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Depression drives maximum farmers to suicide, not debt, finds Brookings study

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Editor's Note:

This article first appeared in The Times of India on October 8, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.

Depression, and not debts, is responsible for the decades-long tragedy of farmer suicides in Maharashtra, said a paper by an American think-tank after analysing suicide-related information provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

The paper, written by Brookings Institution India fellow and Indian School of Business Professor Shamika Ravi, held illnesses — both mental and physical — as the underlying cause for a majority of farmer suicides.

Ravi’s research paper, ‘A Reality Check on Suicides in India’, says suicides due to bankruptcy or sudden change in economic status accounted for an average of 5% of farmer suicides in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh between 2002 and 2013. “In shocking contrast, illness or poor health (mental and physical) accounts for approximately 30% of all (farmer) suicides in Andhra and Maharashtra. So health reforms at the state level and particularly in rural areas are likely to have a greater impact on distress and suicides than forgiving institutional loans,” said the report.

The deaths have been a politically sensitive issue since the 90s, with successive state and central governments intervening to release crores to write off famers’ debts. This September, for the first time in 15 years, the Maharashtra government announced a mental health bailout plan for farmers involving psychiatrists, pscyhologists and community health workers.

A study by Yavatmal-based psychiatrist Dr Ramesh Chakkarwar showed that 10 to 12% farmers in his district suffered from severe depression and 50 to 55% suffered from mild to moderate depression. “Overall, 67% of farmers were in various stages of depression. The agrarian crisis worsened the depression among farmers, leading to suicides,” he added. Chakkarwar saw a sharp rise in substance abuse and addiction in areas that reported high incidence of suicide.

Debts are one of the causes of suicides, but it’s not the leading one, insisted the Brookings report. It dispelled the debt-related suicide theory by pointing out that the Incidence of Indebtedness (IOI) in Maharashtra (percentage of households that are in debt from institutional and non-institutional lenders) was 31% in 2013, the same as the country average and close to the IOI in Bihar (29.1%) and Uttar Pradesh (29.6%).

“Data from the National Statistics Survey Organisation (NSSO) suggests that debt burden measured as debt to asset ratio declines with increase in asset holding. So, it is the poorer households that have a higher debt burden. This is true for both institutional as well as non-institutional debt,” said the study.

In contrast, the suicide data reported by the Maharashtra government indicates that the incidence of suicide is much higher for households with larger land holdings. Nearly 86% farmers who killed themselves in the state had more than two acres of landholding and 60% had more than four acres, said the report.

The report points out that a look at the number of suicides for categories of professions unrelated to farming or cultivation, like government service, private service, or among students, shows Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have reported significantly higher number of suicides in each category compared to UP and Bihar.

“So from a public policy perspective, if we are to design appropriate interventions to check the incidence of suicides, Maharashtra and AP should overall rank higher in targeting than UP and Bihar. And these interventions should be for the larger population beyond the farming community in these states,” said Ravi.

Psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty said even if the state government wrote off all farmer debts, the suicides wouldn’t stop. “The farmers have lost confidence in themselves and their ability to be providers for their families,” he said, adding that a comprehensive plan looking at physical and mental health of the farmers is needed. “At present, the suicide issue is analysed as a political and poverty matter, but there are several layers to the problem.”

By: Malathy Iyer and Clara Lewis


Shamika Ravi

Former Brookings Expert

Economic Advisory Council Member to the Prime Minister and Secretary - Government of India


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