Farmer suicides in India have reached alarming rates. The decade between 1997 and 2006 saw as many as 166,304 farmers committing suicide in India — potentially an underestimate, given that landless rural labourers and women were not included. As per National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 5,650 farmers committed suicide in 2014, of which 75 per cent were marginal farmers, while Telengana, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka accounted for 90 per cent of national farmer suicides. Maharashtra has seen over 10,000 farmer suicides between 2011 and 2013, while the Marathwada region alone this year has seen over 200 farmer suicides. Farmer suicides have grown at a compound annual growth rate of over two per cent, with every fifth male suicide in the country being a farm suicide. As Friedrich Nietzche said, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”

Beyond the numbers, the human tragedy is poignant. Consider the family of Umesh Chandra Sharma (Nadhi, Seetapur district), who committed suicide on May 10, 2015, and his son, unable to manage the situation, hung himself from a mango tree a week later. Or that of Ashok Singh Choudhary (Shahpur Dhamedi, Bijnor district), who was driven to suicide by bank loans and non-receipt of mill dues. Or that of Laxmi Narayan Shukla (Sarsa, Bahraich district), whose family I met during my recent trip and had the opportunity to help. As a representative of these beleaguered families, I have contributed all of my parliamentary salary for the next five years to the cause of farmers in Uttar Pradesh, while encouraging others to pitch in.

Farmers now need more courage to live than to kill themselves.India’s acute agrarian crisis has led to this turmoil, increasing vulnerability while offering few alternate livelihood opportunities. India’s agricultural landholdings are dominated by small and marginal farmers (99 metre of 121 metre) holding 44 per cent land share and a farmer population share of 87 per cent, while accounting for 70 per cent of all vegetables and 52 per cent of all cereals.

According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, one third of all farmers hold less than 0.4 hectares of land, while 50 per cent of all agricultural households are indebted, with an average loan amount of Rs 47,000. Within Sultanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, input costs per hectare have increased by 33 per cent over five years, while the government has limited agricultural subsidies. Given diminishing returns and growing land-fragmentation, taking their yield deceleration to its logical end, such farmers now face rising penury. Farming no longer offers a living wage.

India’s misaligned cropping pattern and compensation system intensifies their woes. Farmers living in arid areas have been encouraged to plant high-yield wheat and rice, despite the decline in groundwater-level (61 per cent of irrigation depends on this). Rajasthan and Maharashtra have gone past sustainable levels, with the majority of their blocks categorised as “over-exploited”. Given poor soil quality, this skewed cropping pattern, dictated by backwardness, has added to instability. The existing method for crop failure compensation is heavily skewed in favour of landowners over labouring farmers, dependent as it is on land ownership records (less than 0.4 per cent of total cultivable land is registered under existing tenancy laws). In addition, reforming the process of crop damage estimation and consequent fund disbursal remains critical.

Given the lack of proper documentation, a corrupt bureaucracy and an inept local administration, providing compensation, cheap credit or insurance in time has become challenging. Increasing transparency on property rights and land-focused judicial reforms could strengthen such institutional systems. Effective use of satellite images and cheap drones can, in fact, reduce the estimation time to a fraction.

Indebtedness correlates with farmer suicide. Farmers are driven to such an extreme step due to imprudent borrowing from high interest rate sources for mostly non-productive uses where the increase in net incomes falls far below expectations. Numerous suicide-afflicted households speak of borrowing, while awaiting high-yields and robust prices.

With Bt cotton, the input costs are very high, while the performance of these varieties depends on the availability of adequate and reliable irrigation. When farmers invest in wells and pumpsets in the hope of striking water, when groundwater levels fall or the rain is limited, such high investments turn out to be infructuous. Cultivation has become more variable, despite rising irrigation. When the market or the weather fails, penury rises.

Institutional financing needs to be more available and accessible — preferred over informal money lending by sahukars. To reduce the possibility of a cyclical debt trap, benefit provision needs to be simplified, while disbursed funds require effective monitoring. Early warning signals need to be established to monitor farmers who garner unsustainable loans and then default. Village-wise lists of farmers who have availed large amount of loans in relation to their assets and earnings can be prepared on a periodic basis and be used to identify farmers who have exposure to unsustainable debt and are, thus, potential suicide candidates. Reserve Bank of India and National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development can analyse such lists for macro policy interventions, while the local administration can utilise them to provide timely loan restructuring initiatives, insurance claim settlements and better counselling.

Revamping irrigation remains critical. Drip irrigation remains an obvious solution — able to accommodate irregular field sizes and unlevelled topography, while keeping water application efficiency high (greater than 70 per cent), providing high-yield (up to 230 per cent) and improving fertiliser efficiency (up to 30 per cent). The high initial cost ($500-$1,500 per acre) remains a significant barrier with banks reluctant to provide loans on small ticket sizes. Land pooling — wherein marginal farmers can pool their land together to form an economically cultivable chunk of land and achieve economies of scale — could help a great deal. In addition, subsidy schemes like Swarnajayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana can help structure such transactions. In cases where sanction delays and supplier reticence can push back installation, banks could be encouraged to advance full loans, without insisting for sanction and release of subsidy.

For beleaguered farmers, categorising their suicide as “killing themselves” is a misnomer. They are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle of staying alive. Changing this pattern will require the government to pay deeper attention to grassroots issues and the peculiar needs of marginal agriculture. Strong social and institutional mechanisms need to be re-engineered to change their dismal economics.