Indian farmers walk carrying straw on their heads at basi village on the outskirts of Allahabad, India. Picture: AP
Indian farmers walk carrying straw on their heads at basi village on the outskirts of Allahabad, India. Picture: AP
A farmer uses bulls to plough a vegetable field on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India. Researchers report a link between crop-damaging temperatures and suicide rates in India, where more than 130 000 farmers end their lives every year. Picture: AP
A farmer uses bulls to plough a vegetable field on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India. Researchers report a link between crop-damaging temperatures and suicide rates in India, where more than 130 000 farmers end their lives every year. Picture: AP
NEW DELHI: When Rani’s husband died by drinking pesticide, he left the family in debt. But even if they could pay off the loans, Rani said their farming days were over.

“There are no rains,” said the 44-year-old woman from drought-stricken Tamil Nadu, one of hundreds of farmers protesting in the capital for more government support. “Even for drinking, we get water only once in 10 days.”

A study suggests India will see more such tragedies as climate change brings hotter temperatures that damage crops and exacerbate drought. For every 1C of warming above 20C during the growing season in India, there are 67 more suicides on average, according to the findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS.

The message “is that farming is an inherently risky occupation, with annual incomes often held hostage to the weather, and it’s getting riskier in the era of climate change,” said Vikram Patel, an Indian psychiatrist and mental health expert with Harvard Medical School in Boston who was not involved in the study.

Experts said the study’s findings should raise alarms, especially with India’s average temperatures expected to rise another 3C by 2050. That will bring more erratic weather events, more drought and stronger storms.

“Anything that will affect occupational stability is going to affect farmers’ mental health,” Patel said.

Farming has always been considered a high-risk profession, and a single damaged harvest can drive some to desperation. With agriculture supporting more than half of India’s 1.3 billion people, farmers have long been seen as the heart and soul of the country. But they’ve also seen their economic clout diminish over the last three decades. Once accounting for a third of India’s gross domestic product, they now contribute only 15% of India’s economy.

There are many factors that can contribute to suicide, including poor crop yields, financial devastation or debt, access to easy methods of self-harm, or a lack of community support. In India, many farmers will drink toxic pesticides as a way out of backbreaking debt, with the government in some cases guaranteeing monetary aid to their surviving families. That provides a perverse incentive for suicide, “rewarding people who end their lives by paying family compensation, but only if they die,” Patel said.

“We may not be able to stop the world from warming, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something to address suicide,” including providing more financial stability and paying more attention to mental health, he said.

The study released on Monday should make those efforts even more urgent, experts said.

“It provides evidence for a causal pathway - from unfavourable weather to poor crop yields to rural misery to increased suicide,” said Dr Howard Frumkin, a University of Washington environmental health professor who was not involved in the study. “With climate change bringing increasingly chaotic weather in many places, this causal pathway is likely to intensify.”

India’s farms are already hit regularly by strong storms, extreme drought, heat waves and other extreme weather events. Some still rely on rainfall rather than irrigation to water their crops. Scientists have shown that extreme weather events are already increasing as the planet warms.

For the study, researcher Tamma Carleton looked at suicide data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau between 1967 and 2013, along with data on agricultural crop yields and on temperature change.

“I estimate that warming temperature trends over the last three decades have already been responsible for more than 59000 suicides throughout India,” writes Carleton, who studies agriculture and resource economics at the University of California, Berkeley. In other words, warmer temperatures were a factor accounting for a 6.8% increase in suicides.

She noted limitations in the study, including an inability to differentiate between urban and rural suicides because the crime records bureau only began classifying farmer suicides in 1995. India’s farmers hold frequent protests to demand better crop prices, more loan waivers and even water delivery systems to guarantee irrigation during dry spells.For the past month, hundreds of farmers - some carrying human skulls they say are of farmers who committed suicide in the drought-stricken southern state of Tamil Nadu - have been staging what they say will be a 100-day protest in a central New Delhi square to “prevent the suicide of farmers who feed the nation”.

The government recently introduced legislation to subsidise crop insurance aimed at reducing some of the financial risk faced by farmers who take out loans to buy seeds and agrochemicals. But experts note there is almost no discussion about mental health as it relates to India’s farming community.

Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh has said there were 11458 farmer suicides last year - the lowest number in two decades. It was also a year of mild temperatures and normal monsoon rains.

He acknowledged that the number of farmer suicides had gone up by about 9% in each of the previous two years, both of which were marred by drought. The crime bureau found that 58% of the 12602 farmer suicides in 2015 were driven by bankruptcy, indebtedness and other farming-related issues. Most of the victims were marginal cultivators or small-farm holders with less than 2 hectares of land.

“Suicides occur due to extreme economic despair,” said MS Swaminathan, a geneticist whose work on high-yield rice and wheat crops helped drive India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s. His research in the late 1980s found that a 1C temperature rise reduced a crop’s duration by about one week, causing losses in the overall weight of harvest. His foundation works to find farming solutions not only to rising heat, but also to drought or salinity from coastal sea rise. Given these growing risks, he said, government policy had a large role to play.

“Suitable crop insurance and a prompt compensation of losses due to climate-related factors will help to avoid a sense of hopelessness that leads to suicide,” Swaminathan said.

 AP