Big Story 10

Bigger land holdings key to preventing farmer suicides in India, activists say

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Only an overhaul of India’s farming policy, including addressing the small size of agricultural holdings, will help to stem the epidemic of suicides among farmers that have devastated rural communities, campaigners say.

Last week, the Supreme Court asked why India’s states and the central bank have no policies to prevent suicides among farmers. It asked the government and the Reserve Bank of India to respond within a month.

Tens of thousands of farmers have killed themselves over the past decade as drought in many parts of the country and lower global commodity prices hurt farm incomes.

More than half India’s farming households are in debt, official data showed, owing banks and moneylenders hundreds of millions of rupees, despite loan write-offs by governments.

“It is sad and unfortunate that many farmers are committing suicide because of crop failure and other adverse situations,” said a Supreme Court panel headed by Chief Justice of India Jagdish Singh Khehar on Friday.

“Why is there no proper policy to protect farmers from crop failures due to natural calamities and debts?” said the panel in response to a petition by advocacy group Citizens Resource and Action and Initiative (CRANTI).

But Colin Gonsalves, a lawyer with CRANTI, said simply giving handouts was not the solution.

“We want an overhaul in the farm policy, as there has been a fundamental shift in agriculture that is leaving farmers destitute,” he said.

More than 8,000 farmers committed suicide in 2015 compared to 5,650 the previous year, according to official data. Most suicides were in the states of Maharashtra - which accounted for more than a third - Telangana, and Karnataka.

More than two-thirds of farmers who committed suicide were small and marginal farmers, with less than 2 hectares (5 acres)of land.

“These land holdings are simply not sustainable, and it is these poorest of poor farmers who suffer the most,” Kishor Tiwari, an activist who also heads a task force to tackle farmer suicides in western Maharashtra state.

“There has to be a policy to pool land or increase the size of holdings through collective farming or some other way.”

The average size of land holdings in rural India has halved over the past two decades, with more than 80 percent of rural households owning less than 1 hectare of land.

Farmers’ groups have also demanded bigger fertilizer subsidies, a minimum support price for produce, easier access to credit and better crop insurance to help improve yields and prevent crop failures.

Several Indian states have adopted a model land leasing law to give poor tenant farmers greater security.

Yet cooperative and collective farming models are limited to women’s groups and indigenous communities in a few states.

More concessions for farmers are expected in the federal budget due to be announced Feb. 1.