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New Evidence of Suicide Epidemic Among India's 'Marginalised' Farmers

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Latest statistical research finds strong causal links between areas with the most suicides and areas where impoverished farmers are trying to grow crops that suffer from wild price fluctuations due to India's relatively recent shift to free market economics.

A new study has found that India's shocking rates of suicide are highest in areas with the most debt-ridden farmers who are clinging to tiny smallholdings - less than one hectare - and trying to grow 'cash crops', such as cotton and coffee, that are highly susceptible to global price fluctuations.

The research supports a range of previous case studies that point to a crisis in key areas of India's agriculture sector following the 'liberalisation' of the nation's economy during the 1990s. Researchers say that policy intervention to stabilise the price of cash crops and relieve indebted farmers may help stem the tide of suicide that has swept the Indian countryside.   

This latest work follows on from a recent Lancet study by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), which showed Indian suicide rates to be among the highest in the world - with suicide the second leading cause of death among young adults in India.

In 2010, 187,000 Indians killed themselves - one fifth of all global suicides.

However, while the Lancet study revealed suicide rates in rural areas to be almost double those of urban areas, and the most common method of suicide to be deliberately ingesting pesticide, the LSHTM authors did not believe they had enough evidence to show suicide rates are higher in farmers. 

Suicide rates vary sharply across the different Indian states. Building on the LSHTM study, researchers from Cambridge and UCL analysed suicide figures of 18 Indian states - as well as national crime and census statistics and surveying done by the Ministry of Agriculture - to create data models that investigated whether case studies of "farmer suicide" that concentrate on a few suicide hotspots could be generalised across India.

The team, from the Cambridge University's Department of Sociology and University College London's Department of Political Science, say they have found significant causal links showing that the huge variation in suicide rates between Indian states can largely be accounted for by suicides among farmers and agricultural workers.

Farmers at highest risk have three characteristics: those that grow cash crops such as coffee and cotton; those with 'marginal' farms of less than one hectare; and those with debts of 300 Rupees or more. Indian states in which these characteristics are most prevalent had the highest suicide rates. In fact, these characteristics account for almost 75% of the variability in state-level suicides.   


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