CLIMATE CHANGE IS INFLUENCING INDIA’S FARMER SUICIDES

Financial distress, lack of timely help and crop failure has often been blamed for the spiraling numbers in farm suicides in India. Now, a US study has added climate change as another significant factor that is driving the disaster northwards.

Climate change may have contributed to the suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers and farm workers over the past three decades, according to new research that examines the toll rising temperatures are already taking on vulnerable societies.

It’s a widespread and intensely personal issue, one that has been difficult to tease out the root source. Debt, mental health, lack of social services, weather vagaries and even media coverage have all been put forward as part of the problem. Now, recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that climate change could also be playing a role.

Just a degree rise in temperatures above 20 degrees during the crucial crop growing season (June-September) could push up the number of suicides by 70. In the last 30 years, a total of 59,000 farmer suicides in India have been attributed to the direct cause of rising temperatures by the study published by the University of California, Berkeley researchers.

The striking correlation between the rising temperatures — dropping yields — suicides established by the researchers in the 13 States studied (1956-2000) is both disturbing and could be critical in formulating preventive strategies in future. Maharashtra (especially Vidarbha region), Telangana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu clearly demonstrate that when temperatures rise, crop yields drop and higher numbers of suicides are reported.

Because of climate change, India is only going to get hotter. Starting in 2014, each subsequent year has shattered the previous year’s record as the hottest ever. Scientific consensus predicts average global temperatures to rise as much as 3°C by 2050. Carleton says that interventions have been either wholly absent or woefully insufficient over the period of time her study covers, and without an increase in measures like subsidized crop insurance, worker retraining, or low-cost loans available to farmers to keep them afloat when harvests suffer, India is looking down the barrel of more frequent hardship and, sadly, more lives lost to self-harm.

The authors say the relationship between economic shocks and suicide is controversial and, in India, the effect of income-damaging climate variation on suicide rates is unknown. Though, the Centre has announced a $1.3 billion climate-based, crop insurance scheme motivated as suicide prevention policy, evidence to support such an intervention is still lacking. Previous studies of income variability affecting suicide are mostly anecdotal or qualitative and do not attempt to identify and synthesize quantitative relationships between climates, crops and suicides, they claimed.

Farm loan write-offs by Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh recently and even by the UPA government have been resorted to as means to alleviate the problems, help farmers distress and in a way gain political mileage. Even subsidies on inputs like fertilizers and easy loans have not halted the growing demands from farmers for more soft loans and better minimum support price for the crop.

With Indian agriculture continuing to be dependent on timely rains, landholdings being small and farmers struggling for finances, the challenge to face the consequences of the growing impact of climate change is indeed daunting. Forecasts predict a temperature rise of at least 3 more degrees by 2050.

This implies urgent and increased measures to improve rural farmer’s credit, crop insurance cover and preventive strategies both at policy and ground level to avoid disastrous consequences in the long-term.