Ramdas Udane, a 58 year-old small-scale cotton farmer who works his fields on the Deccan Plateau, is grappling with mounting debt. His hopes of repaying the $10,000 he owes to a private lender diminish with each failing crop season.
Udane is from Maharashtra, the state with the highest number of farmers’ suicides in India. He has considered taking his own life more times than he can remember. However, he is holding on for the sake of his beloved daughter.
“My love for agriculture has dried up, just like my lands. I’m only farming because I have nowhere else to go,” Udane says.
Similar tales of farmers’ in distress are emerging in the southern state of Karnataka. Thimmappa, a 47 year-old smallholder, is facing substantial losses due to a money-draining terminal disease in the family. He finds himself trapped in a vicious debt cycle.
“I have already sold my two acres of land to settle the debt and cover medical expenses. All I have left is half an acre,” Thimmappa says, breaking down as he recalls the day he sold his land.
Stories of farmers’ distress in India have steadily increased in recent years. According to the latest data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in December, 154 farmers and farm labourers took their own lives every day in 2022.
In recent years, climate change has emerged as a contributing factor to the rise in distress among farmers. Severe weather events, including drought, erratic rainfall, and flooding, have steadily increased across the country, where agriculture remains the largest employer, supporting about 250 million households.
A study published by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in May last year found that farmer suicides increased during drought years. Over the last decade, below-average rainfall led to severe drought conditions in five Indian states – Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Telangana. Simultaneously – where suicide rates have risen in parallel.
“Every time a 1 per cent deviation in rainfall occurred, farmers’ suicides increased,” said lead researcher Ritu Bharadwaj, who considered factors including preciptation rates and social protections provided by sates to eliminate variables in her study.
“Many of these farmers’ suicides are more pronounced among small and marginal farmers,” she observed.
The study also found that states with government-backed social security programmes, such as guaranteed minimum employment schemes or insurance schemes, did not register a high number of suicides despite severe crop failures.
“Mounting debt, along with a lack of alternative livelihoods, leads to a sense of hopelessness that drives suicidality,” explained Bharadwaj.
“Most of these farmers attempted suicide two or three times before actually taking their own lives. They lack the education or skill level that could enable them to switch to alternative livelihoods.”
In 2022, 11,290 farmers took their own lives, an increase from 10,281 suicides in the previous year. Since 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power, over 100,000 farmers have committed suicide. These numbers are increasing each year.
Climate to blame?
While many experts in the Indian agriculture sector insist that these figures are severely underreported, with the actual number potentially four times higher in some areas due to unreported incidents and poor attribution methods, some researchers are cautious about the exact role and impact of climate stress on the agricultural landscape and farmers.
“Climate change is adding to the burden of poverty and the riskiness of farming. However, this exacerbation does not necessarily mean a higher rate of suicides,” said Dr Madhura Swaminathan, an economist specialising in agrarian studies who has published numerous papers on the topic.
Skyrocketing prices of animal feed and routine disease outbreaks among cattle have not been helping matters. Indian farmers tend to 308 million cattle, the world’s highest cattle population.
“The reasons for farmers’ suicides in India are complex. There’s widespread agrarian distress in the sector. Climate change is happening in India in parallel with high rates of poverty and unemployment in rural areas. Every problem cannot be attributed to climate change just yet,” said Swaminathan, a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute in Bangalore.
With a total arable area of about 160 million hectares, India is second only to the US in terms of arable land size. From milk, pulses, and spices to rice, wheat, and cotton, India is a global agricultural powerhouse. The growing impacts of climate change on agriculture are expected to intensify in the coming years.
“Given that agriculture is a climate-sensitive sector, any climactic change has a direct effect. There is no denying that this is the most affected sector by climate change,” said Abinash Mohanty, sector head of climate change and sustainability at the international development organisation IPE-Global.
“Our research finds that three-quarters of Indian districts are extreme event hotspots. More importantly, 40 per cent of Indian districts are facing a ‘swapping’ trend – flood-prone areas are becoming drought-prone, and drought-prone areas are becoming flood-prone,” said Mohanty.
To manage farms in an increasingly unstable climate, technological and financial innovations are needed to transfer climate risk from farmers to other stakeholders in the agriculture value chain and ease the burden of unpredictable harvests, he added.
This could mean greater involvement from the private sector, suggested Mohanty. Companies could provide digital technology to help farmers forecast extreme weather patterns while banks could provide financing for climate-resilient crops. “It’s about taking away some of the stress from farmers and spreading risk,” he said.