There is a wide array of factors that has led to the increasing spate of farmer suicides in India. The lands are not as productive as before, the markets are failing, the debts are piling up, and the pests cannot be kept at bay. More than an economic problem, this has now assumed political and humanitarian dimensions, especially since the past decade.
Issues of weather and climate
The weather in India these days has become erratic at best and rainfall does not happen at the right time. Moderate rainfall, which is needed so much for proper agriculture, is now becoming a thing of the past and things have reached the extreme. The situation is especially bad in Central India, which can be regarded as the agricultural heartland of India.
In the past three years, the weather patterns have been changing. The situation does not become any better even when there is normal rainfall. 56% of the country depends on snow-fed rivers for its water and in such a situation even marginal fluctuations can have devastating effects. The ambivalence of extremely dry and equally wet conditions often leaves unmitigated devastation in its wake. The problems are further exacerbated by the fact that 85% of precipitation in India happens because of rainfall. Dry spells can be very bad especially during the initial periods of the process of growing crops. If there are sustained repetitions of dry spells then there can be some massive crop loss.
Thanks to these conditions, these days even experienced farmers are at a loss when it comes to predicting the right time to sow their crops and the right time to harvest them. The fact that pests, weeds, and diseases are evolving has only added to the farmers’ misery. Soil erosion is also a major problem faced by farmers.
Scales of operation
Real estate prices have gone up to such a level that people are finding it hard to buy a home as it is. In such circumstances it is unrealistic for the average people to think of owning farms for cultivation. Majority of the people who have their own land to till have got it from their ancestors. Since more often than not, after the death of a farmer his land is divided among his sons, it leaves precious little for a farmer. This is the reason that the scale of operations here is so small. At the most, it is just a couple of acres. This in turn leads to small income that does not permit processes like mechanization and automation that are needed to stay relevant. This is why the small cultivators have no option but to rely on human labour, which in this day and age is woefully inadequate. At times, thanks to the increasing real estate prices, small farmers that are not doing so well are encouraged to sell their land to realtors and ensure a good life for themselves. This also means that the amount of land available for farming is decreasing thus affecting Indian agriculture in general.
The problem of small landholdings is acutely felt in states with high population density like Kerala, Bihar, West Bengal, and eastern Uttar Pradesh. In these states, on an average, farmers have less than a hectare of cultivable land. The situation is different in states such as Rajasthan and Nagaland. In fact, in states like Punjab, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh the net sown area is more than the national average.
The gap between small farmers, big farmers or landlords, and medium farmers or peasants is huge. India’s inheritance laws with its emphasis on fragmentation are problematic in nature. A lot of time and resources are wasted every time a fragmentation happens and it reduces output since it is highly difficult to properly cultivate such small pieces of land. Marking boundaries also means that useful and fertile land gets eaten up in the process. In such circumstances, there is precious little that the farmer can do to improve the produce.
Lack of farm labour
These days farm labour is regarded as demeaning, especially casual labour. Sectors such as construction and industries are already employing people, who would otherwise be engaged in agriculture. This is also one reason urban migration has increased so much in the last few decades. These days the children of the farmers are more interested in getting institutional education and joining other jobs. The government has also started the system of minimum support prices, which has resulted in inflation and increased the wages. This means that the smaller landholders do not get much leeway in terms of hiring sufficient agricultural labour. It has also instituted schemes such as the MGNREGA for casual labourers, which means that they are more interested in those openings than any agricultural work. The fact that these jobs do not require to be them highly productive, as opposed to agriculture, only enthuses them further. These factors have affected the small farmer the most.
Unsatisfactory realisation of prices
One of the most crucial problems faced by farmers in India is regarding marketing. The laws in India are outdated and most often a farmer has no option but to sell his produce in regulated markets, where the middlemen are the ones making the maximum gains. At times, they can make up to 75% profits. If the middlemen can be eliminated then the farmers could have sold their products at better rates. On the other hand, the farmers have to be satisfied with the bare minimum. The situation is especially dire in the sugar factories where the weighing scales are always said to be dodgy and it takes a significant time for the farmers to just break even. In some situations the farmers also need to give away their produce for free to the moneylenders. Distress selling in small villages is a pretty common phenomenon as well. The Rural Credit Survey has correctly stated that nothing is favourable for the farmers in terms of time, place or conditions of sale.
Inadequate storage facilities
ASSOCHAM estimates that each year 30-40% of the entire agricultural produce in India is damaged because there are not enough cold storages. In monetary terms, this translates to INR 35,000 crore. Food such as fruits and vegetables enjoy high demand round the year. However, these crops are destroyed due to abnormal rainfall. Farmers who do not have cold storages have to sell their produce as early as possible so that they do not rot. This means they are sold at a loss since supply exceeds demand by some distance. It is very costly – and thus impossible – for a small farmer to own and operate a cold storage.
Quality of seeds, pesticides, and fertilisers
Farmers in India have to often make do with poor quality seeds. There are many reasons for this sorry predicament – ignorance on part of farmers, corruption of officials, ineffective and coercive laws, and improper enforcement of the same. The fertilisers and pesticides that they use are of a poor quality. All these factors often lead to complete loss of crops. Quite often it so happens that the better quality seeds are so expensive that the small and medium farmers cannot buy them. As far as manure is concerned, most small farmers and peasants have to use cow dung, which is an effective one. However, the problem for them is that this cow dung is used as fuel too, which means that not enough cow dung is available for all. Chemical fertilizers are mostly out of bounds for the poor farmers. It is also stated that organic manure is highly necessary to make sure that soil stays healthy. However, it has also been observed that excessive usage of these has led to the soil being infertile and affected the quality of crops.
Following are some other problems faced by farmers in India:
• Problems in maintaining farm livestock owing to increasing costs
• Problems in getting credit at good terms and conditions because of reluctance of commercial banks
• Lack of proper irrigation
• Absence of mechanisation
• Insufficient transport facilities
The impact of these deficiencies and issues is far-reaching, much greater than what most people would know or care to know. For a farmer, on the brink of suicide, the major worries are fending for his children in the wake of a disaster and managing to pay off loans. For those who are a little better off, it is a question of recovering investments and trying to avoid the debt trap that has claimed so many members of their fraternity.
Following are certain solutions that can help the farmers:
• They need to be educated about various facets of farming
• Centres of excellence need to be set up to help them
• Agricultural universities need to discover new science-based practices and technologies
• Insurance is needed
• They need to be given better access to credit and at better terms and conditions
• Landholdings should be consolidated
• Organic manure should be used
• Mechanisation is needed
• Markets should be regulated
• Direct provision of capital to farmers by government
• Encouraging integrated, contract, and cooperative farming
• Developing water sheds