A statistical analysis determines that in India’s agriculture sector following the liberalization of the nation’s economy during the 1990s,  suicides among small, debt-ridden farmers - who are clinging to tiny holdings, less than one hectare - and are trying to grow cash crops, such as cotton and coffee, that are highly susceptible to global price fluctuations - have been the result.

By contrast, areas such as Gujarat, in which cash crops are mainly cultivated on large-scale farms, have low suicide rates. Wealthy cash crop farmers have the resources to weather difficult economic periods without falling into debt and ruin. It's rare to see academics arguing for giant farms over small, family-owned ones.

A recent Lancet study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), said Indian suicide rates are among the highest in the world, with suicide the second leading cause of death among young adults in India (including non-farmers). In 2010, 187,000 Indians killed themselves – 20 percent of all global suicides.

Sociologists at Cambridge and University College London postulate that India is trapped in two worlds and may not be ready for a modern global economy. They create causal links based on statistics and we can causalate almost anything if we just need to find two curves going the same way (riots in Ukraine match prices in organic food, for example) and say their analysis of farmer suicide hotspots can be generalized across India. 

The most common method of suicide has been shown to be deliberately ingesting pesticide. Prior analyses found that suicide rates were higher in rural areas but didn't have evidence to show suicide rates are higher in farmers. The new statistics say they can infer that.

Farmers at highest risk have three characteristics, the authors write: those that grow cash crops such as coffee and cotton; those with ‘marginal’ farms of less than one hectare; and those with debts of 300 Rupees or more. Indian states in which these characteristics are most prevalent had the highest suicide rates and they say these characteristics account for almost 75% of the variability in state-level suicides. They also say the results of their statistical analysis support other case studies and reports from the field and suggest there is a suicide epidemic in marginalized areas of Indian agriculture that are at the mercy of global economics. 

Conclusion: India isn't quite ready for the modern world and domestic policies should include price fixing and debt relief for farmers.

“Small scale farmers who cultivate capital-intensive cash crops – which are subject to massive price fluctuations – are particularly vulnerable to accruing debts they can’t repay. Many male farmers – who are traditionally responsible for a household’s economic well-being – resort to suicide because they can’t support their families,” said lead author Jonathan Kennedy.   

The authors say that suicide rates tend to be higher in states with greater economic disparity – the more unequal the state, the more people kill themselves – but inequality as a predictor of suicide rates paled in comparison with cash crops and marginalized, indebted farmers. The state of Kerala – one of the most developed in India – has the highest male suicide rate in India. If Kerala were a country, it would have the highest suicide rate in the world.  

Another outlier is West Bengal, which has high numbers of smallholders but an average suicide rate: but this is an area in which the Communist Party of India (Marxists) have had a strong political influence over the past four decades so there is more fixed pricing and income redistribution.

The researchers say their statistical analysis points to a vicious cycle of Indian smallholders forced into debt due to market fluctuations. While 300 rupees – the debt figure analyzed in the study – only amounts to $5, the government defines 25 rupees as an adequate daily income in rural India. The authors postulate that the shame and stress of no longer being able to provide for their families has resulted in hundreds of thousands of male farmers, and in many cases their wives too, taking their own lives by drinking the modern pesticides designed to provide them with bountiful harvests.

Added Kennedy, “The liberalization of the Indian economy is most often associated with near-double digit growth, the rise of India as an economic powerhouse, and the emergence of wealthy urban middle classes. But it is often forgotten that over 833 million people – almost 70% of the Indian population – still live in rural areas.

“A large proportion of these rural inhabitants have not benefited from the economic growth of the past twenty years. In fact, liberalization has brought about a crisis in the agricultural sector that has pushed many small-scale cash crops farmers into debt and in some cases to suicide.”

Citation: Jonathan Kennedy, Lawrence King, 'The political economy of farmers’ suicides in India: indebted cash-crop farmers with marginal landholdings explain state-level variation in suicide rates', Globalization and Health 2014, 10:16 doi:10.1186/1744-8603-10-16