Addressing Agrarian Distress and Farmer Suicide in India: Lessons from the Global Land Forum
There has been an increase in competition in the global agricultural sector that causes distress among small scale farmers who are increasingly left behind in this process. This is particularly evident in India where a growing agrarian crisis has led to an increase in farmer suicides. Drawing on discussions held at the Global Land Forum (GLF) 2018 in Bandung, this blog argues that problems of agrarian distress and farmer suicides can be addressed through bottom-up agrarian reform and the recognition, granting and consolidation of tenure rights for small-scale farmers.
The challenge: Global markets and climate change
The problem of agrarian distress and associated issues around poverty and social inequality represented core topics at the GLF 2018. These problems partly relate to global market imbalances and the adverse consequences of climate change which leave some actors, especially small-scale farmers, at the bottom of the food chain. To be profitable, agricultural business must often operate at a large scale. While some countries provide their farmers with subsidies, tools and incentives to expand and upscale their business, others lack financial and technical resources as well as relevant know-how to provide support to small-scale farmers, leaving this group behind in a competitive global market.
Along with competition, climate change also poses serious threats to the degree of productivity of smallholder farmers, making it more difficult for them to compete with the big players in the agricultural sector. Climate change and irregular rainfall can lead to an abrupt increase in crop failure. This can cause agrarian distress along with many socio-economic consequences such as indebtedness, a rise in cost of cultivation, loss of agricultural income, and disintegration of social solidarity between farmers and other residents in rural areas. As cost of food products and the demands of a rising population increase, failure to secure the rights of farmers and ineffective land reform policies poses a serious threat to the economy which can lead to a rise in food inflation, poverty and social inequality. In India, such changes have also contributed to a rise in farmer suicides.
The India case
Agriculture contributes 23% to India’s Gross National Product. Climate change and changes in the global market seriously threaten the security of farmers operating in this sector. Especially small-scale farmers from the low-caste and indigenous sector – who often lack market knowledge, land tenure, and resources to afford advanced agricultural technology - are increasingly left behind and, in this context, a rise in suicide rates among this group does not come as a surprise. The Centre has estimated that a total of 12,606 people involved in India’s small-scale farming sector committed suicide in 2015, out of which 8,007 were farmers and 4,595 agricultural labourers. According to a report by NDTV published in July 2018, around 639 farmers ended their lives between March and May 2018 due to crop failure, indebtedness and failure to repay bank loans. Policy schemes imposed by India’s government, including land leasing reforms, loan waivers, increases in Minimum Support Price (MSP) for agricultural products and compensation to farmers for crop loss, have so far failed to reverse this trend. So what can be done to address this problem?
Lessons from the Global Land Forum
GLF 2018 emphasised the need to address the problems of small scale farmers in the global economy through agrarian reforms and more inclusive land rights. India can potentially learn a lot from these discussions.
Agrarian reform is concerned with the production and distribution of land assets, emphasising the need to improve living conditions in rural communities, resolve land conflicts and promote strategies that work for people, markets and the environment. Participants at GLF 2018 stressed the importance of participation of civil society, peasants and indigenous people in the land reform processes. By taking a bottom-up approach, agrarian conflict can be addressed from the perspectives of those people who are most affected. This is in line with the ILC commitment to promote inclusive decision making.
A bottom-up approach to agrarian reform is fundamental in confronting the issue of increasing small-scale farmer suicides in India. While the national government has undertaken some measures to address this problem, policies have so far not considered the perspectives of small-scale farmer representatives from lower castes and indigenous communities. More attention needs to be paid to these stakeholders so that they can provide input on how to best handle their problems through a just, sustainable and more inclusive agrarian reform process.
Secure tenure rights represented another core topic at the GLF. In regards to this topic, particular emphasis was put on recognising the land rights of impoverished men and women, with the aim to empower these people and break inequalities. This commitment needs to be met also by India’s government in order to tackle the problem of rises in suicide cases and to ensure that no one, including small-scale farmers, is left behind.
To read more from the team of GLI policy analysts at the GLF, please click here.
The student team comprises Jessica Burrows, Anwesha Chakraborty, Rebecca Claydon, Anna Fish, Bastian Harth, Calvin Kumala, Zuzana Majcova and Robyn Stewart. They are joined by Dr Charis Enns from the Department of Geography and Dr Philipp Horn from the Department of Urban Studies."
Image credit: New Indian Express