Indian Agrarian Crisis now moved to

Farmer-the most endangered species

The fine line between aspiration & resignation

Posted by Ramoo on January 29, 2007…



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As farmers suicides have forced their way into government and public consciousness, research into the causes of this phenomenon is now beginning to gather momentum. Most of the studies base their understanding of suicides on Durkheim’s work, ‘Suicides’ first published in French in 1897.
Srijit Mishra of the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research has in a report on ‘Suicide of Farmers in Maharashtra’ presented to the state government last year, points out that Durkheim saw suicides as acts by individuals but in a social context.
Durkheim made a distinction between four kinds of suicide: Egoistic, which is when the suicide is the result of individualism and social isolation; altruistic, when there is excess of social integration; anomic, when there is a breakdown of social regulation; and fatalistic, when there is excess social regulation.
Mishra sets out to find out if the suicides of farmers are the result of a combination of these factors. For instance, changes in policy regime would have an adverse impact on income leading to an economic crisis (anomic), inability to get a daughter married in such a situation could also be related to the strict social norms on the age by which the daughter has to be married and expenditure related to the marriage (altruistic and perhaps also fatalistic) and such difficulties can lead an individual to withdraw himself from social activities (egoistic).
Those committing suicide also have a diagnosable psychiatric illness or disorder. This in turn can be traced to some genetic or familial risk factors. Not everyone facing these risk factors will commit suicide. But the social factors Durkheim lists can push some of them over the brink.
Mishra finds, perhaps predictably, in Maharashtra indebtedness is the most important risk factor for suicide. Less predictably, he also finds farmers who don’t own a bullock are more prone to suicide. Evidently, the ownership of a bullock as a productive asset can be quite critical in times of economic distress. The size of the family dependent on the income of the farmer too is a critical factor, particularly when the large family has more women in it.
At the same time, the problem is not a matter of economic or social background. Suicides cut across all castes as well as small, medium and large farmers. The incidence of suicides may be a little higher for small farmers and for Dalits, but it is not statistically significant.
While all categories of farmers may be prone to suicide, it does not mean that there is a uniform cause for the suicides. This is evident in the earlier work of BB Mohanty. In a paper ‘We are Like the Living Dead’: Farmer Suicides in Maharashtra, Western India’ published in The Journal of Peasant Studies in 2005, Mohanty studied farmers suicides in Yavatmal and Amravati districts of Maharashtra. He, too, used Durkheimian theory to argue that these acts could be traced to a historically specific combination of economic and social causes.
Mohanty sees the precise causes of the suicides differing between the poor farmers and the relatively better-off ones. He argues that lower and middle caste peasant smallholders found themselves trapped between enhanced aspirations generated by land reform and other post-1947 measures, and the reality of rising debt and declining income.
Suicides among large and medium farmers belonging to the higher castes in Maharashtra, on the other hand, were occasioned by failures in business, trade and politics. He believes such cases are consistent with the argument put forward by Durkheim, that suicide is an effect of individualization, a process of socio-economic ‘estrangement’ from agrarian communities experienced by rural producers in the context of rapid economic growth.
Establishing the link between suicides and the transformation of rural society is one thing, deciding what to do about it quite another. If, as Mohanty believes, the crisis is the result of the mismatch between the aspirations of farmers and current growth strategies, the pressure is likely to remain.
Current trends clearly point to a continuous decline in the share of agriculture in national income. Expecting government spending alone to ease this pressure may be much too optimistic.

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