Plight of the small peasantry in Punjab is affecting their mental health, highlights field-based study

Plight of the small peasantry in Punjab is affecting their mental health, highlights field-based study

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published Published on Jul 29, 2022   modified Modified on Aug 5, 2022

Door-to-door and village-to-village surveys carried out by researchers of the Department of Economics and Sociology, Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana detected a total of 9,291 suicides that were committed by farmers in six districts of Punjab during the period from 2000 to 2018. Situated in the Malwa region of Punjab, which is known for cotton farming and the prevalence of cancer among its population, Sangrur (2,506) witnessed the highest number of farmer suicides, followed by Mansa (2,098), Bathinda (1,956), Barnala (1,126), Moga (880) and Ludhiana (725).

A recent paper by Sukhpal Singh, Manjeet Kaur and HS Kingra, published in Economic and Political Weekly, has revealed the results of the above-mentioned study that was carried out in four phases during 2000-2018 in six districts of Malwa region, Punjab. 

One of the key findings of the study is that over three-fourth (i.e., 77.09 percent) of the total suicides in Punjab during 2000-2018 were committed by marginal and small farmers who cultivated up to two hectares of land. Around one-fifth (i.e., 22.44 percent) of the total suicides in Punjab during the said period were committed by semi-medium (2.01 to 4 hectares) and medium (4.01 to 10 hectares) farmers. Only a negligible 0.47 percent of total suicides were committed by large farmers (more than 10 hectares) in all the six districts of the state. Indebtedness among the small and marginal farmers has been a pressing issue in Punjab, which compelled many of them to commit suicides although the number of these small landholdings stood at around 34 percent of the total landholdings in the state. 
The paper by Singh, Kaur and Kingra (2022) shows that the proportion of debt-related farmer suicides in total number of farmer suicides in the six districts of Punjab ranged from 77.78 percent in 2008 to 98.05 percent in 2017. On average, 87.69 percent of the farmer suicides were related to debt and the rest nearly 12.31 percent occurred due to non-debt reasons. Titled 'Farmer Suicides in Punjab: Incidence, Causes, and Policy Suggestions', the paper finds that the main reason for small farmer suicides was heavy debt burden, as over 89 percent of these victims were motivated by the heavy debt as compared with large farmers among whom debt-related cases were around 57 percent. Almost 43 percent of the large farmers died by suicide due to non-debt reasons. The farm size-wise distribution clearly indicates that as the farm size increases, the proportion of suicide cases with heavy debt burden decreases. 

Citing previous research works, the authors of the paper add that small farming in Punjab has become a less profitable occupation due to rising fixed and variable input costs and non-remunerative sale prices of farm produce. As compared to large farmers, small farmers faced immense economic hardship due to small volume of production, low marketable surplus, and dearth of capital for investment. Consequently, around 2 lakh small farmers, who were operating two hectares of land, left farming in Punjab between 1991 and 2011. For meeting the cost of farming as well as the cost of living, small farmers often rely on commission agents (arhtiyas). Even for consumption loans, which are non-available from institutional sources and have high transaction costs, farmers rely on arhtiyas. Small farmers usually take loans for farming from informal sources of credit at exorbitant rates, which increases their debt burden.  

The Situation Assessment Survey of farm households, released last year, had shown that the highest average amount of outstanding loan per farm household in 2019 was observed in Andhra Pradesh (Rs. 2,45,554), followed by Kerala (Rs. 2,42,482), Punjab (Rs. 2,03,249), Haryana (Rs. 1,82,922) and Telangana (Rs. 1,52,113).

The paper by Singh, Kaur and Kingra (2022) points out that most suicides happened due to the reason of ‘heavy debt burden’ (87.69 percent of 9,291 suicides i.e., 8,147), followed by ‘family discord’ (17.18 percent; # of suicides 1,596), ‘crop failure’ (8.32 percent; # of suicides 773), ‘illness and health problems’ (6.27 percent; # of suicides 583), ‘land confiscated by bank’ (3.63 percent; # of suicides 337), ‘court case/litigation’ (0.22 percent; # of suicides 20), ‘harassment by moneylenders/ banks, etc.’ (0.22 percent; # of suicides 20), and ‘others’ i.e., loss in self-employment/enterprise, drug addiction, social isolation, etc. (6.33 percent; # of suicides 588).

The analysis of the field survey data by Singh, Kaur and Kingra (2022) shows that almost 93 percent of the affected households were of those where one suicide had taken place, although in 7 percent of the victim families, there were two or more cases of suicides. About 92 percent of suicide victims among the farmers in the six districts of Punjab were male members and the rest 8 percent were female members. 

Spread over 19 years, the field-based study finds that most suicides were committed by ‘consuming chemical pesticides’ (71.6 percent of 9,291 suicides), followed by ‘hanging oneself’ (13.1 percent), ‘jumping into a well/river’ (4.5 percent), ‘jumping in front of a train’ (4.3 percent), and other modes of suicide, which include electrocution, jumping from the roof, taking rodenticide, celphos -- a fumigant, etc. (6.5 percent).

The authors say that nearly 24.16 percent of 9,291 farmers who committed suicide were daily users of intoxicants, including alcohol, and 31.75 percent of them were occasional users. However, 44.09 percent of the total suicide victims during 2000-2018 never used any intoxicant. 

The analysis of the socio-economic conditions of the suicide victims reveals that about three-fourth (i.e., 74.62 percent) of these farmers were in the prime age of 19–35 years. Nearly, 61.07 of the suicide victims from the farming community were either illiterate or with primary education without meaningful opportunities to get an alternative source of living. However, 1.21 percent of the suicide victims were either graduates or postgraduates. 

With the death of the sole bread earner, mental depression affected the lives of around 28 percent of families of the suicide victims, whereas 13 percent of such families had to sell their land out of economic compulsion. Due to a fall in income after the demise of sole bread earner, around 11 percent of the families’ children had to discontinue their education. In the case of families of the suicide victims, marriages of children were also disrupted.

The type of help sought from the government and non-governmental organisations by the victims’ family included ‘direct financial assistance’ (95.7 of victim families), ‘pension’ (32.6 percent), ‘free medical support’ (30.3 percent), ‘job for a family member’ (28.4 percent), ‘waiver of institutional debt’ (27.4 percent), ‘free education’ (25.9 percent), ‘solution for non-institutional debt’ (20.7 percent), ‘increase in old age pension’ (19.3 percent), ‘restoring of mortgaged land’ (2.7 percent), and ‘others’ i.e., allied occupation, resolution of the cases related to land, and so on (0.3 percent).

The authors of the paper mention that due to the Debt Waiver Scheme launched by the UPA government at the Centre, after reaching its peak (i.e., 630) in 2008, the number of farmer suicides in Punjab came down. The number of debt related suicide cases among the farmers was the highest (515) in 2015, which possibly occurred due to the cotton crop failure. The lowest number of farmer suicides (288) and lowest number of debt-related suicides (281) in Punjab took place in 2016. The total number of debt-related suicides among farmers went up from 302 in 2017 to 379 in 2018. According to Singh, Kaur and Kingra (2022), the proportion of debt-related suicide cases shows a rising trend over the years.

The study by Punjab Agricultural University (Ludhiana) had found that during the period from 2014 to 2018, 1,738 farm labourers and 2,002 farmers/ cultivators (i.e. a total of 3,740 farm suicides) committed suicide in just six districts of Punjab i.e., Ludhiana, Moga, Bhatinda, Sangrur, Barnala, and Mansa. On the contrary, the NCRB data shows that during the same period, 254 agricultural labourers and 828 farmers (i.e., a total of 1,082 farm suicides) committed suicide in 23 districts of that state. It clearly shows that the official source of data on farm suicides suppressed the figures (or undercounted the cases), writes Dr. Sukhpal Singh who was one of the lead researchers of that field study.  

Policy suggestions

Among other things, the authors of the recent EPW paper have suggested that it is important to compensate all the suicide victim families, including those who were left out of receiving any compensation in the past due to lack of required documents, such as post-mortem report, credit record and others. The institutional loan amount, which was about 43 percent of the total loans availed by the victim families, should be waived off. A “Scheme for Debt Swapping of Borrowers” should be introduced and made effective in order to convert the non-institutional debt into institutional debt for settling the loans advanced by non-institutional sources, which was nearly 57 percent of the total loan amount. The rate of interest on farm credit should be lowered and the functions and activities of non-institutional credit agencies must be regulated and monitored. In the case of crop failures, the affected farmers should be adequately compensated. Subsidies on farm inputs, such as seed, fertilisers, agrochemicals, and farm machinery should be provided to reduce the costs of cultivation. 

Customer hiring from agro-machinery service centres can reduce the fixed cost of cultivation for small farmers. So, such centres should be set up in rural areas. Among other things, the authors have mentioned that an increase in the budgetary spending on public health and education can reduce the out-of-pocket expenditure of the farm households. Through mass campaigns, rural masses should be made aware about problems such as drug addiction, family discord, and litigation that cause suicides among the farmers.


Farmer Suicides in Punjab: Incidence, Causes, and Policy Suggestions -Sukhpal Singh, Manjeet Kaur, and HS Kingra, Economic & Political Weekly, June 18, 2022, Vol LVII No. 25, please click here to access  

Depeasantization in Punjab: Status of farmers who left farming -Sukhpal Singh and Shruti Bhogal, Current Science, Vol. 106, No. 10, 25 May, 2014, please click here to access

Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Livestock Holdings of Households in Rural India, 2019, NSS 77th Round, January 2019-December 2019, released in September 2021, National Statistical Office (NSO), Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), please click here to access  

News alert: Understanding the NCRB data on suicides with caution, Inclusive Media for Change, Published on Nov 17, 2021, please click here to access  

News alert: Are we witnessing depeasantisation in Indian agriculture? Inclusive Media for Change, published on Oct 2, 2021, please click here to access  

News alert: Southern states had a higher proportion of indebted farm households in 2019, shows NSO survey, published on Sep 21, 2021, please click here to access 

News alert: Can we prevent rural suicides? Yes, it is possible, says a recent WHO-FAO publication, Inclusive Media for Change, published on Sep 22, 2019, please click here to access 

As farm debt drives Punjab farmers to suicide, loan waiver demand set to gain momentum -Vikas Vasudeva, The Hindu, 10 July, 2022, please click here to access  

Deaths by suicide Among Farmers in Punjab Signal the Dire Need For Reform -Darshan Pal,, 6 July, 2022, please click here to access

A Fresh Spike in Farmer suicides in Punjab -Shweta Saini, Siraj Hussain and Pulkit Khatri,, 30 June, 2022, please click here to access

88% of Over 9,000 Punjab Farmers Who Died by suicide in 18 Years Were Debt-Ridden: Study -Vivek Gupta,, 21 June, 2022, please click here to access   

Suicides committed by farmers and farm labourers: Ground reality in Punjab versus official data -Dr. Sukhpal Singh (in Hindi),, 6 November, 2021, please click here and here to access,  


Image Courtesy: Mohd Aasif

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