10,349. That is the number of farmers and farm labourers who commit suicide every year, a whopping 7.7% of all suicides in the country. This is an issue we have been battling for quite a while now, without much luck. In today's post we look at the traditional solutions that have been proposed and tried, try to understand what the real pain points are, and attempt to propose potential solutions.
What have been the traditional solutions tried?
One of the most common archetype of the Indian farmer is someone under huge burden of debt from informal lenders forced to the edge. To cater to this almost every government that comes in has some or the other form of loan waivers baked into their manifestos. The solution is one of the simplest ones to execute, has the most observable benefits in the short run, and has the highest appeal electorally. The most popular solution, however, isn't always the most optimal one. A recent survey of farmer suicides showed that 90% of these cases owned more than 2 acres of land, and 60% owned more than 4 acres. Maharashtra, a state with 87% formal lending has a much higher suicide rate than Bihar, a state infamous for its widespread informal lending.
So what are the problems plaguing the Indian farmers?
To put it simply, few reserves and no downside protection. The pricing and farm size dynamic in India ensure that most farmers live hand to mouth, with many having to resort to animal husbandry and other sources of income to keep mouths fed. What this does is leaves the farmer very little buffer to fall back on when things go wrong; the probability of which becomes reasonably high given that they are starting from scratch every season. While the external threat of climate fluctuations is well known, one of the most commonly cited reasons for farmer distress is illness. With a weak rural healthcare system, and almost no insurance to fall back on, when a farmer falls ill, he faces issues on three front: 1. Inability to get access to proper healthcare, thereby leading to worsening or lengthening of the illness, 2. Inability to pay for it given the lack of reserves and no insurance cover, and 3. Work on the farm getting affected adversely.
So what can be done?
While a detailed solution to an issue like this will take a lot more than a 3 minute piece, we try to give it a crack with short, medium, and long term solutions to the issue. In the short term government-sponsored or assisted health and crop insurance would help take some of the load off the farmers when they run into times of stress. In the medium term, we will need to figure out ways to both increase the number of medical professionals we have and incentivize the ones we do to serve the rural markets to help on the healthcare front and work out extensive river-linking and irrigation schemes to reduce the frequency and mitigate the intensity of adverse weather shocks. And in the long run, we need to unclog distribution in India ridding it of the hundreds of middlemen who eat into the margins while finding productive employment for them, improve crop and seed tech to improve realization on the yield, and focus on exports to limit downward pressures on price. The solutions are of course easier said than done, and the temptation will be to fall back on the simple loan waivers, but they would be neither sufficient nor appropriate. These are the hands that work tirelessly to feed us, and the least we can do is to give them a fair shot at building wealth and safety for themselves and their families.
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