Here are some points that give a broad overview of farmers in India as statistics and other data based information.
How many farmers are there in India?
Depends on what you call farmers. There are cultivators and there are agricultural labour. The data over the years is as follows.
|Year||Cultivators (in million)||Agricultural labourers (in million)||% of cultivators||% of Agricultural labourers|
As you see, many things have changed in recent years. Soon after independence, we had more farmers, but more importantly, they were tilling their own land. This number grew at varying rates even though not as fast as overall population growth in later years (indicated by dropping % of population). What we see in the 2011 census is that there are actually more agricultural labourers (working on other people's land) than cultivators (working on their own/leased land).
What is the drop in the number of farmers in India?
The drop of 9 million cultivators between 2001 and 2011 amounts to 2000 farmers giving up agriculture per day in that period. This echoes the dramatic rise in farmer suicides in the corresponding period. It is worth noting that the decline could have started any time between 1991 and 2011, as it is possible that we had even more cultivators that dropped to 127.6 million by 2001 or that cultivators increased for a while and then dropped to 118.6 million by 2011. However, going by other data that went through changes around the same time - like economic policies, agricultural policies, cattle populations and farmer suicides, my guess would be that farmers started giving up on agriculture at some point in the late 90s.
Personally, I find it noteworthy that we had the most % of cultivators just before the green revolution, and the most number of cultivators just before the GM onslaught. Both corporate influenced widespread interventions in agriculture that had a dramatic impact on how farming was done.
How many farmer suicides has India seen?
This is the data as per NCRB.
So aren't farmer suicide numbers decreasing in recent years?
Not really. They are being concealed in various ways from outright not reporting farm suicides to NCRB to creating sub-categories and refusing the suicides under other headings. There are even ways that discourage reporting of farmer suicides - for example financial compensation for accidental deaths, but no relief for suicides. There will be a more detailed article coming up about this showing the various ways. There are, astonishingly, even attempts to show farmers suicides as lower than the overall population by misinterpreting figures!
But isn't the government doing more to provide agricultural loans and waivers?
Agricultural loans go to the agricultural sector and not just farmers. An interesting analysis by R Ramakumar and Pallavi Chavan titled "Revival of Agricultural Credit in the 2000s: An Explanation" shows that a lot of the credit does not actually go to small and marginal farmers - the subsection that accounts for over 72% of farmer suicides. As Pallavi Chavan explains in her article in the Hindu (emphasis mine):
First, a significant proportion of the increase in agricultural credit from commercial banks was accounted for by indirect finance to agriculture. Indirect finance refers to loans given to institutions that support agricultural production, such as input dealers, irrigation equipment suppliers and Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs) that on-lend to agriculture.
Second, a number of changes were made in the definition of agricultural credit under the priority sector. The definitional changes broadly involved (a) the addition of new forms of financing commercial, export-oriented and capital-intensive agriculture; and (b) raising the credit limit of many existing forms of agricultural financing. To cite an instance, loans given to corporates and partnership firms for agriculture and allied activities in excess of Rs 1 crore in aggregate per borrower was considered as priority sector lending under agriculture, from 2007 onwards.
Third, much of the increase in the total advances to agriculture in the 2000s was on account of a sharp increase in the number of loans with a credit limit of Rs.10 crore and above, and especially Rs.25 crore and above.
Even within direct agricultural finance, which goes directly to farmers, there was a sharp rise in the number of loans with a credit limit above Rs.1 crore. It seems likely that these large loans were advanced towards financing the new activities added to the definition of agricultural credit.
Recent data on banking has brought out a fourth disturbing feature of the revival in agricultural credit. There has been a sharp growth of agricultural finance that is urban in nature. Between 1995 and 2005, the share of agricultural credit supplied by urban and metropolitan bank branches in India increased from 16.3 per cent to 30.7 per cent. The share of agricultural credit supplied by metropolitan branches alone increased from 7.3 per cent in 1995 to 19 per cent in 2005. While there was a moderate decrease in these shares between 2006 and 2008, urban and metropolitan branches continued to supply about one-third of the total agricultural credit in 2008. Concurrently, there was a sharp fall in the share of agricultural credit supplied by rural and semi-urban branches from 83.7 per cent in 1995 to 69.3 per cent in 2005. In 2008, the share of rural and semi-urban branches in total agricultural credit was 66 per cent.
So when we talk of waiving off agricultural loans...
The fact is, small and marginal farmers find it difficult to get loans from banks even when they have all the requisite paperwork. Those without land cannot get such credit at all, and money lenders continue to be the reliable source of loans. Loans taken from money lenders are unaffected by loan waivers.
What exactly is the problem farmers have then?
The problem is one of income. Inpur prices have risen steeply over the years, while the price of their produce hasn't. Additionally, with less than a third of cultivable land in India being irrigated, farmers are left to the mercies of monsoon for water for growing their crops. Additionally, the reckless promotion of inappropriate cash crops that fail for various reasons from inadequate water to pests developing resistance to much publicized Bt Cotton has left farmers stranded for choices that generate reliable income.
The average income of an Indian farmer is about Rs. 6,400 a month. With such a low income, even agricultural loans are debt traps. If the harvest fails or if prices crash, the farmer ends up not only losing all his investment, but owing a loan on top of that.
What is urgently needed is making inputs cheaper as well as raising the income of farmers with MSPs that are fair (and not just something for desperate farmers to grab as an alternative to complete loss). There is a need to ensure credit to farmers specifically and ensure that it can be availed easily. Electricity and water need to be cheaper. Irrigation needs to be expanded. There are also other supportive measures that would help rural India overall - like reliable healthcare - most people in rural India cannot afford healthcare. This has an impact on productivity and can push them into debt in the event of unavoidable health expenses. Expansion of schemes like MNREGA serve to provide additional incomes where farming alone is not adequate for survival. Many things can be done that break this cycle of death and despair and there are many wiser people than me who are more competent at making recommendations.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments. I will answer as best I can.