“Congress has turned Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan of ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ into ‘Mar Jawan, Mar Kisan’. Farmers in Gujarat did not think of ending their lives.”

– Narendra Modi on March 30, 2014, when farmers were killing themselves under the corrupt, incompetent and anti-national United Progressive Alliance government.
“The problem is very old, deep-rooted and widespread. Don’t let our farmers die. Whatever [previous] governments could do, they have been doing. We need to introspect and find a solution collectively.”

– Narendra Modi on April 23, 2015, when farmers were killing themselves under the clean, competent and patriotic National Democratic Alliance government.

Farmer suicides are currently in the news in India, and this is unusual not only because viewers find agriculture stories unappealing but also because such things are rarely covered by English television channels. What changed is that a farmer hanged himself before a grateful national media, which duly recorded the tragedy and has been replaying it since. The event occurred at a rally called in Delhi by the Aam Admi Party, which is looking increasingly unmoored and unhinged.

At first nobody could figure out who was to blame for the man’s death. The AAP blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP blamed AAP, and the Congress blamed both BJP and AAP. But the long-term implications are clear: this issue is something that the BJP cannot ignore, and will need to manage, and that explains the prime minister’s statement reproduced above.

Don’t politicise the deaths of farmers, said Home Minister Rajnath Singh in a debate when the matter came up in the Lok Sabha. Who politicised it? Having made farmer suicides a campaign issue, Modi and the BJP should have no complaints in now having to live with it.

And, in any case, if this is not the stuff of democratic politics what is?

Universal problem

In 2013, The Hindu reported that “suicide rates among Indian farmers were a chilling 47% higher than they were for the rest of the population” and that nationwide the farmers’ suicide rate was 16.3 per 100,000 farmers in 2011. That was five points higher than 11.1, the rate for the rest of the population. The paper said that data showed “at least 270,940 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1995. This occurred at an annual average of 14,462 in six years, from 1995 to 2000. And at a yearly average of 16,743 in 11 years between 2001 and 2011. That is around 46 farmers’ suicides each day, on average. Or nearly one every half-hour since 2001”.

And even these numbers might actually not be telling the full story. A BBC story the same year said that “a huge study of suicides in India published (in July 2012) in the UK medical journal, the Lancet, found these figures under-report the problem and suggests there were 19,000 suicides in 2010”.

So Modi is quite right to suggest that this is an old, deep-rooted and widespread problem, and that is something he should have considered when he accused other governments of murdering farmers deliberately.

To some extent, the problem is universal. A Newsweek report last year said:
“In the U.S. the rate of farmer suicides is just under two times that of the general population. In the U.K. one farmer a week commits suicide. In China, farmers are killing themselves daily to protest the government taking over their prime agricultural lands for urbanization. In France, a farmer dies by suicide every two days. Australia reports one farmer suicides every four days. India yearly reports more than 17,627 farmer suicides.”

Huffington Post’s Terezia Farkas, who quoted the report, explained why this was the case:
“Farming is characterized by high stress. You live your profession 24/7. A farmer is both boss and employee. Sick benefits and medical leave depend on the same person. Canadian farmers have to pay into unemployment insurance but usually don’t qualify for the benefit when they become unemployed. Financial pressures, livestock disease, poor harvest, climate change, government policies and legislation can devastate farmers.

High stress combined with frustration can lead to depression. When you feel or believe you have nowhere to turn for help, the idea of suicide starts to look really good.

Stigma and lack of education about depression are the main culprits of farmer suicides. Farmers tend to adhere to the stereotypical image of the self-reliant, tough farmer who doesn’t complain. A farmer who complains of being depressed will usually be labelled crazy, whiner or wimp by fellow farmers. Instead of talking about his depression, a farmer might say, ‘I’m just tired, worn out.’ Ignoring or hiding depression is not the way to deal with depression.”

A report titled “Spate of cases of suicide by farmers” was written by the Intelligence Bureau for the Modi government in December. It noticed “an upward trend in cases of farmer suicides in Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka and Punjab recently, besides reporting of instances in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu”.

It blamed “rising farmer suicides on erratic monsoon (at the onset stage), outstanding loans, rising debt, low crop yield, poor procurement rate of crops and successive crop failure. It also linked the agriculturists’ woes to a depleted water table, unsuitable macro-economic policies with respect to taxes, non-farm loans and faulty prices of import and export”.

It added: “The main reason of farmers’ suicides can be attributed to both natural and manmade factors...while natural factors like uneven rains, hailstorm, drought and floods adversely affect crop yield, the manmade factors, i.e. pricing policies and inadequate marketing facilities result in post-yield losses.”

And so this government is to blame, according to its own report. And there will be no running away from the consequences, as Modi will learn.