Indian Farmer Suicides: Reasons and 5 Critical Steps Modi Government Has Taken

Indian Farmer Suicides: Reasons and 5 Critical Steps Modi Government Has Taken

A lot has been said about the India’s epidemic of Farmers Suicides.  It is indeed a terrible phenomenon –  they have occurred at a rate of 1.4 to 1.8 per 100,000 total population, over a 10-year period since 2005.  Some figures say that the total numbers may be upwards of 300,000.

What are the reasons for these suicides?  This infographic from Rediff does provide some statistics.

Reasons for Farmer Suicides in India (courtesy: Rediff)
Reasons for Farmer Suicides in India (courtesy: Rediff)

As you can see the main reason is Bankruptcy and Indebtedness.  Between that and the “farming related issues”, 37% of the total suicides happen.

For proper context of the issues being faced by Indian farmers, let us look at the fate of the farmers around the world – including the developed countries. (Death on the Farm)

In France, a farmer dies by suicide every two days. In China, farmers are killing themselves to protest the government’s seizing of their land for urbanization. In Ireland, the number of suicides jumped following an unusually wet winter in 2012 that resulted in trouble growing hay for animal feed. In the U.K., the farmer suicide rate went up by 10 times during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, when the government required farmers to slaughter their animals. And in Australia, the rate is at an all-time high following two years of drought.

Lack of funding, Climate Change and high input (seeds, fertilizers and pesticides) costs – all contribute to the farmer suicides the world over.  Suicides that are increasing every day!

Farmer Suicides: How GMO-based Agriculture is Wreaking Havoc

What creates Debt: Cycle of Crop Failures and Bankruptcy

65% of India’s cotton crop comes from small farmers – who rely on rain and are reliant on Bt Cotton seeds and its related products.  To get better yields ostensibly, the farmers get into the cycle of buying more expensive hybrid and GM seeds, fertilizers, pesticides – putting them in terrible debt.  The GM seeds like Bt Cotton have been known to do well for farmers  who have large farms and access to abundant irrigation water.  If the monsoons fail for the small farmers – so do the crops that are completely dependent on the GM Seeds/Fertilizer/Pesticide combination of Monsanto’s stable.  A peer-reviewed paper (Deconstructing Indian cotton- weather yields and suicides) written by a team led by Andrew Gutierrez, a professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley – suggests that small and marginal farmers – specifically those who do not have access to abundant irrigation are going to lose out from the GM crops.

Cotton has been grown in India for over 5000 years and until growth of slavery-led cotton empire of US in the early 1800s, India was the major center for cotton.

The real issue started when in the bid to increase production of cotton, Indian farmers went for hybrid seeds.  These seeds needed more insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers.  The pink bollworm, which wasn’t such a major threat until then, suddenly became a major scourge.  With the chemicals accompanying the hybrid seeds, bollworm evolved and became more resistant.

That is where Monsanto entered with its bollworm-resistant Bt Cotton seeds.  But this use of Bt Cotton created its own issues of a cycle of expensive components that needed proper irrigation and supplies.  Monsanto pushed its way into India despite the resistance.

In 1995, Monsanto introduced its Bt technology in India through a joint-venture with the Indian company Mahyco. In 1997-98, Monsanto started open field trials of its GMO Bt cotton illegally and announced that it would be selling the seeds commercially the following year. India has rules for regulating GMOs since 1989, under the Environment Protection Act. It is mandatory to get approval from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee under the ministry of environment for GMO trials. The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology sued Monsanto in the Supreme Court of India and Monsanto could not start the commercial sales of its Bt cotton seeds until 2002.

Per some estimates,

95% of India’s cotton seed is controlled by Monsanto

!  When a corporation like Monsanto controls seeds, it controls lives of the farmers as well.  As farmers in US and Canada (Monsanto vs Percy Schmeiser in Canada and  Monsanto vs Bowman in the US)have learnt to their utter dismay and loss of complete livelihood, that Monsanto’s seeds come with a price.  Often fatal.

In 2012, Indian ministry’s advisory came out with a damning reason for suicides: Bt Cotton!

For the first time, farmer suicides, including those in 2011-12, have been linked to the declining performance of the much hyped genetically modified (GM) variety adopted by 90% of the country’s cotton-growers since being allowed a decade ago.
Policymakers have hailed Bt cotton as a success story but a January 9 internal advisory, a copy of which is with HT, sent out to cotton-growing states by the agriculture ministry presents a grim scenario.
“Cotton farmers are in a deep crisis since shifting to Bt cotton. The spate of farmer suicides in 2011-12 has been particularly severe among Bt cotton farmers,” says the advisory.

Large Farmers Are Destroying Ground Water Tables to Grow GM Crops

Large farmers, who need irrigation in large amount to successfully use the Bt variety and get the yields they do, have been using up the underground water.  It is “free” as long as one can tap it and not regulated by state.  Result: Drying up of the underground aquifers!  India’s rural water table is collapsing at a rapid pace!

It is not just the small farmers who have been badly hit by the use of Bt Cotton and the consequent high cost of crop ingredients and the high risk from failure of monsoon.  The large farmers may indeed be digging a hole that is much deeper hole for themselves and the country.  If not already, large farmers may be joining the suicide rolls very soon.

Four ways to Handle Farmer Suicides

To solve a problem, one has to look at it clearly.  Unfortunate and nonsensical statements of some of the ministers  notwithstanding, it is clear that the major reasons for suicides are:

  1. High Cost of Seeds, Fertilizers and Pesticides
  2. Failure of Crops due to inadequate irrigation
  3. Bankruptcy due to indebtedness from High Cost (1) and the subsequent Failure of the Crop (2)

To resolve these three issues for the small and marginal farmers specifically, what should a Government do?

  1. Create an alternative Seeds research program that is government backed and reasonable in cost
  2. Robust and reliable irrigation policy plus electrification of villages so water can reach smallest of farms
  3. Insurance against Crop failure that is backed by the Government so it is reasonably priced.
  4. Easy access to funds – via bank accounts – for farmers to wean them away from local moneylenders

All these steps are important and critical if the menace of farmers suicides has to be tackled effectively.  Remember, the idea is NOT to do lip-service, but to find a real, effective and permanent solution for the issues which prompt the farmers to commit suicide!

Steps Modi Government has taken to Tackle Farmer Suicides


70% Cut in Monsanto’s Royalties: Modi government announced a 70% cut in the royalties that the local firms pay Monsanto for its cotton seeds.  With such deep cut in its revenue – which Monsanto has been accused of jacking up due to its monopoly – Monsanto announced that it may leave the country and not sell its seeds in India anymore.  To this, the Indian Minister of state for agriculture Sanjeev Kumar Balyan said that Monsanto was welcome to leave if it does not want to adhere to the lower prices (and stop indulging in price gouging) – Government says India ‘not scared’ if Monsanto leaves.  This comes from the confidence of the Indian government to create its own GMO seeds for cotton to rival Monsanto’s by early next year!


Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana: This is the national mission from PM Modi’s government to improve the irrigation in the country and enable the agriculture to become resistant to the vagaries of Indian monsoon.  It is important to remember that climate vagaries in just 2014-15 led to 5.3% loss in foodgrain production and 0.2% loss in agricultural growth rate.

In the next 5 years, INR 50,000 crore from the central budget would be utilised for the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana. The contribution of the states will be over and above this.

The main focus of PMKSY will be (i) Micro-irrigation projects (“Har Khet Ko Pani”) and (ii) end-to-end irrigation solutions.

The PMKSY will also take up the irrigation projects that were started by previous government but either not implemented or poorly implemented.  Actually, 1,300 watershed projects of the previous government will be completed.

The scheme will also provide Rs 200 crore earmarked as Agri-Tech Infrastructure Fund (ATIF) – the corpus required to promote the National Agricultural Market (NAM) – which will give farmers easy access to the markets for sale of their produce.

The scheme will be monitored by a steering committee by PM Modi and ministers of Agriculture, Water Resources and Rural Development.


Pradhan Mantri Fasal Beema Yojna (Crop Insurance for Farmers): This is another major step that is needed to fight the issue of farmers suicide.  There were crop insurance schemes earlier as well, but they fell short.  Here are some of the

major features of the crop insurance scheme

brought about by PM Narendra Modi:

  • The premium rate paid by the farmer will be to a maximum of  2% of the sum insured (rest being paid by the State and Central Government).   Specifically, 2% of the sum insured as premium for kharif crops and 1.5% for rabi crops. In the previous scheme, the rates were as high as 4-15%!
  • Until now, the government only provided relief.  But this new scheme will provide compensation for the losses incurred by the farmer.  In fact, the scheme will go beyond the usual norms of such insurance schemes and even compensate for loss of seed plants and post-harvest damage!  In a bid to improve the assessment of the calamities (hailstorms, unseasonal rains, landslides and inundation).  To speed up the settlement of claims, estimate losses, and assess compensation the government will use smartphones, remote-sensing data and even drones to assess crop damage!
  • The scheme will give an immediate payment of 25% of the due compensation to the farmers directly into their bank accounts.  Anyone who knows the level of corruption knows that the babus distributing the funds from Government relief pocket majority of it.  That isn’t an issue thanks to the Jan Dhan yojana’s success!
  • The previous crop insurance schemes have a 23% cover.  The aim of the new scheme is to get to 50% cover.
  • The Scheme will become applicable from the Kharif crop of 2016.

Relief to Farmers in Input Subsidy:  In 2015, PM Narendra Modi announced that  farmers  will now be eligible for input subsidy if 33 per cent of their crop has  been damaged, as opposed to 50 percent or more, which was the norm till  now.Further, the input subsidy given to distressed farmers will be enhanced by 50 per cent of the existing amounts.  PM said that “This is a major departure from the incremental changes in input subsidy that have been made hitherto”.


Soil Health Card: Under this scheme launched by PM Modi in 2015, government issues soil cards to farmers which carry crop-wise recommendations of nutrients and fertilizers required for the individual farms to help farmers to improve productivity through proper use of inputs.  The soil testing labs across the country will test the soil samples and give the results which will be added to a farmer’s Soil Health Card.  You can check the progress of the scheme from its site by downloading the excel sheet with the latest information.  A total of  14,752,382 (147.5 crore) SHCs have been issues in the country by 29th March 2016!

Sangh is also doing its bit

While the Modi government is working through the governmental framework, policies and machinery to set right the things that have until now contributed to the enormous numbers of farmer suicides, the farmer union associated with the RSS is also doing its bit to take the fight to corporate seed monopolies like Monsanto.  In an interesting article titled – How Monsanto found an able adversary in the Sangh parivaar – Economic Times details out how the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh is fighting the agricultural Goliath Monsanto!

The Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) — an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fount of the Modi government — which lobbied hard and helped skewer agribusiness multinational Monsanto with a price control regimen recently on genetically modified (Bt) cotton seeds is girding up for a long battle ahead.

Final Word: Solution is better than Lip service

What is the use of saying “I love you” and not doing anything in real terms to help the one you love?  That is precisely what the Congress and Communists have been doing all these years.  Wasn’t the threat from Monsanto clear?  With over 90% monopoly of Cotton seed in India, Monsanto had India on its knees!  Why did this happen within a matter of 14 years since Rajiv Gandhi allowed Monsanto in?  Apart from the threat to the farmers, it was a national security threat!  That some foreign company should have a monopoly over 90% of India’s crop seed is unacceptably dangerous!  That too a company as unscrupulous as Monsanto.

It is important that we address every situation in a complete way.  When you have to grow a Mango, you don’t stick a Mango on a tree!  Rather you put in the water, the right fertilizer and give it the care the plant needs and mangoes will eventually come surely!  That is how this issue of Farmers Suicides has to be tackled.  We need to handle the issues that farmers are facing in every area to take away the obstacles that they face which drive them to suicide.  Only when we have addressed all of the main issues that create the spiral of High Input Costs, High Borrowing and Exorbitant Rates, and Failure of Crops due to Climate and resultant Bankruptcies – can we truly solve the problems that lead to suicides.

And, in that direction, PM Modi’s government has taken the right steps.

Featured Image Source: Altaf Qadri/AP

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Drishtikone - Online Magazine on Geopolitics and Culture from Indian Perspective.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.