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Farmer Suicides

The Burden of Local Narratives

Manish K Thakur ( teaches sociology at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.

Unravelling Farmer Suicides in India: Egoism and Masculinity in Peasant Life by Nilotpal Kumar, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp xv + 309, 995.


For the past few decades, farmer suicides have come to be lodged in the public imagination as symptomatic of the deepening agrarian distress haunting the Indian countryside. Scholarly studies of the phenomenon have revealed to us the market-induced vulnerabilities of the farmers, especially the ones growing cash crops like cotton, groundnut, soybean, citrus. They have also reminded us of the policy failures of the state and the declining public investment in agriculture. We have learnt of the reduced support of a pro-reform state to agriculture and the political marginality of the peasantry in the new political economy of the post-1991 Indian state. Others have pointed out the falling crop productivity in the wake of rising input costs amidst globalisation of non-sustainable capitalistic farming practices. Agroecologists have underlined the higher susceptibility of high-yield cash crops to diseases, pest attacks and moisture-related distress in the post-green revolution era. At one stroke, Nilotpal Kumar in Unravelling Farmer Suicides in India: Egoism and Masculinity in Peasant Life dismisses such interrelated arguments as manifestations of flawed economism and sociologism.

Abstracting Agrarian Crisis

Kumar’s first target is what he calls Durkheimian positivism characterising much of literature on the farmer suicides in India. According to him, scholars studying farmer suicides invariably rely on official statistics much like what Emile Durkheim did in his celebrated work Suicide (1897). Such reliance creates the logical fallacy of petitio principii: “the farmers’ suicides proponents presuppose the veracity of principal or exclusive farming antecedents which they then seek to confirm” (p 10). By contrast, for Kumar, “motive ascription in a suicide is a socially contingent process” (p 10). He is sceptical of the farmer suicides data as official statistics are known to be full of taxonomic errors. Sadly, scholars other than him have overlooked this. As a result, they have paid scant attention to non-farming causes and motives in their analyses. As against such scholarship, Kumar presents an ethnographic investigation of farmer suicides based on his fieldwork in a few dryland villages in the Ananthapuramu district in southern Andhra Pradesh, where he demonstrates that a suicide by a farmer or someone from their household is not a priori on a farmer’s suicide. A suicide should be classified as a farmer’s suicide only when causes belong to the farming domain, and non-farming non-economic causes and motives are falsified. Kumar’s ethnography of the farmer suicides puts before itself the stellar methodological challenge of segregating non-farming antecedents from the farming ones.

Kumar’s second target is the prevailing economism of the studies of the farmer suicides in India. This economism not only accepts the unproblematic nature of official suicide statistics as objective, but also brings in issues such as agrarian distress, the widening rural–urban inequalities, and the effects of liberalisation and globalisation of the Indian economy on agriculture. This economism imparts causal and statistical uniqueness to farmer suicides, which Kumar resents. To him, the hitherto existing explanations of the phenomenon are suffused with strategic rhetoric to underline its significance. They are unaware of the fact that social relations may act independently of economy to produce circumstances for suicidal action. Or, Kumar concedes, the social may interact with the economic in some contexts.

Moreover, most of the studies of the farmer suicides are institutionally circumscribed as they emanate from institutions like the media and the academia. As such, they are external to the immediate environment of suicide. Questioning the pervasive grip of their representations, Kumar’s monograph presents an emic account as he purposefully foregrounds local native narratives concerning suicide.

The Emic View

In Kumar’s emic account of the farmer suicides, indebtedness as a result of production-related vulnerabilities does figure. There is also an acknowledgement of the continuing agrarian economic crisis as the proximate antecedent of suicide in some cases. But, his main focus is on the emotional texture of immediate sociality embodying the changes in local social relations. Given this preoccupation, he repeatedly questions the dominant understanding of farming distress being a necessary and sufficient cause for farmer suicides. He writes, “there is also a significant proportion of cases that is difficult to be catalogued as primarily farm-related, and further, there are cases that show an exclusive or principal presence of non-farming related causes” (p 180).

He does not want to invest his scholarly energy in such a governmentalised category as the farmer suicides and their causal connections with such variables as higher incidence of borewell failures, or higher indebtedness in his field villages. He is convinced that it is the local cultural ideology of masculinity—paurusham—which imparts subjective meaning to key farming and other social variables and practices to which suicides relate in Ananthapuramu. To be sure, he takes note of the problems of market-oriented commodity production from a marginal economic and ecological base, the monocropping of groundnut over a century and the diminishing importance of livestock farming, and the switch over to citrus as the new cash crop. But, the key analytic prowess remains reserved for the androcentric world of the village which anchors and nourishes the ideology of paurusham. Other processes like competitive aspirations of upward social and cultural mobility, frictions between conventional norms that aligned class consumption style with one’s hierarchical social and economic capital and with high ideals of austerity, and the new norms decoupling consumption from birth and its caste–class rural–urban hierarchies add up to the subsidiary list of variables having the potential to produce suicidogenic circumstances in the villages of the Ananthapuramu district.

Kumar finds a deep-seated commitment to develop in his field villages. Sure enough, the transition to a new class with distinctive tastes necessitates enhancing agrarian surplus as a first precondition. But, the competition among peasant households is not about money alone. They compete with one another to aestheticise their lifestyle across different domains of consumption: food habits, clothing, personal accessories like mobiles and motorbikes, housing, and education. They want to be like the urban middle classes who serve as the referent for such aestheticisation. They want to get rid of their rurality. However, the economic capacity of a peasant household to accomplish distinctions through consumption is limited and risky. Given the larger agrarian political economy of household reproduction, peasant households get sucked into endless competition and end up using their agrarian surpluses to enhance their status through consumption. In moments of agrarian crisis, such households feel socially distanced as a result of being envied for their wealth and status. The aspirations to achieve post-peasant identities remain normatively dubious as well as lack a sound economic base.

The enhanced preoccupation with conspicuous consumption calls for conscious changes in social preferences and kinship practices as well. Young peasants prefer to stay in nuclear families, which in turn is associated with the entrenchment of egoism in intra-family kin relationships. Concomitantly, there is decline in the significance of traditional constructs of self, individuality and status, and their institutional coordinates like patriarchal joint family, caste, and land. For Kumar, “the new claims of individuality derive from education and/or mobility and the possession of wider social capital (‘connections’) and class consumption styles.” Further, “claiming to possess a self as an immanent centre of their judgment, action, and esteem, young sons routinely scrutinise, contest, circumvent, and sometimes, violently resist a father’s centripetal authority in farming, consumption, and marriage-related decisions” (p 269). Under these cultural conditions, routine consumption of risk becomes rational to such small dry-land farmers in Ananthapuramu who no longer valorise basic consumption demands or continuous under-consumption. They would rather take loans and dig borewells despite repeated failures of the borewells to supply water, given the depleting groundwater levels. They would grow citrus and hope to make a quantum jump to new patterns of consumption in their quest for a better lifestyle.

Kumar’s attention to this production–consumption relationship of the type where even dry-land farmers are implicated in global/postcolonial cultural modernity is appreciable. He takes note of the pressures emanating from the local cultural theory of lifestyle distinctions: classga bathkadam (to live with class). This idea of the class informs the emergent notions of self among peasants. Seen thus, their production-related decisions too get indexed to class–mass distinctions. These distinctions, in a way, imbue the entire local social world around the binary of rare/refined and vulgar taste. In this “indigenous” framework, suicides turn out to be essentially linked to the experience of loss of honorofic self (manam) or conversely to the possession of negative self in familial and contiguous social relations (avamanam). For the author, three major factors contribute to the loss of manam: the perceived loss of hierarchical authority within the household, the loss of claim of equal status within the family, and the perceived defeat in competitions of honour and status outside family.

The Eclectic Narrative

Kumar’s attempt at synthesising diverse theoretical traditions and conceptual categories has, however, led to a turgid prose. He ends up privileging the local ideology of hegemonic masculinity—paurusham—to an extent where his explanation tends to be culturological. True, he makes no claims to offer an explanatory model of farmer suicides. Yet, he gets ensconced in variables at the local/regional level to the neglect of wider forces of economy and state. It is important to bring out the production of gendered subjectivities among a section of contemporary Indian peasantry as a corrective to structural–functional explanations. But, it is altogether a different scholarly enterprise if one gets hooked to “cultural schemas, agentive affects, and practices” (p 20) in a way that the macroeconomic context of the state and the market becomes thin. In effect, Kumar’s work should be read more as an ethnography of a specific agrarian territory in post-reform India than an ethnography of farmer suicides. Ethnographers like Kumar would do well to remember A R Radcliffe-Brown’s famous remark that social structure was as real as a seashell. In his ethnographic zeal of mapping the hyper-masculine social world of local peasants in Ananthapuramu, Kumar appears to have downplayed the tangible effects of social structures on ideological formations.

This burden of local narratives should not, however, undermine the scholarly worth of Kumar’s ethnographic monograph on a South Indian farming community in an ecologically fragile zone. In his work, Kumar skilfully brings together emerging opportunities, crises, and contradictions in three interrelated domains: intimate familial relations, agricultural production, and cultural imagination of self-identity. Likewise, he offers us a peep into the everyday lives of peasant-farmers, where their concerns around self and identity get refracted through the binaries of development–underdevelopment and forwardness–backwardness. These binaries constitute the normative framework of success and failure among peasant-farmers in a way where at times failure leads to self-inflicted death.


Updated On : 11th Nov, 2019


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