Indian Farmer Suicides: A Lesson for Africa’s Farmers

Bryan Newman | 12.01.2006

Food First Backgrounder, Winter 2006, Vol. 12, No. 4

India’s tremendous middle class growth and the much-celebrated boom of its IT sector overshadows the dark despair of debt-driven farmer suicides in the countryside. Between 1993 and 2003, as many as 100,000 indebted Indian farmers took their own lives. Many of these farmers died consuming the very same pesticides they used on their fields.

This shocking message was carried to an audience of several thousands at the January 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya by Dr. Vandana Shiva, Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy which is based in New Delhi. Dr. Shiva stressed that there are very clear lessons that Africa can learn from India’s problematic Green Revolution experience. She challenged the new Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), stating that the Green Revolution, coupled with trade liberalization, would negatively impact both farmers and agro-biodiversity on the African continent. She claimed that this initiative, funded by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, “[I]s a strategy for dispossessing Africa of food sovereignty and bio-diversity.” Why are so many of India’s farmers committing suicide even as rice and wheat are being stockpiled in national storage facilities?

The cradle of India’s Green Revolution is the Punjab state. As India teetered on the brink of famine and rural chaos in the late 1960s, Punjab was singled out as ground zero for the largest agricultural experiment in the country’s history. This experiment, designed to radically increase food production for the newly independent nation, came to be known as the “Green Revolution.” As the mythic story goes, by the end of this Green Revolution, the state of Punjab had not only filled India’s empty granaries, but had achieved a level of modernity and economic prosperity far exceeding its rural counterparts elsewhere in the nation.

In fact, the relative success or failure of the Green Revolution is fiercely debated in Punjab today by peasant tillers, large farmers, activists, economists, state planners and environmentalists. These actors see radically different patterns of “progress” and “crisis,” “success” and “failure” (and sometimes both at the same time), depending largely on what criteria they include in their analysis of the Green Revolution.

The Limitations of the Green Revolution in Punjab

The image of Punjab’s proud, strong Sikh people and its rich, fertile plains, irrigated by vigorous Himalayan streams seems completely inconsistent with the dark despair of the state’s current agrarian crisis. This discrepancy is all the more shocking in light of Punjab’s celebrated place in agricultural history. Those who speak of the Green Revolution’s success look largely to the huge yield increases of rice and wheat that accompanied the introduction of “high yielding” seeds in Punjab in the 1960s and 70s. Green Revolution critics do not dispute that rice and wheat yields have been increased through its implementation. What they do dispute is the extreme fixation on yields of these two crops, to the detriment of a more all-encompassing economic and social analysis of the impact of the Green Revolution.

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Many observers, both beyond Punjab and within, claim the present rash of suicides committed by deeply indebted farmers across the state is the result of two decades of recurring socioeconomic and environmental disaster.

The argument these critics make is that the Green Revolution’s architects were inherently incapable of dealing with issues other than yields of wheat and rice. The planners ignored issues as wide-reaching as land distribution, ecological sustainability, and the long-term economic costs of an input-intensive agriculture. “Alternative” methods of increasing yields were not considered. Thus, as the argument goes, the introduction of Green Revolution technologies into Punjab, while succeeding in its original mission of growing significantly more food for the rest of India, has brought about economic, environmental, and social disasters in Punjab that were unforeseen or overlooked by the Green Revolution’s original architects. Many observers, both beyond Punjab and within, claim the present rash of suicides committed by deeply indebted farmers across the state is the result of two decades of recurring socioeconomic and environmental disaster.

Punjab’s agrarian crisis can be roughly divided into three separate, but intimately interconnected, areas: 1) rampant and widespread debt among farmers due to shrinking markets, stagnating state-set support prices, crop yields, and increasing production costs; 2) social inequalities exacerbated by the exclusionary policies of the Green Revolution; and 3) ecological breakdown in both soil and water systems.