Health

India's Suicide Epidemic

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 31, 2011 9:41 PM

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Earlier this week, I wrote a post that questioned the accuracy of this statistic in an article by Michael Kugelman, a scholar in the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center:

Yet, when food prices fall, India's small farmers suffer. Already crippled by debt and encumbered by water shortages, 200,000 of them have committed suicide over the past 13 years.

That just struck me as an extraordinarily high number of suicides, but I didn't do anything to back up my skepticism. Instead, I shot from the hip and wrote that

...inflated statistics (be they propagated in the media or in policy journals) don't help inform the [food security] policy debate.

Kugelman graciously responded to me in an email:

I'm glad you brought the 200,000 Indian farmer suicides figure to my attention. I can imagine it would be a controversial figure, given how high a number it is. Let me just make a few comments about it. First, that figure is an Indian government estimate -- it is not a CNN figure (though the figure was cited in the CNN article). Specifically, as stated by the BBC ) and others, it comes from India's National Crime Records Bureau , which catalogues suicides and "accidental deaths" in India every year . When I checked the site just now, I didn't come across anything specifically on farmer suicides, though I may not have looked hard enough. The NCRB, so far as I know, is a reputable institution (it is part of the Home Affairs Ministry). See this excellent article, published by IBN News (a reputable Indian media outlet), on the NCRB's research methodology for the 200,000 figure (try not to get confused by the "lakh" measure -- I often do!): Frankly, I am fairly confident that the 200,000 is a credible figure. As you know, India has more than a billion people, of whom at least 250 million live on less than a dollar a day. Though agriculture remains one of the largest employment sectors in India, it has suffered from sharp decreases in investment in recent years with the explosion in services. Farmers in India have been caught up in fake loan scams, making them hugely indebted. And with the extent of India's water shortages, farmers are not in a position to intensify their farming to try to boost their sales to help pay off their debts. Suicide is unfortunately a widespread phenomenon in India (and not just among farmers). I think the 200,000 may even be a conservative figure (as the IBN article suggests), given that the government would probably be likely to underinflate the figure, as opposed to overstate it.

Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology, at the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University, was asked to weigh in and agreed that India's National Crime Bureau (NRCB)

is a "reliable base," and "if anything will have under-reported" the number of suicides.

Other policy experts I queried also found the 200,000 figure "plausible." Belatedly, I did some reporting and researching, all which confirmed that many thousands of Indian farmers have taken their own lives since the late 1990s. So I want to apologize to Michael Kugelman for not doing my homework before critiquing his article. In the future, I'll avoid blogging in haste and also be sure to offer citable evidence (or an argument) when making critiques.

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