MGNREGS & social protection schemes are the way out, paper notes
Farmer suicides were consistently higher in years with a rainfall deficit, a recent paper has found, establishing a clear link between climate change and suicides among India’s agricultural workforce.
The paper Urgent preventative action for climate-related suicides in rural India, published by the International Institute for Environment and Development in May 2023, analysed the association between how far rainfall deviated from normal levels and the number of farmers dying by suicide.
Climate change has increased the frequency and coverage of drought in India. In 2020-2022, nearly two-thirds of the country was drought-prone, according to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. Badly impacted states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which reported 62 per cent, 44 per cent and 76 per cent of land as drought-prone, respectively, also reported high suicide rates among farmers.
Researchers Ritu Bharadwaj, N Karthikeyan and Ira Deulgaonkar examined year-on-year data from Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana to understand the linkage. Data covering 2014-15 to 2020-21 showed a negative correlation for all five states — indicating that the suicide rate is consistently higher in years with a rainfall deficit.
For example, in a year when rainfall variation from normal was five per cent, the average number of farmers dying by suicide was 810. “Based on the predicted values of our regression modelling for a rainfall deficit of 25 per cent, the number of farmers dying by suicide in a year would increase to 1,188 individuals,” the document noted.
In states reporting the highest suicide rates, farmers are more heavily engaged in cotton cultivation, which requires significant investment in seed, pesticide and insecticide, forcing farmers to borrow money from formal and informal sources. If drought or erratic rainfall cause the cotton crop to fail, farmers cannot make repayments.
This dominance of cash crops has contributed to the agrarian crisis. It has been linked to an increased risk of suicide among small-scale farmers. In 2021 and 2022, in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, hundreds of farmers died by suicide after a pest called thrips parvispinus destroyed their chilli crop.
The change in climatic conditions during the cropping season might be responsible for the spread of the pest, Union minister for agriculture and farmers’ welfare Narendra Singh Tomar told Parliament in February.
Farmers are among the most at-risk groups in India for death by suicide, accounting for 15.08 per cent of the country’s recorded suicides in 2021, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. While an estimated 75.5 per cent of the world’s suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries, India alone accounts for 26.6 per cent of all instances globally. The suicide rate in rural areas is almost double that of urban areas in India.
“Climate change is making agriculture an extremely risky, potentially dangerous and loss-making endeavour for farmers, increasing their risk of death by suicide,” the document said. This is a serious matter of concern, as in 2022, India reported the highest number of suicides since records began, it added.
However, the research also demonstrated that social protection programmes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS) could effectively limit climate vulnerability in economies that largely depend on agriculture or seasonal work. MGNREGS aims to provide 100 days of guaranteed employment to every rural household each year.
In states where MGNREGS provided employment, the rate of farmer suicides was reduced, data from the five states indicated. When the number of work days taken up from MGNREGS increases from 50 million-150 million, the number of farmers dying by suicide drops from 1,800 people per year to 398 people per year, the analysis showed.
Such negative correlations between the number of days and the number of deaths by suicide were found in — Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana.
“This could be because wage employment helps diversify livelihood options, allowing households to maintain their income and consumption even in a crisis,” the paper noted.
In addition, if planned properly, water conservation and land development assets created through the MGNREGS employment scheme can deliver long-term drought-proofing and give farmers a chance to practice less resource-intensive cropping options, it added.
The findings also pointed to four preventative actions that could support farmers in coping with common risk factors by improving local climate resilience and mental health services. First was that the governments should consider social protection as a core strategy to protect farmers from the risk factors that can lead to suicidal ideation and from climate events that can precipitate this state.
“Governments must have suicide prevention in mind when designing social protection policies, including comprehensive risk analyses, anticipatory support via early warning systems, pre-agreed allocation and releases of finances at specific trigger points and other measures,” the paper said.
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