Climate change driving increase in farmer suicides in India
Evidence from five states shows number of suicides increases in drought years.
Periods of below average rainfall leading to drought conditions are driving an increase in the number of farmer suicides in rural India, according to analysis from IIED. The findings should serve as a warning for the worldwide agricultural sector, which is on the frontline of the increasing impacts of climate change.
In urgent preventative action for climate-related suicides in rural India, researchers looked at rainfall patterns between 2014-15 and 2020-21 across five states with particularly high suicide rates - Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana – and found that during periods of lower than normal rainfall, the number of farmer suicides had risen.
In a year when variation from normal rainfall was 5%, the average number of farmers dying by suicide was 810 people. Using regression modelling, for a rainfall deficit of 25%, the number of farmers dying by suicide in a year would increase to 1,188 individuals.
Climate change has increased the frequency and expanded the reach of drought in recent years. It reduced India’s gross domestic product by two to 5% between 1998 and 2017 according to UN estimates. Over three quarters of the state of Chhattisgarh, and almost two thirds of the state of Maharastra, are now classified as highly prone to drought.
Ritu Bharadwaj, principal researcher for IIED, said: “Climate chaos has already arrived and many countries are feeling its impacts in new ways and at higher intensity than they are equipped to handle.
“With their incomes heavily dependent on climate, farmers are on the frontline of this crisis. Climate change is making agriculture an extremely risky, potentially dangerous and loss-making endeavour for farmers, and it's increasing their risk of suicide.”
Previous research has already shown multiple factors that put farmers at risk, particularly in lower-income, rural areas, to death by suicide. In India, farmer suicides account for 15% of the total number according to national records. There are a number of reasons for this, including a reliance on cash crops like cotton, with limited savings to cope in case of crop or market failure; greater incidence of drug and alcohol addiction; and poor literacy levels meaning people have limited awareness of government social protection programmes in times of crisis, and struggle to access what’s available.
Suicide is preventable and in their paper, the researchers make several suggestions about how this increase in farmer suicides could be addressed. Firstly, governments need to consider social protection schemes, including public works programmes which, in the event of a climatic or economic shock, can provide a productive safety net in the form of cash or food, create assets for long-term resilience and effectively ward off a humanitarian crisis.
IIED analysis has shown that when farmers had access to wage employment through India’s MGNREGS social protection programme, suicide rates were low. Using regression analysis, IIED calculated that when the number of work days taken up from the MGNREGS social protection scheme increased from 50 million to 150 million, the number of farmers dying by suicide dropped from 1,800 people per year to 398 people per year.
Farmers need support to manage their production and market risks due to climate change. They are exposed to market risks mostly in the form of price fluctuations - information they do not have when they are planning their crop or taking loans to buy inputs for their crop – so there is a need for forward-pricing of commodities.
Insurance could play a greater role in absorbing shocks and spreading risks for farmers exposed to the climate crisis. And finally, mental health treatment needs to be much more widely available.
Notes to editors
For free, 24-hour sources of support and suicide prevention:
- In India: visit www.aasra.info or call 91-9820466726 (English/Hindi)
- In the UK: visit www.samaritans.org or call 116 123 (English/Welsh)
- Or search ‘Suicide prevention’ plus your region
IIED research analysed year-wise data from Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana to understand the linkage between rainfall variation from normal and farmers’ suicide. Data for the period from 2014-15 to 2020-21, was analysed. Pearson’s correlation coefficient value was negative for all three states (Chhattisgarh -0.409; Karnataka -0.665; Madhya Pradesh -0.439, Maharashtra -0.524 and Telangana -0.892), which shows that the number of suicide events increases in the rainfall deficit years and vice versa.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS) provides 100 days of guaranteed wage employment to every rural household in a year. IIED analysed the relationship between employment availed from MGNREGS and farmers’ suicide. Data, pertaining to Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Telangana for the period from 2014-15 to 2020-21 were considered for the analysis. For all five states, the Pearson’s correlation coefficient was negative (Chhattisgarh -0.830; Karnataka -0.677, Madhya Pradesh -0.688, Maharashtra -0.691 and Telangana -0.892). The values show that employment availed from MGNREGS is negatively correlated with the number of farmers’ suicide. It can be inferred that MGNREGS works contribute to reducing the farmers’ suicide incidences.