India is seeing an increase in the number of suicides by farmers due to drought, according to an analysis from IIED. The IIED also stated that the findings were a warning for the worldwide agricultural sector, which is on the frontlines of the increasing impacts of climate change.
The researchers looked at rainfall patterns between 2014–15 and 2020–21 across five states with particularly high suicide rates – Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana. In the research, they found that the number of farmer suicides rose during lower than normal rainfall.
In a year when variation from normal rainfall was 5%, the average number of farmers dying by suicide was 810 people. Using regression modelling, for a 25% rainfall deficit, the number of farmers dying by suicide in a year would increase to 1,188 individuals, according to an IIED statement.
The IIED analysis said that climate change has increased the frequency and expanded the reach of drought in recent years. It reduced India’s gross domestic product by two to 5% between 1998 and 2017. Over three quarters of the state of Chhattisgarh, and almost two thirds of the state of Maharastra are now classified as highly prone to drought.
Principal researcher for IIED RituBharadwaj said: “Climate chaos has already arrived, and many countries are feeling its impacts in new ways and at a higher intensity than they are equipped to handle.
“With their incomes heavily dependent on climate, farmers are on the frontlines of this crisis. Climate change is making agriculture an extremely risky, potentially dangerous, and loss-making endeavour for farmers, and it’s increasing their risk of suicide.”
SUICIDE NUMBERS AND REASONS
The IIED pointed out that previous research had already shown multiple factors that put farmers at risk, particularly in lower-income, rural areas, of death by suicide. In India, farmer suicides account for 15% of the total number according to national records. The reasons include a reliance on cash crops like cotton, with limited savings to cope in case of crop or market failure; a greater incidence of drug and alcohol addiction; and poor literacy levels meaning people have limited awareness of government social protection programmes in times of crisis, and struggle to access what’s available.
The researchers come up with several suggestions to address the increase in farmer suicides. Firstly, governments need to consider social protection schemes, including public works programmes. In the event of a climatic or economic shock, these schemes could provide a productive safety net in the form of cash or food, create assets for long-term resilience and effectively ward off a humanitarian crisis.
IIED analysis show that suicide rates were low when farmers had access to wage employment through the MGNREGS social protection programme. IIED stated that when the number of work days taken up by the MGNREGS increased, the number of farmers dying by suicide dropped from 1,800 per year to 398 per year.
Farmers need support to manage their production and market risks due to climate change. They are exposed to market risks mostly in the form of price fluctuations—information they do not have when they are planning their crop or taking loans to buy inputs for their crop—so there is a need for forward-pricing of commodities.
Insurance could play a greater role in absorbing shocks and spreading risks for farmers exposed to the climate crisis. And finally, mental health treatment needs to be much more widely available.