Content Warning: Suicide

An Agricultural System in Crisis

India is experiencing a crisis of farmer suicides. Estimates suggest that over 300,000 Indian farmers have died by suicide since the mid-1990s – this amounts to one death every 30 minutes. The majority of these suicides have been conducted by ingesting lethal pesticides, which are easily accessible by farmers and have a high case fatality rate. These deaths are symptomatic of a larger agrarian crisis that has been developing in India since the 1980s. 

Indian, Farmer, Poor, Agriculture, Portrait, Poverty

During the 1980s, India’s economy began to stall and by 1991 India had a balance of payments crisis. India accepted loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that were conditional on the implementation of structural adjustment programming (SAP) and Green Revolution policies. These conditionalities required India to make major neoliberal reforms and adopt high-cost agricultural inputs from the developed world, including high yield seeds, chemical fertilizers, and synthetic pesticides.

These policies had a negative impact on India’s agricultural sector and placed farmers in a vulnerable position, as they faced mounting debt from high-cost inputs and decreased income from falling prices of cash-crops exposed to the global market. Since the mid-1990s, indebted farmers have turned to suicide in epidemic proportions to escape their distress and dire financial situations. Studies that evaluate farmer suicides in India cite indebtedness as the primary motivator in 87% to 93% of cases.

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Farmer Suicides – It’s a Human Rights Issue

In 2008, the UN Human Rights Council identified farmer suicides in India as a human rights issue. Many human rights are pertinent in the case of farmer suicides, including the right to food. The right to food is multi-dimensional and includes entitlement to adequate food, the ability to grow one’s own food, economic access to food, and freedom from hunger. For farmers, this means having the ability to produce profitable harvests, feed one’s own family, and earn an income that provides economic access to food for others. 

India has made international commitments to uphold the right to food within its jurisdiction. India has signed and is legally bound by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which enshrines the right to food. The ICESCR also commits signatories to the progressive realization of the rights within its pages. Article 2 of the ICESCR on progressive realization permits states to achieve the full realization of a right over time, so long as they demonstrate sustained effort that makes use of all available resources. Bound by Article 2, the Indian state must make sustained efforts and use the maximum of its available resources to fulfill the right to food.

Failures of the Indian State in Progressive Realization 

The ongoing crisis of farmer suicides in India is symptomatic of failures on the part of the Indian state to adhere to the progressive realization of the right to food. This is evident in the decrease of public investment in agriculture and inadequate interventions to address the crisis of farmer suicides. 

SAP dictated the liberalization of the Indian economy, resulting in a decrease of investment in agriculture and increase of investment in other sectors. The percentage of loans directed towards agriculture dropped sharply from 20% in 1991 to less than 8% in the mid-2000s. As a result, farmers have been forced to opt for private sources of credit from informal moneylenders with high interest rates. Farmers that die by suicide are more likely to have extensive debt from a non-institutional source than an institutional source. By decreasing public investment in agriculture, the state is not spending the maximum of its available resources to ensure the right to food, therefore neglecting its commitments to progressive realization.

The Indian government has also instituted a variety of short-term relief schemes that have attempted to address farmer suicides. These have included financial compensation, funding to improve irrigation, crop insurance packages, and welfare schemes. Studies show that these programs have been riddled with problems, including poor or sporadic implementation, limited reach, numerous conditions that disqualify applicants, heavy bureaucratization, and onerous burdens of proof on victims’ families. These measures have been largely reactionary and proved ineffective because they do not provide long-term solutions that address the root causes of farmer suicides. By continuing to adopt short-term measures of limited purview, the Indian state cannot be said to be making a sustained effort to address the country’s agrarian crisis or uphold the right to food, as required by progressive realization. 

The crisis of farmer suicides in India has been fueled by failures of the Indian state to progressively realize the right to food. Bound by international commitments, India has obligations that it is not upholding. So, the question begs to be asked – where do we go from here? 


Karly Hurlock is an M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University.


Banner image by Ravi Pinisetti on Unsplash. Featured image 1 by srohilla69 on Pixabay. Featured image 2 by Ananth BS courtesy of Wikipedia.

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