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They donít have to die

When reported a 23 per cent increase in the number of suicides in 2013 compared 2012, the Tamil channel, Puthiya Thalaimurai, carried a discussion programme. An important point was not highlighted: that the number had dropped from 1300 in the year 2011 to 800 in the year 2012, before bouncing back to 1300 in 2013.

Some states report huge increases and these are consistent: Maharashtra has been at the top accounting for 23.5 per cent of the total farmer suicides in 2012. It has been followed by Andhra Pradesh (18.10 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (16.80 per cent), Karnataka (14.70 per cent);

Kerala (12.70 per cent) and Madhya Pradesh (12.00 per cent). Tamil Nadu accounted for a mere 2.90 per cent.

Two questions arise out of this: one, the number of farmers’ suicides related to the population is not statistically different from most other countries. And two, for a largely agrarian country, the data is not alarmingly high.

According to an IFFRI study of the number of suicides in 2002 over a fifth was accounted by drinking, gambling; financial mismanagement like chit fund losses and 15 per cent were related to family problems like quarrel with spouse. The malady is spread across different strata of society and for various reasons.


Not confined to poor...

We have several instances  of extremely  rich and famous persons committing suicide. The brilliant technocrat Karl Slym who took General Motors India to great heights and  subsequently headed Tata Motor’s Indian operations  killed himself on a visit to Bangkok. Robin  Williams, the famous Hollywood icon ( remember Mrs Doubtfire?) is another such celebrity. A few years ago the famous cardiologist Dr T J Cherian who treated hundreds of heart patients, committed suicide.

NGOs, social activists and farm leaders over-emphasise farmers’ suicides as arising out of policy deficiencies. States like Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have been well-organised in keeping track of such suicides. One comes across NGOs and the prosperous journalists of the poverty school like P Sainath who maintain a scoreboard of such deaths.  And politically it draws great attention. Remember Maharashtra highlighting this soon after UPA came to power in 2004? Dr Manmohan Singh visited the Vidharabha region and announced more than Rs.6000 crore-relief package. From then on it has become a competition among a few states to claim regularly for relief on such suicides.


It’s low in TN- thanks to its welfare focus

Look also at the paradox of Tamil Nadu, the only south Indian state recording a low number of farm suicides. The state otherwise reports one of the largest number of suicides: recall the large number of self-immolation that follow either the death or arrest of popular leaders.

Bala Swaminathan, a former journalist with IE, gave an interesting explanation: Tamil Nadu reaches the lowest strata of  society  through a vast variety of social welfare programmes like mid-day meals for school children, the old and the destitute, to the supply of 20kg of rice free every month to the poor family, free clothes on few festivals,  free power to farmers and the most recent Amma Canteens that offer wholesome meal at less than Rs.10. These are apart from free land and free educational facilities designed to reach poorer sections.

Suicides, are painful to society.  For our Vibrant Gujarat 2007 IE special issue, I interviewed then Chief Minister Narendra Modi.  I observed that the state has made a favourable impact on its citizens by the construction of thousands of check dams and by taking water from the Sardar Sarovar to its villages, the separation of power lines for agriculture from other usages and to the Krishi Mahotsav in which ministers and top bureaucrats  of the administration participated. These contributed to a consistent double digit growth in agriculture. Modi in his characteristic style, commented:  Gujarat farmers had switched to Bt cotton to great profit and one didn’t hear of farmer suicide in his state; the Vidharba farmer who resisted this complained of large farmer suicide!

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