The suicide of several farmers across India in the past month has put the spotlight on an issue that has plagued the country for several years. In May, at least six farmers committed suicide in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, reportedly for reasons that included debt to an unexpected fall in the prices of agricultural produce. As political parties attempt to use the tragedies to attack their rivals, the deaths are a reminder that the government of India is yet to publish data on farmer suicides that took place in 2016 and 2017. The last available data is for 2015. Government officials say that this is due to problems with the data sent in by a few states.

The National Crime Records Bureau is entrusted with collecting and summarising data on farmer suicides across the country. The bureau publishes this data in an annual report titled Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India. The data for each year is published in the subsequent year’s report. The bureau started publishing farmer suicide data as a separate section for the first time from the 2015 report.

Contentious issue

Farmer suicides are a contentious issue in India. Over the years, authorities have often contested whether every suicide by a farmer can be linked directly or indirectly to agricultural distress such as crop failure, unpaid loans, a drop in the market price of the crop and so on. They argue that if a farmer’s suicide cannot be linked to agriculture, it should not be considered a farmer suicide at all. But the bureau failed to address these contentions even when the issue was given a chapter of its own in the 2015 report.

In its 2016 report, the bureau introduced chapters on motives for farmer suicides from 2015, which include farming-related issues (accounting for 19.5% of the total suicides), bankruptcy or indebtedness (accounting for 38.7% of the total suicides), poverty, family problems, illness and marriage-related issues.

No data for 2016 and 2017

The National Crime Records Bureau data shows that in 2015, as many as 8,007 farmers and 4,595 agricultural labourers committed suicide. The previous year, 5,650 farmers and 6,710 agriculture labourers had committed suicide.

There is no government report on farmer suicides published after that, which means farmer suicides from 2016 and 2017 and the major agitations by farmers that followed across the country in these two years, in which some farmers have died, have so far found no place in published government data.

However, a farmers suicide figure for 2016 was citied in Parliament earlier this year. In the Budget Session, the Union Home Ministry had told Parliament that it was yet to compile data on farmers suicides for 2016. But days later, the Home Ministry, to which the National Crime Records Bureau reports, tabled a provisional report for farmers suicides in 2016, pegging the numbers at 6,351 farmers and 5,019 agricultural labourers. The provisional report did not have a chapter on the causes for those suicides.

The bureau has been criticised previously for under-reporting farmer suicides. Critics blamed this on a change in the methodology of counting such deaths since 2014.

Problems with states

A senior official of the National Crime Records Bureau who did not wish to be identified said that there has been a delay in publishing data on farmer suicides because there seemed to be a few problems with the data furnished by some states, which the bureau was now trying to double-check.

He said that while some states such as West Bengal and Bihar reported zero cases of farmer suicides in 2016, the numbers are abnormally high or abnormally low in a few other states. He said that the bureau has sent these states notices asking them to conduct a quick review of their numbers.

National Crime Records Bureau director Ish Kumar did not give a clear answer on reasons for the delay. He said that the data is under scrutiny and the report for 2016 is likely to be published later in June.