December 5, 2022

Karnataka farmer’s suicide reflects volatility and vulnerabilities in India’s agriculture sector

Despite India’s status as a predominantly agrarian economy, with most working-age adults employed in the agricultural sector, volatile crop prices, rising transport and storage costs, weather Erratic fluctuations and cycles of indebtedness have made agriculture an increasingly unsustainable economic activity. The recent death of an areca nut farmer in Sringeri, Karnataka, highlights the broader issue of government support for farmers, financial policies to protect farmers and their families, and the need for research and development in agriculture to meet the growing challenges of the industry.

In short

A 36-year-old areca nut farmer in Sringeri committed suicide after his crops were affected by leaf spot and yellow leaf disease (YLD), leaving him unable to repay a private loan of C$464,000 (28.25 million Indian rupees) taken out for his planting. The growth of leaf yellows since the 1950s has impacted around 35 percent of all areca nut plantations in India, and has raised concerns for its farmers across the country. This tragic case in Sringeri highlights not only the environmental and financial stressors that farmers have to deal with, but also the vicious circle of debt that will affect the farmer’s family for generations to come, as the debt passes usually on the next male member of the family.

Consequences

As the world’s largest producer of areca nuts, India’s areca nut farming sector employs millions of people. Areca nut is classified as addictive and carcinogenic to humans, yet it is one of the most consumed substances in the world, after nicotine, ethanol and caffeine. In India, nearly a quarter of the adult population consumes the nut, also known as superior. A component of many religious and social ceremonies in South Asia, India exports areca nuts to more than 50 countries around the world, including Canada, which sources more than 90 percent of its imports of areca nuts from India. However, diseases like YLD, which also affects tomatoes, have threatened production levels.

Meanwhile, in India’s agricultural sector, there are up to 30 suicides a day. These alarming data indicate a long-standing problem committed suicide in the Indian agricultural sector, driven by low agricultural yields, high interest loans and minimal support systems, whether psychological, social or financial. The incidence of farmer suicides has increased in the Maharashtra state, while in Karnataka and other states it is declining (Table 1). The government notes that the proportion of people engaged in the agricultural sector has declined over the years, and official statistics indicate that the number of suicides among farmers and laborers “dropped” to 10,851 in 2021. Meanwhile, climate change and local politics leave farmers in dire straits. In Karnataka, one of the most water-stressed regions in the world, the Congress-led government institutea policy in 2016-17 protecting drought-affected farmers from loan recovery. However, in 2020, the new government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party withdrew this protection.

And after

  1. Diversification can be the key: experts suggest that the government implement policies that incentivize farmers to move away from water-intensive crops such as cotton, sugar cane and areca nuts and are diversifying into crops more suited to the climate such as millet and pulses.
  2. Knowledge sharing, ‘R&D’ another piece of the puzzle: Increased funding for actionable research and infrastructure development helping farmers combat the impacts of climate change is crucial. In March 2021, the state government of Karnataka allocated C$4.1 million to promote research on YLD control. At the end of October 2022, the Indian Ministry of Agriculture formed an expert committee of seven researchers to develop new strategies on YLD. Sharing knowledge with other economies facing similar challenges will be an area to watch in the years to come.
  3. Young Indians are turning to more lucrative and less volatile industries: In 2019, about 43% of working-age Indians were engaged in the agriculture sector, yet the sector contributed about 17 percent to the country’s total economic output. With better employment opportunities, young Indians are move away from the agricultural sector, which has become unstable and filled with challenges, raising the question of whether India’s identity as a agricultural economics exchange.

Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, please seek help and guidance. Check out this link for advice on Government of Canada.

• Produced by CAST South Asia Team: Dr. Sreyoshi Dey (Program Manager); Prerana Das (analyst); and Narayanan (Hari) Gopalan Lakshmi (analyst).