Updated: Nov 16, 2020
The Vidarbha region of north eastern Maharashtra has been described as the epicenter of farmer suicide in India. It also has the unenviable reputation of being one of the worst places in the nation to be a farmer. These circumstances are connected. More than 300,000 farmers in India have committed suicide since 1995. Over this period, the State of Maharashtra has experienced the highest rate of farmer suicides in the nation. Recent data (2014-2018) indicate that an average of eight farmers per day end their lives in Maharashtra. 2019 data revealed a modest downward trend of farmer suicide in the state. Unfortunately, the district of Yavatmal (where Umarkhed Taluka is located) experienced the opposite trend - farmer suicide increased. Numerous factors outside the control of the farmers make identifying a solution to this agrarian crisis elusive. National agricultural policies, minimum support prices, weak political leadership, climate change and its worsening effects, problematic water policies and poor irrigation systems, competition for water from industries, increasing input costs of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, insufficient crop insurance policies, and unscrupulous, opportunistic lenders all combine to put farmers in the region under overwhelming stress. Moreover, cultural practices, specifically gender roles in patriarchal rural communities, operate as a confounding variable. A farmer is expected to be both the provider for his family and the producer of food for his community. Under the confluence of contemporary conditions, farmers in the Vidarbha region often feel that they are falling short of these expectations, triggering feelings of shame, powerlessness, and despair.
Psychological postmortem information on suicides in general (e.g., information gleaned from incomplete suicides or notes left behind) indicate that individuals do not want to end their lives but ‘want to end the pain.’ Thus, the experience of powerlessness or perceived impotence to improve one’s situation may lead individuals to despair and ultimately suicide.
Because the Maati-Paani-Asha vision exemplifies a systems approach, it has the potential to influence change at the microlevel (viz. the farmer) by empowering the farmer and thereby impacting the food production system positively and at a sustainable level. The strategies outlined in this proposal will allow farmers to reclaim some of their agency and power, as well as to become less dependent on factors that are outside their control. Specifically, the introduction of farming practices that regenerate and rehydrate land via reduced reliance on expensive external inputs is expected to reduce the negative impact of unsustainable chemically dependent farming practices, increase crop yield, improve health, and mitigate some of the effects of the global climate crisis. Additionally, technical and financial assistance and market connections provided to farmers will reduce the dependence on multinational corporations, unscrupulous lenders, and opportunistic traders. These interventions are mechanisms for empowering at the individual level and building local community capacity. Moreover, community-led initiatives such as a women-led barter system for sharing nutritious foods and collaborations with local educational and health care institutions will be a significant factor in complementing culturally relevant community networks that can provide psychological insulation in the face of stressors that have previously resulted in despair, powerlessness, and suicide.
In sum, empowerment at the individual level will enhance self-esteem and positively influence farmers' sense of purpose and meaning, enabling them to see themselves as valuable and productive members of the Umarkhed community. The reshaping of the status quo through this vision project, although not a panacea, will in the medium and long term go a long way in improving the quality of life for the individual farmer, their families and their local communities; reduce farmer suicide; and enhance sustainable eco-friendly food production at the macrolevel.