For many of the world’s rural poor, farming is not only an occupation, but also a way of life and survival. As the planet’s climate continues to change due to anthropocentric greenhouse gas emissions, many parts of the world are experiencing warmer temperatures, and drought is becoming an omnipresent evil in many of these farmer’s lives. For the world’s poorest, a bad crop year due to drought can mean economic collapse and ruin for the entire family. This has been the story of countless farmers in India, and the devastating result has been a huge increase in suicides. Since 1995, almost 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in India due to the economic pressures of drought. This massive social failure can be attributed to a variety of reasons such as: a changing political climate in India, credit seeking from moneylenders, and globalization.
In the 90s, India’s economy began transitioning away from agricultural and raw exports to a manufacture and service based economy, and the political climate changed with it. The decade prior brought the miracles of the Green Revolution (a global initiative to bring better technologies, practices, and seeds to rural farmers in developing countries), which ultimately brought political power to India’s farmers. Increased incomes made organizing and unionizing easier for the farmers and their increased incomes also gave them political clout they had not had before. In effect, farmers in India attracted the attention of politicians and no party could ignore their demands and emerge unscathed. Subsidies and price controls were the result.
However, as India’s economy shifted away from agriculture to industry, this political strength began to evaporate. The Indian government shifted their priorities from agriculture to industrialization. Politicians began courting entrepreneurs and industrialists that operated factories, ran hotels and restaurants, and sold real estate. With weakened political power, farmers in India began losing many of the government sponsored benefits to the agriculture sector. Furthermore, the prices they paid for consumer goods soon outpaced the prices they were receiving for the crops. This is known as a drop in real income.
While this loss of support from the Indian government surely contributed to the plight of rural Indian farmers, there are other forces also at play. The moneylenders of India have a bad reputation for charging high interest rates and getting their money back, one way or another. While microcredit programs that circumvent these moneylenders are certainly available to farmers in India, they do not always choose this route, even when it could help protect them. This happens because microcredit programs often ask for immediate repayments, have high transaction costs like weekly meetings, and require trust among lending groups that may not exist within a particular community, especially if everyone is having a bad crop year. This makes moneylenders a far more attractive option for farmers, who will likely have to wait until the next crop to begin repayments. However, sometimes these lenders charge interest rates of up to 50%, which may only exasperate financial problems.
In addition to the unbearable pressure from loan sharks and the lack of support from the Indian government, globalization has had some disastrous effects for these farmers. Neo-liberal economics focuses on efficiency and free trade, and that is how the global market is organized today. As neo-liberalization began in India as a result of globalization, it further encouraged the Indian government to cut back subsidies and available credit for farmers in the name of free trade. It also forced farmers to compete in a world market before their production was actually competitive, making them the losers in a capitalist model. This lowered incomes and morale for the already demoralized farmers.
In essence, the high suicide rate for Indian farmers is a result of economic hardship due to drought, losses of political power, unforgiving moneylenders, and the processes of globalization. It is difficult to say what would help alleviate this problem, but certainly government interventions could assist. Debt forgiveness, better credit lending programs and repayment plans, and general emotional support programs could cut the suicide rate for rural farmers in India. In the United States, our economic policies and interactions in the international sphere have far reaching effects for other people around the world. This is not simply a problem for India to tackle, but an issue for the international community to address.