be offered. Some BJP-run states have already set the compensation at about two times the market value. This new ordinance also takes away Social Impact Assessment for these proposed development projects.

So now we may have on our hands a new bill that takes away land without express permission of the land owner, gives compensation but not the amount promised, and does not take into account the social damage done. The government has argued that the long term benefits enjoyed by rural society will outweigh all the criticism that comes their way.

We hope so. More deaths, if attributed to a legislation designed to be pro-rural India, would shock the parliament, and destroy the expectations that millions have had from this government. There needs to be active effort in order to ensure that there are no more farmer suicides. However, in their effort to promote industry and manufacturing, will the government accept their short-coming if the poor Indian farmer is the opportunity cost?

Anmol Soin

Anmol Soin

Managing Editor at InPRA
Anmol Soin has finished his post-graduate education from the University of Oxford and the University of St.Andrews. Anmol will always credit his academic growth to his time at St.Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

Formerly engaged as a consultant and a researcher for the 14th Finance Commission (Government of India), he has also worked for the Knowledge Partnership Program (IPE Global and UK Government’s Department For International Development).

He was also the Professor for ‘The Economics of International Relations and Geopolitics’ for the final year undergraduates at NMIMS. Having worked at multiple think-tanks, he brings his experiences as a professor and a consultant together to try and frame a comprehensive overview of International Economics for InPRA.
Anmol Soin