According to the latest figures released by the government, farmer suicides in 2016 have come down to 6351 from 8007 in 2015, a drop of 21 per cent. Suicides among agricultural labourers, however, have gone up by about 10 per cent, from 4,595 farm labour suicides in 2015 to 5,019 in 2016.
These figures were procured by National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) and released by Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh in Rajya Sabha in response to a question. The collection of separate figures for suicides of farmers and farm labourers started in 2014, the year 5650 farmers committed suicides as against 6710 cases of farm labour suicides.
The earlier practice was to collect figures for suicides in the ‘farming sector’ which included farmers and farm labour. The figures show that except Maharashtra, most of the states severely affected by the agrarian crisis (Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Kerala) have registered a rise in farm labour suicides in 2016.
Why are farm labourers committing suicides? A couple of points are worth a mention here. The World Bank (2015) statistics shows that 6.84 per cent of the rural population in India is ‘extremely poor’. Agricultural labour constitutes 40 per cent of this extremely poor population followed by non-farm labour (33 per cent) and the self-employed in agriculture (22 per cent).
Though official data on suicides of agricultural labour is available only for three years, the phenomenon is surely not as recent as it looks. Agricultural labourers have been committing suicides for the last many years during the period of agrarian crisis. The hardships faced by them have been very similar to those experienced by farmers. In fact, in many cases, farm labour was even more hit by the agrarian crisis as reduced employment availability in agriculture severely undermined their capacity to withstand the crisis.
There has been a gradual decline in employment availability in agriculture over the last two decades mainly due to gradual fragmentation of landholdings, withdrawal of many farming households from agriculture in the face of falling profitability, decline in acreage area in many states due to dwindling irrigation resources, and a gradual expansion of labour displacing machines for farm tasks. The declining profitability has also corroded the client-patron relationship in agriculture. Although such a relationship was generally exploitative for farm labour, it, at least, provided for their basic survival needs. A sharp decline in paid employment in farming intensified the process of farm labour being caught in the web of informal money lenders for fulfilling their daily needs as accessing credit from formal lending institutions has simply been out of their reach due to the lack of land or other assets as collaterals. The credit from informal sources comes at high-interest rates and with strict conditions.
It is highly common for farm labour households to lease in small tracts of land for supporting their livelihood. Such an exercise often increases their vulnerability, and their reliance on informal money lenders as well as large farmers for purchasing essential farm inputs. In the case of crop loss, they are not entitled for compensation but have to repay the credit taken from informal sources which exposes them to further exploitation. Loans taken from large farmers are repaid by working on their farms at wages lower than the prevailing rates which reduced the earnings of farm labourers. In fact, a trend has been noticed during a recently concluded study in four Indian states that large farmers use ‘leasing out their land’ to landless farm labourers as a mechanism to ensure uninterrupted labour supply at low wages during peak farming season.
The slow expansion of non-farm sector within the boundary of the villages has done little to alleviate the distress of farm labourers. The gradual shrinking of the overall rural economy has led to an increase in rural to urban mobility of village youth who try to find employment in urban labour market. However, only the educated and the skilled are absorbed in better-paid jobs. Members of farm labour households, lacking in both these attributes, end up getting menial and poorly paid jobs which sometimes does not even fetch them earnings essential to make ends meet. Moreover, not all such workers are fortunate enough to get even these jobs. The agrarian crisis has not only aggravated the issue of survival for farm labourers, but also failed their aspirations relating to the education of their children, and maintaining their social dignity.
Over the years, the plight of agricultural labour has largely failed to receive any major attention of policy makers and scholars. As a result, most of the policies and measures (however insignificant, ineffective or small they are) undertaken to alleviate agrarian crisis have been targeted at farmers, while farm labourers have simply been ignored in policy discourses. Very few states have devised policies for the welfare of agricultural labour. In Kerala, loans are provided to agricultural labour for cultivation on leased land. However, such initiatives are yet to begin in other states.
(The writer is an Assistant Professor at Council for Social Development, New Delhi)