ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Farmer Suicides in India, 1997–2013

Taking Stock of Data, Arguments and Evidence

A critical examination of the official data on farmer suicides reveals a poor understanding of the issue. Yet, it also reveals that farmers’ suicides, on average, account for 14% of the total suicides in the country. It peaked at 16% in 2004, consequently falling to 9% in 2013. It is a region-specific issue and those states with high farmer suicides have persistently remained so. The underlying causes of farmer suicides and non-farmer suicides may be similar across states on account of a high correlation between their corresponding numbers, suggesting that the causes of suicides may include factors other than economic and livelihood issues.


This paper has been culled from the author’s masters’ thesis submitted in 2018 to the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai. The author grateful to her supervisor, R Nagaraj, under whose direction the thesis and this paper took shape, as also the anonymous referee, whose comments, suggestions, and recommended readings helped enrich this paper.

Public concern regarding farmer suicides in India gained traction in the 1990s, after journalist P Sainath (2005) famously flagged the problem of rising agrarian distress in the country. According to the 2011 Census, farmers (main and marginal cultivators) account for around 25% of all workers in the country, while farmworkers (agricultural labourers) account for 30%. Farmer suicides have always been a sensitive issue in the public sphere, evoking more sentimentality than fact-based responses as the number of farmer suicides rose steadily between 1995 and 2004 from 10,720 to 18,241. In those states, where farmer suicides were higher than the average, it was argued that there could be crop- and region-specific factors responsible for it. The data on farmer suicides, published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), has been used to validate polar opposite positions—from the neo-liberal policy reforms of 1991 (Aerthayil 2008) to the degrading moral ­fibre of the Indian society (Peebles 2013).

The farmer suicide issue is mostly seen as emblematic of the agrarian distress caused by neo-liberal reforms, which redu­ced the ambit of formal bank credit and left farmers at the mercy of market forces. K C Suri (2006) and C R Chandrase­khar (2017) trace the roots of national agrarian distress, which they explain as the primary or obvious cause of rising farmer suicides. This suggested link between agrarian distress and farmer suicides, in fact, has been deeply ingrained in the prevalent literature, despite suicides being a neurological and psychosocial phenomenon. It seems to be a particularly intriguing phenomenon for economists to study, because farmer suicides, linked so closely with agrarian distress, are looked at as deaths that are driven actually by economic hardships, rather than the more complex issues of mental health.

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Updated On : 16th Apr, 2021
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