Kieth Kloor in Issues in Science and Technology:
What we know is that many of the farmer suicides have been concentrated in five of India’s 28 states. (Anti-GMO activists call this the “suicide belt.”) At the conference, Anoop Sadanadan, a political economist at Syracuse University, identified the role of Indian banking policies, rather than the alleged GMO crop failure, in contributing to the suicides. In a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Developing Areas, he argues that “the increase in suicides among Indian farmers is an unanticipated consequence of the bank reforms the country undertook since the early-1990s. In particular, the entry of foreign and new generation private banks has made banking in India competitive and led to fewer loans to agriculture and farmers. With increased competition, banks saw lending to the farm sector as unprofitable and unreliable.”
Banking practices vary across India. Sadanadan found that states with the highest incidence of farmer suicides were those that offered the least institutional credit to farmers. This forced small farmers into the hands of private lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates (as high as 45%). In those states where farmers had better access to institutional credit and farm insurance, there were markedly fewer suicides. Indian banks also offer credit to farmers with irrigated land, as this makes farming more viable. “Irrigation does drive bank lending,” Sadanadan said at the panel. “In states where there is greater irrigation, they [banks] lend money to the farmer.”
In his upcoming paper, Sadanadan writes that he also found “no evidence to suggest that the cultivation of a particular crop was related to suicides in India.” Some states with high agrarian suicide rates do not include cotton farmers. “Further, cotton was cultivated in some 10 other states that did not witness high incidence of farmer suicides,” he writes.
I asked Sadanadan if there are sociocultural factors that might also explain why Indian farmers have taken their own lives? “So farmers have a choice,” he responded. “In America, a farmer could just default on a loan and say, ‘come after me.’ But in India, they commit suicide. Why? There has to be something cultural there. Is it shame?” But the proximate cause of many suicides, he reiterated, is the “debt burden” associated with the loan sharks, especially in states where farmer credit is tight.