Misplaced Stress

What economic commentators get wrong about farmer suicides

01 June 2015
Farmers who take loans to buy pesticides to improve yields are often trapped by debt when crops fail.
Prashanth Vishwanathan / Bloomberg / Gety Images

ON 22 APRIL, while Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, was speaking at a rally at Jantar Mantar, in the heart of the capital, a man named Gajendra Singh, from the district of Dausa in Rajasthan, died at the venue. The death was immediately reported across the media as a farmer suicide, but, as more information emerged, it grew less clear whether Singh’s death was a suicide or an accident, and whether farming was, in fact, his primary occupation.

Nevertheless, with the issue of rural distress already prominent in the public discourse, the incident sparked yet another round of pitched arguments about farmer suicides. Since the death occurred at a rally organised by Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, the chief minister was denied the opportunity to lead the debate, and the Congress vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, was free to position himself as the politician speaking for farmers. In mid May, he travelled to Telangana to meet the families of farmers who had committed suicide; in turn, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party questioned the Congress’s record on the issue.

With the matter now a game for scoring political points, economic commentators such as Swaminathan Aiyar and Surjit Bhalla, who broadly stand for market liberalism, were quick to try and rebut claims that farmer suicides are an issue that requires policy intervention.

Hartosh Singh Bal  is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.