India's Suicide Epidemic

Earlier this week, I wrote a post that questioned the accuracy of this statistic in an article by Michael Kugelman, a scholar in the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center:

Yet, when food prices fall, India’s small farmers suffer. Already crippled by debt and encumbered by water shortages, 200,000 of them have committed suicide over the past 13 years.

That just struck me as an extraordinarily high number of suicides, but I didn’t do anything to back up my skepticism. Instead, I shot from the hip and wrote that

…inflated statistics (be they propagated in the media or in policy journals) don’t help inform the [food security] policy debate.

Kugelman graciously responded to me in an email:

I’m glad you brought the 200,000 Indian farmer suicides figure to my attention. I can imagine it would be a controversial figure, given how high a number it is. Let me just make a few comments about it.

First, that figure is an Indian government estimate — it is not a CNN figure (though the figure was cited in the CNN article). Specifically, as stated by the BBC ) and others, it comes from India’s National Crime Records Bureau , which catalogues suicides and “accidental deaths” in India every year . When I checked the site just now, I didn’t come across anything specifically on farmer suicides, though I may not have looked hard enough. The NCRB, so far as I know, is a reputable institution (it is part of the Home Affairs Ministry).

See this excellent article, published by IBN News (a reputable Indian media outlet), on the NCRB’s research methodology for the 200,000 figure (try not to get confused by the “lakh” measure — I often do!):

Frankly, I am fairly confident that the 200,000 is a credible figure. As you know, India has more than a billion people, of whom at least 250 million live on less than a dollar a day. Though agriculture remains one of the largest employment sectors in India, it has suffered from sharp decreases in investment in recent years with the explosion in services. Farmers in India have been caught up in fake loan scams, making them hugely indebted. And with the extent of India’s water shortages, farmers are not in a position to intensify their farming to try to boost their sales to help pay off their debts. Suicide is unfortunately a widespread phenomenon in India (and not just among farmers).

I think the 200,000 may even be a conservative figure (as the IBN article suggests), given that the government would probably be likely to underinflate the figure, as opposed to overstate it.

Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology, at the Delhi School of Economics, Delhi University, was asked to weigh in and agreed that India’s National Crime Bureau (NRCB)

is a “reliable base,” and “if anything will have under-reported” the number of suicides.

Other policy experts I queried also found the 200,000 figure “plausible.”

Belatedly, I did some reporting and researching, all which confirmed that many thousands of Indian farmers have taken their own lives since the late 1990s.

So I want to apologize to Michael Kugelman for not doing my homework before critiquing his article. In the future, I’ll avoid blogging in haste and also be sure to offer citable evidence (or an argument) when making critiques.

9 Responses to “India's Suicide Epidemic”

  1. Marlowe Johnson says:

    wow a blogger admitting an error in judgment.  perhaps you and MT have more in common than i thought 🙂

  2. Ian says:

    Refreshing to read a seemingly genuine apology, retraction and dedication to more robust practice on the blogosphere. Often, it seems, this type of admission is dragged out kicking and screaming with a thousand caveats in accompaniment. Perhaps if our ideologies were little less sacrosanct and our pride less steadfast the discussions may become somewhat more edifying …for what it’s worth.

    best wishes, ian

  3. DeNihilist says:


  4. Michael Larkin says:

    Well done. This is why this is the only pro-consensus blog I can read with equanimity.

  5. Roddy Campbell says:

    I think people are generally good at acknowledging errors, especially on a relatively simple piece of data, your elegance was in not repeating your ‘inflated statistics’ sentence, generally true though it is.
    J** R*** would have done.  In fact, most would have done.

  6. Thanks Keith for reading New Security Beat where my colleague Michael’s piece appeared. And it doesn’t surprise me Michael engaged you seriously on the merits of the statistic rather than immediately jumping to the name calling that is so common in the blogosphere.  He’s a serious guy trying to understand some super complex dynamics, just as you are.  Thanks for the additional research to get a wider confirmation. 

    And I should say, Michael’s work is worth following on South Asia including the series of reports the Wilson Center’s Asia program has done on Pakistan’s water, education, food, and population.

  7. Pascvaks says:

    Some outstanding points!  Kuddo’s!

    PS: The problem of “skepticism” increases with age, eventually you become a stranger in a strange land and start to “turn off” to all the noise around you.

  8. Eli Rabett says:

    There are a huge number of people in India, and many of them are farmers.  More interesting would be trends over the years.

  9. Vinny Burgoo says:

    (Who’s Kuddo?)
    This is what happens when newspapers, activists, academics and government departments provide numbers in ways that don’t allow international comparisons. All but one of the reports I’ve seen on the suicides of Indian farmers say how many farmers are thought to have killed themselves without saying how many farmers there are or giving a standard ‘per 100,000 people per year’ rate. 200,000 is a big number but does it indicate a high suicide rate?

    Er, no. Not by international standards. The one report that tried to put things in context (it’s by the Madras Institute of Development Studies, which is very worried about the suicides) gave a suicide rate for Indian farmers that is about 70% of the rate for British farmers: 16 versus 22 suicides per 100,000 farmers per year.

    That was for 2001. Since then, the Indian rates have probably increased and the British rates have probably decreased but even if the Indian rate now exceeds the British rate it is unlikely to be of a magnitude worthy of headlines anywhere outside India.

    So why is (was) the Western press so worried about Indian farmers when Lithuanian dentists are at a much greater risk of killing themselves?

    It’s because this has nothing to do with suicide. It’s the usual story: activists opposed to capitalism, globalisation, biotechnology and other things that bewilder them doing their usual good job of getting their bewilderment into a credulous press.

    (Phew! I think I managed to get that across without belittling Keith’s numerical intelligence in any way… D’oh!)


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