Over 650 farmers have committed suicide in the central region of Maharashtra, India, from January to August 2023. Climate change and the stress it places on agriculture have been the cause of an increasing number of these incidents. The paramount human right is the right to life, as enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and this string of tragic farmer suicides thus implicates the state. When so many farmers are driven to take their own lives due to economic distress, this is a critical signal that greater attention needs to be paid to the issue and the public policy decisions and human rights incursions which affect it.
Agriculture is the backbone of the Indian economy, meaning that climate plays a significant role. Monsoon patterns are vital in formulating strategies for produce cycles in agriculture. The increase in farmer suicides is caused in part by a dangerous juncture of conditions, including monsoons, indebtedness, water crisis, technological inaccessibility, and unaffordability as well as unforeseen events like the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the rapid increase in suicide rates amongst farmers is importantly also attributable to poor government policy towards the agricultural sector.
The Olga Tellis case includes the “right to livelihood” within the “right to life” of Article 21 of the Constitution. Farmers’ ability to sustain their livelihood has plummeted in recent years. This is exacerbated by the state compelling farmers to sell below the Minimum Support Price. Farmers in typically rain-fed areas, particularly in Marathwada and Vidarbha, have few irrigation facilities and remain dependent on rainfall for their crops. Often, these crops fail or are damaged and become unfit for human consumption. As a result, farmers are required to sell their produce at loss, compounding their economic difficulties, as the court recognised in Bhimshakti Vichar Manch v State of Maharashtra.
In its judgment, the Bombay High Court asserts that the occurrence of suicide on such a large scale among farmers raises constitutional questions. Because the Constitution guarantees the right to life and personal liberty, the values that underpin Article 21 are seriously eroded by deaths on such a systemic scale. The social position of the agricultural workers and their economic sustenance have been drastically impacted by several decisions taken by the State and its regulatory agencies, indicating the link between government policy and mass suicides. The suicides are as much due to the failure of social and economic development in reaching the poor, landless, and those on the margins of existence as they are due to natural calamities. The consequences of these natural causes become stark when development policy does not provide safety nets and buffers to absorb them. As such, legislation enacted by the State on matters as diverse as land reforms, agricultural indebtedness, consolidation, prevention of the fragmentation of holdings, and remunerative prices that enable farmers to meet the cost of cultivation has a fundamental bearing on both the existence and quality of the life of the rural populace.
Moving forward, it is the duty of the state to intervene as part of the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Constitution, to secure the right to life and dignity for agricultural workers. This must be realised by reducing farmer suicides. Measures that can help to ensure the protection of farmers’ human rights include both financial and social initiatives. Naturally, economic support is of the utmost importance, for instance providing subsidies to farmers, especially during times of crisis due to crop failures or price fluctuations. Mechanisms should also be created for debt relief or restructuring for farmers facing overwhelming credit burdens. In addition, sustainable farming practices must be promoted to increase crop yields and reduce environmental stress. Developing and promoting crop insurance schemes to protect farmers from losses due to natural disasters or market fluctuations is critical. Investment can also be made in climate-resilient agriculture practices to reduce farmers’ vulnerability to climate change.
Finally, providing mental health programs and counselling services is an essential step that must be tailored to the needs of farmers and their families. Raising awareness about mental health issues is also able to reduce the stigma associated with seeking help. Combining these programs with economic aid for workers in need is fundamental to ensuring that the right to life and livelihood is appropriately protected by policymakers in fulfillment of the state’s constitutional obligation.
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