Is Climate Change Killing the Indian Farmer?

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We have an agrarian crisis today because we have failed to think through what kind of agriculture we need.

Author: Nandini Majumdar | Published: August 30, 2017

The starkest manifestation of India’s ‘agrarian crisis’ is suicides by farmers that have taken place in increasing numbers – 8,000 in 2015, a 42% increase from the year before, and according to data reported so far from only five states, around 7,000 in 2016. Commentators have focused on every issue from farm productivity to loan waivers to governmental promises in analysing the crisis.

Despite so much having been said – and perhaps partly because of it – something as extreme as taking one’s life has, at one level, come to seem like a familiar happening. For most of us who live in cities, the lives and deaths of farmers are, although tragic, events happening elsewhere to others.

At the risk of adding to the high level of exchange, but in the hope of making that exchange more meaningful, we need to still ask: how do different parts of the discussion fit together? Can we make the different analyses of the subject relate to each other more revealingly?

Two recent empirical studies give us ways of doing that.

The first study, conducted by a Doctoral candidate in Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California at Berkeley, draws a positive correlation between rising temperatures and farmers’ suicides in India.

Comparing data on suicides, crop yields and cumulative exposure to temperature and rainfall across India, Tamma A. Carleton finds that for temperatures above 20º C, a 1º C increase on a single day causes 70 suicides on average during growing season. Temperatures during the non-growing season have no identifiable impact on suicide rates. Additionally, with rising temperatures, crop yields fall during growing seasons, but react minimally during non-growing seasons. This suggests that rising temperatures increase suicide rate through an agricultural channel of lowered crop yields. The study concludes that warming over the last 30 years has caused 59,300 suicides. This accounts for 6.8% of the total upward trend in India’s average suicide rate over the past three decades.


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