By Shalmali Guttal*


Since 1997, the tragedies of suicides by farmers in Karnataka State have caught the attention of the state government, state legislators and the press. Over the past three years, the incidence of farmers’ suicides in the state has shown an alarming increase. It is now widely acknowledged in the state that there is a deepening and complex economic and social crisis in rural areas that has not been adequately addressed by any state government over the past ten years.


While it is difficult to pin-point precise numbers, press reports indicate that at least 3000 farmers had taken their lives between the year 2000 and August, 2003. Through the year 2003, regional and local press reported an average of about four farmer suicides per week. These trends have continued into 2004, although reports of suicides have somewhat diminished over the past month. It is not known whether this is because suicides themselves have decreased, or whether they have simply gone unreported and thereby unnoticed by the press.


The State Government and Legislature have not been unresponsive to the tragedy of increasing farmer suicides. Following the directions of the State Legislature in August, 2001, the Government of Karnataka commissioned an Expert Committee to conduct a scientific study of farmer’s suicides in the state. The Commission completed and presented its report in April, 2002. Recommendations of the Committee include a range of measures to instill self-reliance and self-respect among farmers, such as the creation of a farmers’ welfare fund, a nodal department for welfare of farmers, social security measures, diversification of farm activities, rationalization of credit, regular supply of electricity for agriculture purposes, enhancing irrigation facilities, amendments to the land reforms act, facilities for health care and creating awareness of the harmful effects of alcohol.


Implementation of the Commission’s recommendations by the State Government has been slow. Other development institutions in the Karnataka State have also conducted studies o­n the issue and made recommendations. However, according to some independent experts deeply involved in the agriculture sector, the findings and recommendations of these studies do not adequately reach the heart of the problem, i.e., the impacts of the severe agricultural crisis faced by farmers–specially small-hold and marginal farmers, and agricultural workers–and the complex triggers that impel farmers to take their lives. In the meantime, farmers’ suicides have continued more or less unabated.



Development and policy experts have cited a number of reasons for why farmers take their lives, from heavy debt burdens to alcoholism and depression. Some have suggested that the compensation of Rs. 1 lakh (Rs. 100,000, or approximately US$2,000) offered to the families of farmers who have committed suicide could be a reason why farmers in distress see suicide as a way out for their families. A few have suggested that because of the compensation amount, suicides for other personal reasons are likely to be reported as distress suicides by family members in order to claim the compensation. But few are willing to accept that the state’s economic and financial policy trends have significantly contributed to the economic stress o­n the state’s rural population.


The reasons most commonly cited by farmers’ and agricultural workers’ organisations, state and local level social justice groups, journalists, and independent researchers who have followed the issues closely include:

  • Crop failures resulting from drought, scant or no rainfall, and pest attacks;

  • Increasing prices of chemical fertilizers and other essential inputs;

  • Poor quality of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides;

  • Failed bore-wells and all-around scarcity of water for agriculture and household use;

  • Poor or non-existent power supply;

  • Collapse of prices of agriculture commodities, accompanied by inadequate or non-existent crop insurance;

  • Mounting household expenses related to health, marriages and deaths of family members;

  • Heavy debt burdens, including debt to money lenders and banks;

  • Loss of lands and/or distress sale of lands resulting from an inability to repay debts and meet financial obligations;

  • Unequal distribution of risk between share-croppers and marginal farmers o­n o­ne hand, and wealthier land owners and seed companies o­n the other hand;

  • Lack of comprehensive agricultural policy in the state and in the country.


These groups argue that the State and Central Governments have failed rural populations; in their rush to attract high-end foreign investment, information technology companies and other rapid growth industries, the governments have neglected the needs and aspirations of farming communities.



The tragedy of farmers’ suicides, and the severe economic stress that small-hold and marginal farming families face need to be understood in the context of broader economic and policy trends in the state. Perhaps more than any other state, Karnataka has been at the forefront of the liberalization of agriculture for almost ten years. Karnataka was the first state to implement the new agriculture policy in 1996, which ushered in corporate dominated agriculture including floriculture, aquaculture and also the production of special gherkins for export. The state has amended land reform laws to facilitate corporate agriculture and has systematically opened up its agricultural markets, thus exposing its farmers to unregulated competition from outside. Of the 1500 items for which the Indian Government removed Quantitative Restrictions to fulfill its obligations in World Trade Organisation (WTO) regime, most agricultural commodities are produced solely in Karnataka. These include rosewood, sandalwood, gherkin, coffee and ragi ( a cereal grass).


Also, in addition to attempting to establish itself as an Information Technology (IT) Centre, Karnataka is also actively trying to establish itself as India’s biotechnology centre. Monsanto already has a research centre in Bangalore and the past ten-odd years have seen a mushrooming of biotechnology research initiatives in the state through university programmes and private centres. Most recently, IT and biotechnology companies have displayed interest in collaborative efforts to expand their operations and scope of services. The State Government has continued to actively facilitate the expansion of these two sectors by assisting them in land acquisition and power and water supply, and providing other economic incentives to private companies in these sectors. These facilities have proved to be extremely expensive to farmers in general and small and marginal farmers in particular, who have been confronted with water and power scarcities, loss of lands, mounting debts and a near absence of economic and financial supports.


The tragedy of farmers’ distress and suicides has been politicised by various political parties and their candidates. In the May 2004 state and national elections, electoral candidates from all parties invoked the issue in their electoral campaigns, and in turn accused both, the State Congress Government as well as the national BJP Government of advancing elite interests at the cost of the poor, particularly farming communities. At the same time, however, none of the electoral candidates outlined a clear plan of action to address the economic crisis that has resulted in the tragedy of the suicides.


The new coalition government in Karnataka has declared some urgent measures to provide relief to farmers in distress. These measures include improving irrigation in dry areas, restructuring of farm credit, a temporary moratorium o­n all debt repayments to banks and money-lenders, and enhanced access to seed. The early o­nset of the South-West monsoons offers significant hope that drought conditions in the state will abate. However, the entrenched agricultural crisis in the state will require more far- reaching and deeper policy shifts by the state government, which are not yet in evidence.


Such policy shifts will not likely be achieved without wider conscientisation and mobilisation of society to rally around the needs and priorities of the state’s farmers, who produce bulk of the food and agricultural products consumed by rural and urban populations, as well as industry. Society needs to hear the voices of the farmers, and to appreciate what would have stopped farmers from taking their own lives, and what will stop these tragedies in the future. When a farmer takes his or her life, the economic and social distress of the entire family deepens. The compensation offered by the Government does not assure the family long-term relief or means of meeting livelihood needs. Past trends show deepening rural poverty and distress migration to urban centres where jobs are scarce and insecure, thus entrenching a downward spiral of poverty, hunger and despair. The tragedy of farmers’ suicides is society’s tragedy, and society must start to show collective responsibility to address it.


* Shalmali Guttal is a senior associate with Focus o­n the Global South based in Bangalore, Karnataka, India