Nearly as many farmhands commit suicide as farmers
Government schemes meant to tackle farm distress have focussed on farmers - typically through loan waivers - but official data shows that almost half of all suicides among those working in agriculture is by labourers, not farmers.
Data from the National Crime Records Bureau, cited in the answer to a question in the Lok Sabha recently shows that of the 36,332 people "self-employed persons in farming/agriculture" who committed suicides between 2014 and 2016, 16,324 or about 45% were farm labourers.
At the level of individual states, a majority have seen more labourers than farmers taking their own lives. Particularly striking are the statistics of Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Kerala and Rajasthan.
In Tamil Nadu, there have been 1,776 labourer suicides in these three years compared to 106 farmers taking their lives.
The corresponding figures for Gujarat are 1,177 and 132, for Kerala 1,205 and 133 and for Rajasthan 485 and 7.
Distress among agricultural labourers can also be gauged by the fact that West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Bihar have not witnessed any farmer suicides, but there have been suicides by labourers during this period.
Census data shows that labourers account for about 45% of the population working in agriculture, farmers constituting the remaining 55%. It might seem, therefore, that the pattern of the suicides is merely reflecting this reality.
However, at the state level this correspondence breaks down completely.
Several states in which farm labourers outnumber farmers have seen more farmers committing suicides than farmhands and the reverse is equally true. The NCRB has been providing disaggregated data on farm suicides only from 2014 and hence it is not possible to see whether the trend has changed from earlier years. Also, the 2016 data is provisional according to the answer in Parliament.
Experts have repeatedly pointed out that the biggest farmers are the major beneficiaries of loan waivers and marginal farmers and labourers, who hardly get formal credit and have to bank on moneylenders, are left out of the schemes.
The National Commission on Farmers (NCF) under the chairmanship of Professor M S Swaminathan had also recommended that agricultural labourers be treated as landless farmers and suggested several major non-farm initiatives along with employment guarantee programmes for them.