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20 February, 2009

Discovering farmer suicide in Chhattisgarh

SHUBHRANSHU CHOUDHARY

Why does India need a bunch of city-dweller computerwallas to discover that farmers in its villages are committing suicide in alarmingly large numbers? Does it tell us something about the health of our other institutions as well?

The journey that led to this discovery started in a Dream Chhattisgarh meet in December 2007. Dream Chhattisgarh meet is the annual meeting of an internet based Citizen Journalism group CGnet.

Generally people connected to the internet are city dwellers and have limited understanding of the world of farming. This is true for most people in this group too.

For dreaming of a better future for the state, it is important to prioritize and understand the issues related to the profession which sustains 80% of the state’s population.

Hence for Dream Chhattisgarh meets, as a rule the first session is on Agriculture.

Last year as well, some farmers and agriculture experts were invited to inaugurate the meet at Champaran.
No it is not the Champaran of Indigo farmers where Gandhi experimented with his first Satyagraha in India in 1917.Though it may be a coincidence that the Indigo farmers in Champaran in Bihar were from Kurmi caste and many farmers in Chamapran of Chhattisgarh are also Kurmis.

This Champaran is a village in Chhattisgarh, around 60 kms from the capital Raipur.

Chhattisgarh is not Vidarbha

Farmers described their pathetic condition to the CGnet members. “The situation of the farmer is so bad today that a labourer working for me can eat a cauliflower” one of them said, “but I need to be staisfied with the stubs, which earlier we used to feed the animals”.

The issue of farmer suicides also came up.

Efforts were made to invite a specialist from Vidarbha, to speak about “What Chhattisgarh can learn from Vidarbha”.The idea behind this was to hear about the mistakes committed by the Vidarbha farmers so that the Chhattisgarhi farmer may not repeat them.

No one could join from Vidarbha but during the discussion experts told us that they had never heard of any farmer suicide in Chhattisgarh. They had read some news articles about farmer suicides in Madhya Pradesh, which spoke of Madhya Pradesh being amongst the top 5 states with respect to farmer suicides cases. And the figures for Madhya Pradesh included Chhattisgarh as well.

An article by P Sainath published a few weeks before the meet was discussed.This article spoke of a study by Prof K Nagaraj of Madras Institute of Development Studies. According to his study more than 2000 farmers are committing suicide in Madhya Pradesh( including Chhattisgarh) every year.

The meet concluded that most of these suicides must be happening in cash crop areas of Madhya Pradesh as we have never heard of any farmer suicides in Chhattisgarh.

I was not convinced and the agriculture sub committee of CGnet agreed to explore the subject.

The investigation begins

A google search with the words “farmers suicide” and “Chhattisgarh” yielded the same article of P Sainath which was discussed in the meet. This talks of joint farmer suicide figures of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

I wondered if indeed there was no separate data for farmer suicide in Chhattisgarh .

A call to Prof Nagaraj revealed that the data was available and could be obtained from National Crime Records Bureau ( NCRB).

Prof Nagaraj said “There was no Chhattisgarh when I started the study in 1997. And after 2000 when the data for 3 new states of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand were made available I simply added them to the parent state of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for my convenience”.

So were the figures for Chhattisgarh never investigated on their own?

A visit to NCRB revealed that contrary to our assumption in Dream Chhattisgarh meet, out of 2000 odd farmers who committed suicide in undivided Madhya Pradesh more than 1200 were from Chhattisgarh!

Next week, I expressed my shock over this revelation, in my weekly column in a local Chhattisgarh newspaper, “4 farmers commit suicide in Chhattisgarh everyday, says NCRB. Are the figures fudged”?

The morning after, there was an article on the front page of the same paper ridiculing the figures. “Everybody loves a good fraud: The untruth of farmer suicide figures in Chhattisgarh” was the title.

The article claimed, that a survey done by the author, had come across only 6 cases of farmers suicide in the state from the year 2000, when Chhattisgarh was formed. The author observed that many farmers committed suicides but the cause had nothing to do with his livelihood issues.

Laughing at the claims of this study, P Sainath told us “if one farmer is committing suicide annually in Chhattisgarh, then the state must be a heaven. And I would advise farmers from US and Europe to shift to Chhattisgarh”.

More articles debating the issue followed.

The arguments presented claimed that Chhattisgarh is not Vidarbha. Farmers do not grow cash crop here. Paddy does not need that much investment. So farmers are committing suicide due to non farming reasons.

Jacob Nellithanam who is working with farmers for many years went on to contradict them by saying- “Paddy is cash crop for Chhattisgarh farmers”.

The Police chief of Chhattisgarh told the local press that the figures quoted by me were bogus and challenged them to prove it.

National Crime Records Bureau in Delhi responded, “If the figures are bogus then please ask Government of Chhattisgarh why are they sending bogus figures. We do not have any offices in the states, we publish what we get from the State Crimes Record Bureaus”.


Why farmer is so prone to suicide?

I found the figures too disturbing to let go off the matter.

Prof Nagaraj had gone as far as to say that according to his study, the police records would show only a landowner as farmer. So in reality the number of farmers committing suicide would be more than that reflected in the data.

The number of land owning farmers in Chhattisgarh according to the economic survey of 2008 is 32.55 lakhs, which is a little less than 15% of the total population of the state.

But farmers constitute 32.2% of total suicides in Chhattisgarh.

What is it about the livelihood of a farmer that makes him twice as vulnerable to suicide than another profession?

Does the matter not need an investigation?

CGnet decided to investigate some cases on ground.

All the 3 cases we picked up from local news papers were not recorded as farmer suicide cases in police records, but all of them were directly linked to farming distress.

This built up our resolve to investigate further.

Highest rate of farmer suicide

Dr Yuvraj Gajpal, a CGnet member and a post doctoral student in Canada calculated the farmer suicide rate per 1 lakh population for states and found to his astonishment that Chhattisgarh is on top of the list every year!

6.49 farmers commited suicide in Chhattisgarh per one lakh population in 2006. Maharashtra is distant second with 4.28. Kerala third with 3.37. After that comes Andhra third 3.24 and Karnataka 2.57.

Dr Gajpal wrote an article asking why farmer Suicide in Chhattisgarh is not getting the attention it deserves, though it has more farmer suicide deaths per 1 lakh population than all the 4 states that have received so much attention?

In the meantime, we linked up with Prof Srijit Mishra of Mumbai based Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research who has been asking the same question in his research papers for quite some time.

Unlike Nagraj and Gajpal, Prof Mishra calculates the farmers suicide per 1 lakh male farmers and calls it Suicide Mortality rate.

Prof Mishra has written- “whichever way you calculate Chhattisgarh remains in the top 5 states as far as farmer suicide is concerned but it is puzzling why neither media nor the politicians have taken note of it.”

These articles convinced some leaders of the opposition Congress and they raised the issue in Vidhan Sabha.

The Chief Minister replied, “I have checked with all the collectors. No farmer have committed suicide in Chhattisgarh due to debt. Not the issue but the people writing about it need to be investigated.”


Discussing agriculture, a dangerous business

These threatening words were a beginning to an experience of suppression of the right to get to the truth.

The applications under Right to Information act to police yielded no result.

I got calls to “stop politicking in the name of journalism”.

And my column was also stopped on charges of writing “lies”, though it was not clear how the editor suddenly discovered “lies” only after 2 years while I was writing every week!

It only strentghened the resolve to get to the bottom of the matter.

We started working as detectives. A simple story was turning out to be a crash course on Investigative Journalism.

Finally we have got some figures from the State Crime Records Bureau through a circuitous route.

These figures tell us that the farmers suicide is concentrated in the paddy growing districts of Cental Chhattisgarh. Tribal districts of North and South have less than half the farmers suicides in comparison to the Central region.

Is additional income from forest saving the farmers in tribal region?

The districts with higher suicide rates were the same as the districts with highest use of fertilizer. Is there a connection? All of this needs a study.

We realised that the resistance centered around an argument which linked our claims directly to Vidarbha, and farmer suicide due to large loans taken by them for cash crops. And since the Chhattisgarhi farmer had no large loans, he could not be committing suicide.

We were not claiming that the situation in Chhattisgarh was the same as in Vidarbha.

We were only asking for a deeper investigation, and our request was getting buried in an irrelevant argument.

A loss making business

Our understanding of the seriousness of the issue is based on our exchange with the paddy farmer of Chhattisgarh.

He says, “Economic deterioration is being measured against incomes. A farmer growing paddy in Chhattisgarh has hardly got any income these days. Agriculture is a loss making business and is being sustained by sale of assets”!

Farm scientist Sanket Thakur explains “if you calculate the cost of labour at minimum wage then the production cost of paddy should be at least double the current support price”.

In most of the areas in Chhattisgarh labour rate is around Rs 30 per day. That is how the farmer saves some money. But with growing input costs the profit is reducing every year.

In the places closer to the cities, where one pays Rs 80 as labour cost, the farmer is making loss and surviving by selling his land every year.

“This continuously decreasing income creates a feeling of hopelessness”, he says. “Many times this translates in suicide. You may find random immediate causes for farmer’s suicide, but if you explore deeper, most of the time it is the farming distress which is the main cause”.

Who is lying - CM or police records?

In the meantime a CGnet member had collected police records for 24 thanas from one of the district called Durg.

We were shocked to find 11 cases of Farmer Suicide in this small list, stating the cause of suicide as “debt”!

Against the backdrop of that famous statement from the CM, that no farmer in Chhattisgarh is committing suicide due to debt, we expected the police records to match his claim.

It may be noted here that
• Durg is not the district with the highest number of suicides in the State.
• The list available with us is not complete for Durg district,
• The figures available are from 2004 only, although the State has been in existance from 2000.

If this sample were extrapolated to the entire district the figures for farmer suicide due to economic reasons would be higher.

Apart from the 12 farmers who committed suicide due to debt, in the list there are 21 additional cases where the cause of death is listed as “economic reasons”.

The economic reasons may or may not be debt, only a study can reveal the entire truth.

The list also has names of 52 labourers who committed suicide due to economic reasons. It also has 6 who have committed suicide due to debt.

It is quite likely that in the rural areas the labourers may be farm labourers who take land on lease from rich farmers, as this is a common practice in the State.

Many of the causes in this list are ambiguous and need examination from a competent agency.

Mental and physical illness, tension, fights may be actually linked to farming distress as Sanket Thakur suggests, apart from the glaringly large number of cases where the cause is listed as “unknown”.

We are trying to collect similar data for other districts, but we understand that suicide is a complex issue and may be beyond the analytical capability of a Citizen Journalism investigation team.

We need deeper methodical investigation to reach any understanding.

But who will do it?

In search of Gandhi

The 1916 Lucknow session of Indian National Congress passed a resolution demanding appointment of a committee from British government to enquire into the agrarian crisis in Champaran.

However the Congress in Chhattisgarh is satisfied with a reply from the BJP chief Minister saying “no farmer has committed suicide due to debt”.

After the Lucknow Congress, Gandhi went to Champaran to lead the first satyagraha in India which resulted in the formation of Frank Shy committee to investigate the crisis. Gandhi was a member of that committee. The recommendation of the Shy committee resulted in formation of Champaran Agrarian law of 1918.

As history tells us, what started in Champaran in Bihar resulted in the independence of India.

But whatever started in Champaran in Chhattisgarh, will it lead to a better life for Chhattisgarhi farmers?

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