5 May 2009

Indian Suicides and the Blame Game

[Sorry that this post is so long. The good news is that it's thorough.]

This article reports the bad news:
Over 1,500 farmers in an Indian state committed suicide after being driven to debt by crop failure, it was reported today.

The agricultural state of Chattisgarh was hit by falling water levels.

"The water level has gone down below 250 feet here. It used to be at 40 feet a few years ago," Shatrughan Sahu, a villager in one of the districts, told Down To Earth magazine

"Most of the farmers here are indebted and only God can save the ones who do not have a bore well."
Tara Lohan at Alternet takes this news and spins it to say:
Crop failure may have pushed farmers over the edge, but American companies have been leading them to the cliff for years.
How does she reach that conclusion? Simple:
  1. Farmers committed suicide because they were in debt.
  2. They were in debt because there was no water for their crops, and the crops failed
  3. [leap of faith] The crops failed because they "were" GMOs, and they "were" in debt because they had to buy the GMOs. (Neither Monsanto nor GMOs are mentioned in the original story.)
  4. American companies (like Monsanto) sell GMOs.
  5. Monsanto killed the farmers. QED.
This "analysis" is accompanied by an outpouring of comments (166 as of now) by Alternet readers, most of them flames against Monsanto. One commentator did have the right idea:
Monsanto is blameless! Given equal conditions, Monsanto seeds will out-perform traditional seeds. If they don't, no farmers will buy them. Farmers (everywhere) need increased yield or lower per-unit costs in order to justify the additional investment. It is as simple as that.
That's my comment on the GMO question.

Now let's get to the real reasons behind the suicide, using the facts mentioned in the original story:
  1. The crop failed because there was too little water.*
  2. The farmers were in debt, and failure left them without a means of repaying it.**
  3. They committed suicide because they could not repay the debt.
If anything, we have to keep in mind (as the original article does) that the problem is a LACK of water, not GMO seeds.

Put differently, some farmers committed suicide because of debt brought on by crop failure. Crop failure did not result from the type of seeds, but the lack of water from either the monsoon and depleted groundwater.***

So, this week's hack journalism award goes to Tara. That's a pity, since we've met, and I have every reason to respect her skills and her goal of explaining the cause and effect behind the news.

Bottom Line: Indian farmers -- especially the poorest ones -- will continue to suffer for as long as they have poor water supplies. The best way to improve their water supplies is by enforcing strong property rights and sustainable groundwater pumping.
* This 2003 article [$] from the Economist sums up the problem:
Many farmers get their irrigation water free. Many also benefit from free electricity, which sets up a noxious interconnection between free water and free power. As much as 60-70% of mostly free rural electricity is used to power hundreds of millions of inefficient pumps, which are being used to deplete India's already scarce groundwater. Water and electricity are both the responsibility of the states, not the central government, and bear a large share of the blame for India's huge fiscal deficits. And the main beneficiaries of this largesse, inevitably, are richer farmers, not poor peasants.
Anyone wanting a more recent confirmation of the connection between free-electricity and depleted groundwater should check out this 2006 presentation [PDF] by an Indian academic. He says that most of the subsidies are going to RICH farmers, not the poor who are supposed to benefit. (For an interesting example of where groundwater is UNDER-exploited -- in West Bengal -- read this.)

** Why were they in debt? Was it because "money lenders... lure farmers to take money but when the crops fail, they are left with no option other than death?" No, I am not going to go for that. First, because dead farmers do not repay loans. Second, because of what J. David Foster told me the last time the farmer-suicide story came up:
While these suicides [after failed monsoons] were tragic, close examination often revealed that they were more likely the consequence of poor health insurance, excessive spending on lavish weddings, usurious interest rates, and alcoholism.
I agree that salesmen (for ANY type of seed) are likely to promise the moon, but lying has long been a part of the sales pitch. Likewise for high interest rates.

*** This post looks at the relationship between poor groundwater resources and suicides in India.
Addendum: J. David Foster added these comments after I sent him this post:

"While I have little experience in Chattisgarh, I believe the lessons from other states in India are applicable there as well:
  1. Provision of free power for the purpose of pumping water exacerbates an already serious problem, leading to excessive pumping of water, planting of water intensive crops unsuited to local conditions, and rapidly falling water tables. In addition this "free power" rarely benefits the poor and often harms them because they have neither the pumps nor the deep wells to take advantage of free power but they do have shallow wells, the first to run dry when the water table falls.

  2. While farmers can sometimes spend excessively on new seeds or farm equipment, just as they can over spend on housing or weddings or alcohol; the more serious and more widespread problems stem primarily from poor strategic policy and planning for water management.

  3. While there is always the chance that some over zealous salesman for Monsanto did cause some farmers to borrow and invest too much in new technology, I believe that this played a relatively small role in the overall problem. Check out page 27 on this report [PDF], which plots farmer suicide rates vs. the adoption of Monsanto's "Bt Cotton".

  4. Indian suicides and poverty are a complex issue that will benefit more from careful research than from mindless name calling and political grandstanding. Solutions to these problems will require, among other things:
    • Better education and more off-farm employment opportunities, particularly in drought prone areas,
    • Incentives to conserve water and in some cases to recharge the groundwater (including pricing policies and disincentives for water intensive crops such as paddy rice and sugar cane),
    • Better regulation of groundwater pumping,
    • Agricultural techniques that enable greater sustainable production per hectare, and
    • Better better financing that will enable access to timely and critical loans while protecting uneducated farmers from unprincipled money lenders.
Unfortunately, as in many Democracies, the election season in India often brings forth a bumper crop of shortsighted policies. Remember how politicians in Iowa all sought to jump on the "gasohol" bandwagon and some even claimed that the solution to rising gasoline prices was to lower the gasoline tax."
Addendum 2: Tara added these comments after I sent her this post:

"Over 200k farmers have committed suicide in India in the last 10 years and there are mostly concentrated in a particular region and most happen to grow bt cotton. I was not saying in my blog that Monsanto killed these 1,500 farmers, what I was pointing out was an historical trend that is incredibly frightening. This isn't spin: "Crop failure may have pushed farmers over the edge, but American companies have been leading them to the cliff for years." People from India have been saying this for years. Quite simply: The green revolution pushed by big agribiz is not sustainable and an epidemic of farmers swallowing pesticides is a pretty good indication -- but there are others as well."