Over 2,000 Fewer Farmers Every Day

 The mistaken notion that the 53 per cent of India’s population ‘dependent on agriculture’ are all ‘farmers’ leads many to dismiss the massive farmers’ suicides as trivial. It is vital to know who officially gets counted as a farmer. And who gets listed in the ‘farmers’ suicides. For that tells us more about the ongoing tragedy and gives us a sense of its awful scale…


over-2000-fewer-farmers-eveThere are nearly 15 million farmers (‘Main’ cultivators) fewer than there were in 1991. Over 7.7 million less since 2001, as the latest Census data show. On average, that’s about 2,035 farmers losing ‘Main Cultivator’ status every single day for the last 20 years. And in a time of jobless growth, they’ve had few places to go beyond the lowest, menial ends of the service sector.
A December 2012 report of the Institute of Applied Manpower Research (IAMR) — a part of the Planning Commission  puts it this way: “employment in total and in non-agricultural sectors has not been growing. This jobless growth in recent years has been accompanied by growth in casualization and informalization.” It speaks of an “an absolute shift in workers from agriculture of 15 million to services and industry.” But many within the sector also likely moved from farmer to agricultural labourer status. Swelling the agrarian underclass.

So how many farmers do we have?
Census 2011 tells us we now have 95.8 million cultivators for whom farming is their main occupation. That’s less than 8 per cent of the population. (Down from 103 million in 2001 and 110 million in 1991). Include all marginal cultivators (22.8 million) and that is still less than 10 per cent of the population. Even if you count together all cultivators and agricultural labourers, the number would be around 263 million or 22 per cent of the population. (Interestingly, this reduced figure comes after a few big states have actually reported a rise in the total number of cultivators. Since 85 per cent of all marginal workers reported more than a 100 days work, this could possibly reflect the reverse pull of MNREGA, among other factors).
Between 1981 and 1991, the number of cultivators (main workers), actually went up from 92 million to 110 million. So the huge decline comes post-1991.

Hold on: aren’t 53 per cent of the population farmers?
No. That’s a common fallacy. The over 600 million Indians dependent on agriculture are not all farmers. They are deployed in an array of related activities  including fisheries. This confusion is widespread and innocent. Yet, there are also a few whose colossal ignorance leads them to dismiss the country’s massive farmers’ suicides as trivial. For instance: “at least half of the Indian workforce is engaged in farming. This fact points to a much lower suicide rate per 100,000 individuals for farmers than in the general population.” Note how easily those ‘engaged in farming’ become ‘farmers!’
As a notion it borders on the whacko. It goes: After all, 53 out of every 100 Indians are farmers. So our 270,940 farm suicides since 1995 are a low number on a population base of over 600 million. So low that we should be agitated over how the suicide rate in the general population can be brought “down to the levels prevailing amongst farmers.”

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Never mind for now the appalling moral position that a quarter of a million human beings taking their lives is hardly alarming. The Bhopal gas tragedy, the worst industrial disaster in human terms, claimed over 20,000 lives. But in this perverse logic, since that was less than 0.003 per cent of the then population, it is rendered meaningless. That position says more about its authors than about the suicides. It shows they are clueless about who a farmer is  and about what the data show.

Never mind for now the appalling moral position that a quarter of a million human beings taking their lives is hardly alarming. The Bhopal gas tragedy, the worst industrial disaster in human terms, claimed over 20,000 lives. But in this perverse logic, since that was less than 0.003 per cent of the then population, it is rendered meaningless. That position says more about its authors than about the suicides. It shows they are clueless about who a farmer is  and about what the data show.
It shows even greater ignorance of who defines and counts a ‘farmer suicide.’ The Census records cultivators. The police count suicides. The police do not read the Census. Not for definitions, anyway.
The Census groups the population into workers and non-workers. The latter would be infants, children, students, housewives, unemployed, aged and retired people. Farmers, or cultivators come under ‘Workers’  a huge category covering many varied groups. Now rural workers account for close to 70 per cent of all workers. And rural workers consist of farmers, agricultural labourers and non-farm workers.
Cultivators (main workers) in the Census are barely eight per cent of the population as a whole. (That’s after a two-decade secular decline in this group). The ongoing farm suicides  184,169 of them since 2001 according to the National Crime Records Bureau  are taking place on a smaller and shrinking base. Their intensity has hardly diminished. In most of the States accounting for two-thirds of all farm suicides, the intensity has likely risen.
Of course distress affects a much wider population dependent on agriculture. (Farmer bankruptcies crush the village carpenter, and even play a role in weaver suicides). The sufferings of others are as real. It is not as if the agricultural labourer or non-farm worker is having a great time. Both sections have seen distress migrations  and suicides. (For that matter the owner of a small industrial unit in an urban city could be distress-hit). Their suicides are no less tragic. But it is vital to know who officially gets counted as a farmer. And who gets listed in the ‘farmers’ suicides. For that tells us more about the ongoing tragedy and gives us a sense of its awful scale.
Everybody who works in the film industry is not an actor. Everyone in the educational system is not a student. And all those in the 53 per cent of the population related to the farming sector are not farmers. Even among those who are, only a limited group gets counted as such when police and Goverbments make farmers’ suicide lists. Cultivators are counted by the Census. Suicides are recorded by police stations across the country. The numbers collated by State Goverbments. Very different approaches are involved.
The Census considers someone a cultivator if he or she operates a piece of land  which they may or may not own; State Goverbments and police count only those with a title to land as farmers. The Census records two kinds of cultivators: ‘Main workers’ and ‘marginal workers.’ The latter are more like agricultural labourers or non-farm workers since farming is not their main activity. A ‘Main worker’ in cultivation is someone for whom that is the major occupation for at least half the year. That group makes barely eight per cent of the population as a whole.
Suicides among the others in the agrarian world (within that “53 per cent”) won’t be recorded as ‘farmer suicides.’ Try getting State Goverbments and their police to do that! Even within the ‘recognised’ eight per cent, those whose title to land is not clear will not be listed as farmers’ suicides, should they take their own lives. For instance, women and tenant farmers are routinely excluded. Even eldest sons running the farms  with the land still in the names of their aged fathers  would also be omitted.
Police and State Governments run the suicide lists, not the Census. Nor does the NCRB, which has neither the vested interest nor the ability to fiddle that data. It merely collates what the State Crime Record Bureaus submit to it. Hence, the Chhattisgarh Government could brazenly declare a ‘zero farm suicides’ figure in 2011. That after the State saw over 7,500 of them (by its own admission) between 2006-10. With all the fiddles in the data, the numbers and intensity remain appalling.
Maharashtra revels in such fraud. With close to 54,000 since 1995, the State has been the worst in farm suicides for over a decade. And even those numbers conceal major exclusions. They’ve invented categories like ‘Farmer’s relatives suicides,’ or “non-genuine” suicides, in order to further trim the numbers. So the State Goverbments and their police, have immense power in re-defining who a farmer is. Watch out for more and more States doing ‘a Chhattisgarh’ and declaring ‘zero’ farm suicides in coming months and years.
– The Hindu

Dismal Picture

“The picture remains dismal,” says Prof. K. Nagaraj, an economist at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. Prof. Nagaraj’s 2008 study on farm suicides in India remains the most important one on the subject. “The intensity of farm suicides shows no real decline,” he says. “Nor do the numbers show a major fall. They remain concentrated in the farming heartlands of five key States. The crisis there continues. And the adjusted farmers’ suicide rate for 2011 is in fact slightly higher than it was in 2001.” And that’s after heavy data fudging at the State level.
Five States account for two-thirds of all farm suicides in the country, as NCRB data show. These are Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The share of these ‘Big 5’ in total farm suicides was higher in 2011 than it was in 2001. At the same time, the new Census data show that four of these States have far fewer farmers than they did a decade ago. Only Maharashtra reports an increase in their numbers.
Nationwide, the farmers’ suicide rate (FSR) was 16.3 per 100,000 farmers in 2011. That’s a lot higher than 11.1, which is the rate for the rest of the population. And slightly higher than the FSR of 15.8 in 2001.
In Maharashtra, for instance, the rate is 29.1 suicides per 100,000 farmers (‘Main cultivators’). Which is over 160 per cent higher than that for all Indians excluding farmers. Such gaps exist in other States, too. In as many as 16 of 22 major States, the farm suicide rate was higher than the rate among the rest of the population (RRP) in 2011.
The data for 2011 are badly skewed, with States like Chhattisgarh declaring ‘zero’ farm suicides that year. The same State reported an increase in total suicides that same year. But claimed that not one of these was a farmer. What happens if we take the average number of farm suicides reported by the State in three years before 2011? Then Chhattisgarh’s FSR is more than 350 per cent higher than the rate among the rest of the country’s population.
Ten States show a higher farm suicide rate in 2011 than in 2001. That includes the major farming zones of Punjab and Haryana. The average farm suicide rate in the ‘Big 5’ is slightly up, despite a decline in Karnataka. And also a fall in Maharashtra. The latter has the worst record of any State. At least 53,818 farmers’ suicides since 1995. So how come it shows a lower FSR now?

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