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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.

YearCultivators (in million)Agricultural labourers (in million)% of cultivators% of Agricultural labourers
195169.927.349.919.5
196199.631.552.816.7
198192.555.537.822.7
1991110.774.635.223.8
2001127.6107.531.726.7
2011118.6144.324.630

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.

199510720
199613729
199713622
199816015
199916082
200016603
200116415
200217971
200317164
200418241
200517131
200617060
200716632
200816796
200917368
201015964
201114027
201213754
201311772
201412360
201512602

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.

3

The Osmanabad District Cooperative Bank Ltd, has started sending notices to farmers with outstanding loans asking them to repay the loans or the bank would take socially humiliating measures against them. So far over 30 farmers in Nagur alone have received these notices; in the Lohara taluka, over 1000 farmers. The notices are dated 14th October 2016, however the farmers claim that they received them on the 23rd November 2016 (the notices are likely backdated, essentially rendering the one month notice meaningless). The farmers have been informed that unless the loans are repaid, they will begin to face recovery process in December.

Osmanabad district in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra has been experiencing drought for several successive years leading to crop failures and increasing problems with bad loans and farmer suicides. As per government records, over a thousand farmers from here have committed suicide. The actual numbers are bound to be higher, as the government records often don't record those who either took loans from unregistered money-lenders, do not have their own land, or did not leave behind a suicide note (many are illiterate). The problem of farmer suicides had reached such horrifying extents that banks had been urged caution in the recovery of loans that were not paid.

This year some late seasonal rain had brought hope. After many years, it seemed like the cycle of despair was about to break and farmers were looking forward to sowing winter crops, when a new crisis hit. Demonetisation. Banks in rural Maharashtra have seen very little by way of new notes coming in to replace the Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes that have been withdrawn as legal tender. As a consequence, there is a severe cash crunch in most villages. Indeed in most of rural India. With Rabi crops due to be sowed and no money in hand to buy seed, things looked hopeless. The government allowed the purchase of seeds with old Rs. 500 notes, allowing a tentative hope to seed, when a further crisis hit several homes in Nagur village.

The Osmanabad District Cooperative Bank Ltd, has started sending notices to farmers with outstanding loans asking them to repay the loans or the bank would take socially humiliating measures against them. So far over 30 farmers in Nagur alone have received these notices; in the Lohara taluka, over 1000 farmers. The notices are dated 14th October 2016, however the farmers claim that they received them on the 23rd November 2016 (the notices are likely backdated, essentially rendering the one month notice meaningless). The farmers have been informed that unless the loans are repaid, they will begin to face recovery process in December.

osmanabad-district-cooperative-bank

This is a translation of the letter (written in Marathi):

Osmanabad District Cooperative Bank Ltd., Head Office, Osmanabad

Agriculture Credit /   / 2016-17.     NOTICE.  Date: 14/10/2016

Shri. Yadav Lukshiram Patil ,  Place:  Nagur

Greetings.

You must be aware of the economic situation of the Osmanabad District Bank. Since the bank is in a financial difficulties, the bank depositors have their full focus on the bank. Due to the increase in overdue unpaid loans there is the fear of  loss of liquidity for the bank which is now caught in this quagmire. At least at this time, the only option the bank has to improve its situation is to recover the overdue loans. Naturally, due to the pending loans with you, the bank is unable to pay its depositors the amounts they want to withdraw whenever they want to withdraw. As a result, the depositors are very disappointed with the bank operations. Similarly, many depositors, when they are faced with the prospect of being unable to withdraw their own money from their accounts are sending us statements that if they cannot withdraw their money, they will be forced to commit suicide and you should be aware that if any depositors commit suicide for such reasons, you will he held responsible and you should understand this.

You are a respectable member of the society and you have an overdue loan since 25/1/2000 with the Y. V. K. Seva Society which is a  partner of 'Bhorala' (not sure of this name). Because of your overdue loan, the bank is facing a cash crunch and the bank cannot conduct its operations effectively.

The bank's management committee, senior officers and employee association have decided to use Gandhigiri to try and recover the loans. For this, the bank has decided to do one of the following: 1) Put up a tent opposite your house to protest 2) Make use of a band  3) Ring bells

Due to these actions, your standing and image in society is likely to be in danger. Therefore, to avoid such a situation, you should immediately repay your overdue loans with interest in the concerned bank within 30 days and take a receipt for such payment. Else, the recovery team will take action as explained above.

We are deliberately writing this to you so that you are aware of the situation.

We are in no doubt that you will repay your loan and avoid any unpleasant events from happening.

Expecting your cooperation,

Details of Overdue Loans:

Type of loan,  Principal: 136300  Interest: 348930 . Total : 485230

Yours faithfully,

Sd-

Vijay S. Ghonse

Executive Director

Suresh Ediga, an NRI who had done volunteer work related with organic farming in the region over the last few years was informed about these notices when Dnyaneshwar, who runs an NGO to improve farmers' financial literacy, told him about the plight of the farmers receiving the notices. The farmers are understandably anxious. Cash strapped, demonetisation trapped, and due to sow their rabbi crops, they are in no condition to repay the loans, which have piled up over years of severe drought, with dues that have doubled or tripled in the interim in many cases. One season of rain is nowhere close to adequate to clear loans. The bank is pressuring them because the bank itself is short of cash and this year, due to the rain, the restrictions on loan recovery have been relaxed. Earlier when the bank had threatened farmers about loan recovery during drought, the district collector had intervened. It is unclear what will happen now. Suresh has contacted the district collector again, who has assured him that he will intervene to ensure no harassment happens, but it appears to be a far-from-resolved situation.

The bank itself is close to bankruptcy. Dnyaneshwar contends that far larger loans taken by politicians, sugar factories and other local bigwigs were written off routinely, while farmers are pressurized to repay their own loans. An interesting practice is that moneylenders take loans from the banks and loan this money to farmers. These loan defaulters are politically powerful and well connected and the farmers are not able to confront these practices for fear of backlash. The bank is aware of these practices and yet easily extends loans to them, but the loans to ordinary farmers are very difficult to get and the interest is calculated in a manner that the farmers cannot understand, departing from RBI guidelines where the amount of interest should not exceed the capital. Farmers have often been advised to restructure but they have not been provided adequate information and bank officials, from time to time have taken their signatures on various papers, but no restructuring appears to have taken place. In several cases, the interest is several times the capital. With demonetisation no one has any money at all, and the bank seems to have seen this as an opportunity to extort whatever cash they can get their hands on, from farmers.

All the farmers receiving these notices are planning to meet collectively to decide a course of action. With their backs to the wall and at risk of suicide, they are being threatened that they will be held responsible for potential suicides of those who will not be able to withdraw money from the bank due to their non-repayment of dues. They fear harassment from the recovery agents of banks. Being financially vulnerable themselves in a region where there are several suicides of farmers per week, the threat of being held legally, socially or morally responsible for the suicide of any another person, even in an illogical manner, is a particularly traumatizing threat. The idea that they could publicly be accused of causing suicides and humiliated has them all in a terrible state and Dnyaneshwar fears that this kind of extortion can lead to increased suicides this year. It is a Mexican standoff made worse by the cash crunch stemming from demonetisation. The farmers inform Suresh that they have been warned of actions taken to socially humiliate them beginning in December unless they pay off their dues.

Unless something is done to defuse the situation, the farmers could be faced with harassment over loans they don't have the money to pay off in addition to the stress of not having legal tender for expenses related to winter sowing (they can only buy seeds with the old notes). Banks need to find cash to satisfy increasingly irate customers bombarded with information about the withdrawals they are entitled to make, yet almost never see in rural India. People need money to survive, and banks are where they have been told they can get the money. It is a tinderbox of desperation waiting for a spark.

What happens next is anyone's guess.

Update: This story has been taken action on. It is now getting the attention of various people from banking to government and media. More information will definitely follow. There are actions being taken to protect the farmers from further threat.

A quick project update:
The Vidarbha project to help the farmer: https://milaap.org/campaigns/help-the-vidarbha-farmers. A total of 6.91 lakhs has been raised thus far towards our initial target of 10 lakh. 
We are who we are, because of the opportunities we got. Farmers, on the other hand, have become what they are today, because of the opportunities they were denied. Starting from access to loans to access to technology to access to markets to access to food storage to access to insurance, the farmers are denied the basics of farming and yet we have the food on our plates, while they continue to struggle for just one meal a day.

The most difficult and skillful job and yet so poorly rewarded

A software engineer has requirements, a missile scientist has even more precise requirements, a teacher has a syllabus to go by, a doctor, by and large has a procedure to follow, a farmer knows only what crop he has to grow. But everything else that goes into growing that crop is a variable such as the weather, the pests, the peoples life styles and a government that is indifferent to his needs. Unlike other professions there is no or very little margin of errors and there are no dry runs either.

After managing all the variables if he manages to produce a good crop, there is no guarantee that it will fetch him a good price. The farmer then needs to depend on the market and worst of all, yet again the government to guarantee a certain minimum price and protect its interests in the global market.

All these coupled with the lack of a proper support structure often pushes the farmer to take the extreme step. What else can explain an almost 3 lakh since 1995 till date.

The government has shown no signs or intent to do anything about this situation. Take a look at an excerpt from Question hour session in Loksabha.

cold-storage

It isn't like the government doesn't have policies, programs and proposals to address the issues. The problem is however, that they just remain as policies, programs and proposals and are never implemented.

 

 

30887018-organicprovisions

 

The farming crisis is no doubt a very serious and a very grave crisis and the most unfortunate part is the fact there isn't enough focus on these issues. Be it the government or the media or even ordinary citizens like us. And while the scale of these problems are huge, there is still something you and I can do. The Vidarbha region is often referred to as the suicide capital of India, so why not start with Vidarbha. Below is an action plan as to what we citizens can do.

 

 

 

4745952-vidarbhasituation

 

55739624-vidarbhaactionplan

To facilitate and help create awareness to take this forward, the Indian Farmer League has been launched. The goal is to make it easier for people to understand the issues and help contribute so together we can help make a difference.

 

 

74039192-ifl-league

2

It was inevitable. The building farmer frustration is ready to explode. If not Gajendra Singh, it would be someone else. The writing has been on the wall. There is torment needing to be heard. A scream in the void.

In 2010 Ramchandra Raut composed his suicide note on non-judicial stamp paper, addressed it to the Prime Minister and President along with local leaders. He remained a statistic. In 2012, another farmer called Gajendra from Yavatmal had written a suicide note to his village warning them to not vote for Congress and NCP before committing suicide. He sank into the statistics without a splash. The suicide notes, last, desperate attempts to be heard went as unheard in death, as the farmer did in life.

Ironically, this morning, while Gajendra Singh was still alive, Devendra Fadnavis, Maharashtra's Chief Minister endorsed Eknath Khadse's fantasy method of recognizing farmer suicides as the ones where the farmers left behind suicide notes. From being the undisputed reining champion of farmer suicides to 3 suicides in one clever move. Not that those suicide letters meant anything either.

We are, sadly, an apathetic nation. Our conscience has been mortgaged to the media, which feeds us upstanding people regular doses of what should offend us. Letters written by nobodys don't reach us. When they reach us, they don't matter, unless the subject is dramatic enough to trend on social media.

Within minutes of the suicide being declared a "SUCCESS", media was harvesting the scandal. Politicians, normally serene about routine reports of farmer suicides rushed to establish their innocence and the guilt of their political rivals. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was "shattered", even as his anonytrolls started pushing a piece profiling Gajendra Singh as everything except a farmer who had jumped political parties and was a member of AAP at last check (well, d'uh, he was at the AAP rally). As astonishing as it was that media managed to dig up his political history within hours of his suicide, what was more astounding was the explanations - from planned political murder to an "AAP stunt" gone wrong. Amaingly, not only did Rajasthan have the records for crop losses and applications for compensation on the tips of their media responses, they even "proved" the family claim of reason for suicide being crop losses wrong. Within hours of his death. So much concern for farmers.

While it is unclear what stopping the rally would have achieved (BJP and Congress fixated on the AAP rally continuing after the suicide as well), it is less clear how a person can kill himself in a packed rally, though I imagine it is not easy to stop someone physically while on a tree. It is even less clear how a massive exhibition of love for our farmers can proceed unfazed by the death of a farmer in their midst. To be fair, from all accounts it appears that initially it seemed like a suicide attempt prevented and injured person taken to hospital. AAP, still recovering from its allergy with intellectuals went on a breath taking demonstration of blame and sarcastic defense with some record breaking insensitivity from leaders, which I don't care to repeat here. Congress, with its leader newly resurrected and for once speaking well went ahead and got in their points of Ganga-snan for self and blame for others as well.

In summary, both BJP and AAP managed some variation of "committed suicide to make us look bad".

So far, no one seems to have gotten around to asking "why did he kill himself?" with any level of firm intention or giving voice to the extremely open secret of the why - corporate media promoted and government passed policies that are ruining rural livelihoods and decimating farmers. Farmer suicides aren't just rising, they are rising in a rapidly dropping population of farmers farming decreasing area of land on an average. Instead, every effort is on to make this about this suicide specifically, and preferrably this suicide shouldn't be about farmer suicides at all.

To me, a public demonstration of suicide is more a protest than a mere giving up. Media and politicians may be covering their own culpability with a fog of words, but I understood this man to be trying what Mohamed Bouazizi's self immolation was, in Tunisia when it kicked off the Arab Spring. An expression of intense frustration, seeking echoes far and wide by being as visible as possible and "signing" the genuineness of the protest with own life.

Where BJP anonytrolls saw a political opportunist pinging off parties, I saw that the political experience showed him how he could commit suicide to be heard. If not in life, then in death. And where countless ignorant farmers failed, he succeeded. Farmer suicides are finally prime time content. They will be the weapon of political confrontations, improving chances that someone, somewhere will be forced to change something, pay some more attention because of the one thing farmers so far had not managed to achieve. The one thing government in India understands. Nuisance value.

You may die a thousand deaths in complete silence. Your protest will get fired on. The day you burn a bus and attack a few people is the day the government leaves you alone to get whatever "justice" you want. The day your death causes a problem for important people is the day it gets attention. Till then it will only get murmurs of consolation and pleas to not die and ruin statistics for all of us.

Gajendra Singh managed to be a problem today. He died on the doorstep of politicians and in media's eye before they could avert it. The plight of farmers is a long way from being addressed, but the "nuisance" and thus the imperative to be at least seen doing something has already begun. In blaming each other, politicians are establishing collective guilt.

Naturally, the wise media has seen this despicable behavior and is busy commenting on how ugly it is without realizing that as they point fingers at the politicians, they fail to see their own role in the plight of farmers. Here are two stills from AlJazeera's excellent short documentary on the Indian media's rural blind spot that no TV channel is going to show tonight.

Percentage of rural stories on front page of newspapers
Percentage of rural stories on front page of newspapers
Percentage of time devoted to rural news on TV
Percentage of time devoted to rural news on TV. These figures don't show more than 7% of the time for over 2/3 of India's population and YET are deceptive, because this time shown too is rarely about rural issues and more likely to be other selling news from rural locations.

 

A 2011 report on rural reporting in media by EPW
A 2011 report on rural reporting in media by EPW Source: sans serif

 

By all accounts, Gajendra Singh has screamed his scream. He will get a short window of time where farmer suicides will be reported diligently and politicians blamed and defended and a massive fog of words giving us the moral superiority of knowing exactly who to blame. Then it will die down into oblivion.

It is up to us left living to decide whether the message he spent his life to communicate to us is important enough for us to carry forward the torch he desperately threw where no one can pretend to not see it.

If you scream into the void, did you scream at all?

1

Business Standard has written a piece challenging the data on farmer suicides from Uttar Pradesh titled "As farmers commit suicide, Uttar Pradesh hides their deaths". It is a pretty good piece and necessary. In the interests of accuracy of information, I am pointing out a correction in the statistics attributed to P. Sainath in the article.

Over 20 years—between 1991 and 2011—more than 1.5 million farmers, distressed by crop failure and death, committed suicide across India, according to P. Sainath, journalist and Magsasay Award winner, who analysed National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. The NCRB reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs, collecting data every year from states.

The article linked to from the Hindu site is indeed by P. Sainath, but provides no data that will offer the number of suicides as 1.5 million.

To the best of my knowledge, the number of farmer suicides, as per NCRB data and quoted by P. Sainath is "nearly 296,438 farmers between 1995 and 2013 (both years included)". This, being five times less than 1.5 million, deserved a clarification, though it does not detract from the point the article makes about fudged farmer suicide data in Uttar Pradesh in any way. For more information, you may read "Maharashtra crosses 60,000 farm suicides".

Disclosure: I (Vidyut) publish P. Sainath's blog.