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Farmers’ Suicides as Public Death: Politics, Agency and Statistics in a Suicide-Prone District (South India)*


This paper argues that Indian farmers’ suicides may fruitfully be described as public deaths. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in the South Indian district of Wayanad (Kerala), it shows that farmers’ suicides become ‘public deaths’ only via the enumerative and statistical practices of the Indian state and their scandalization in the media. The political nature of suicide as public death thus depends entirely on suicide rates and their production by the state itself. But the power of representations complicates the ethnographic critique of statistical knowledge about suicide. In a context like Wayanad, which had been declared a suicide-prone district by the Indian state, public representations of suicides have taken on a life of their own; statistical categories and the media interpretations of these statistics have had a curious feedback—mediated by development encounters—onto the situated meanings of individual suicides. Local interpretations of individual suicides mostly commented on personal failures of the suicide and on the perils of speculative smallholder agriculture. Ethnography of farmers’ suicide based on case studies alone, however, would soon encounter limitations equally grave as the limitations of statistical analysis. Not only is the meaning of suicide (intentions, causes, motives) at the actor level off limits for ethnography, but in addition to that the (public) meaning of suicide is co-determined by state practice including statistical accounting.

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I would like to thank the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram for affiliating me during fieldwork. My special gratitude goes to Joby Clement for assisting me in the field and to the farmers of Wayanad who have received me with great hospitality and curious minds. I thank Ludek Broz, Ursula Münster and the anonymous reviewers for Modern Asian Studies for their constructive comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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1 For a comprehensive discussion of official suicide statistics in India, see Nagaraj K. (2008). Farmers’ Suicides in India: Magnitudes, Trends and Spatial Patterns, Macroscan: <> [Accessed 25 March 2014].

2 In South Asia, spectacular protest suicides, often committed by eye-catching means including self-immolation, form an established part of the collective-action and protest repertoire. Amongst the most memorable cases are public self-immolations by students in protest against implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal commission in 1989 and 1990.

3 Vandana S., Jafri A. H., Emani A. and Pande M. (1998). Seeds of Suicide: The Ecological and Human Costs of Globalisation of Agriculture, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, New Delhi.

4 Cohn B. S. (1987). An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

5 Vasavi A. R. (2012). Shadow Space: Suicides and the Predicament of Rural India, Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon.

6 Most social scientific articles on the issue of farmers’ suicides have appeared in the journal Economic and Political Weekly. See Assadi M. (2000). Seed Tribunal: Interrogating Farmers’ Suicides. Economic and Political Weekly, 35 (43–44): 38083810; Deshpande R. S. (2002). Suicide by Farmers in Karnataka: Agrarian Distress and Possible Alleviatory Steps. Economic and Political Weekly, 37 (26): 26012610; George J. and Krishnaprasad P. (2006). Agrarian Distress and Farmers’ Suicides in the Tribal District of Wayanad. Social Scientist, 34 (7–8): 7580; Kulkarni M. N. (2003). Saving Farmers’ Lives. Economic and Political Weekly, 38 (44): 46264716; Mishra S. (2006). Farmers’ Suicides in Maharashtra. Economic and Political Weekly, 41 (16): 15381545; Mohanakumar S. and Sharma R. K. (2006). Analysis of Farmer Suicides in Kerala. Economic and Political Weekly, 41 (16): 15531558; Revathi E. (1998). Farmers’ Suicide: Missing Issues. Economic and Political Weekly, 33 (20): 1207; Sridhar V. (2006). Why do Farmers Commit Suicide? The Case of Andhra Pradesh. Economic and Political Weekly, 41 (16): 15591565.

7 See Durkheim É. (1952 [1897]). Suicide: A Study in Sociology, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London; Mohanty B. B. (2005). ‘We are Like the Living Dead’: Farmer Suicides in Maharashtra, Western India. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 32 (2): 243276. Mohanty is amongst the few authors who explicitly discuss Durkheim's theory of anomie in relation to farmers’ suicides.

8 For a discussion of the statistical procedures, see Nagaraj, Farmers’ Suicides in India.

9 Rajan R. S. (2003). The Scandal of the State: Women, Law, and Citizenship in Postcolonial India, Duke University Press, Durham.

10 Reddy D. N. and Mishra S. (2009). Agrarian Crisis in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

11 Li T. M. (2009). Exit from Agriculture: A Step Forward or a Step Backward for the Rural Poor? The Journal of Peasant Studies, 36 (3): 72.

12 Vasavi, Shadow Space, p. 2.

13 Foucault M. (2007). Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–78, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

14 Gupta A.Governing Populations: The Integrated Child Development Services Programme in India’ in Hansen T. B. and Stepputat F. (2001). States of Imagination: Ethnographic Explorations of the Postcolonial State, Duke University Press, Durham, pp. 6596; Rose N. (1991). Governing by Numbers: Figuring Out Democracy. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 16 (7): 673692.

15 Cohn, An Anthropologist among the Historians; Mitchell T.Society, Economy, and the State Effect’ in Gupta A. and Sharma A. (2006). The Anthropology of the State: A Reader, Blackwell, Malden, pp. 169186.

16 Hacking I.How Should We Do the History of Statistics?’ in Burchell G., Gordon C. and Miller (1991) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 181195.

17 Cohn, An Anthropologist among the Historians; Dirks N. B.Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Princeton University Press, Princeton; Guha S. (2003). The Politics of Identity and Enumeration in India c. 1600–1990. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 45 (1): 148167; Sundar N.The Indian Census, Identity and Inequality’ in Guha R. and Parry J. P. (1999) Institutions and Inequalities: Essays in Honour of André Béteille, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp. 100127.

18 Cohn, An Anthropologist among the Historians, p. 230.

19 Stevenson L.The Suicidal Wound and Fieldwork Among the Canadian Inuit’ in Borneman J. and Hammoudi A. (2009). The Fieldwork Encounter and the Making of Truth, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 5576.

20 Waidzunas T. (2012). Young, Gay, and Suicidal: Dynamic Nominalism and the Process of Defining a Social Problem with Statistics. Science, Technology & Human Values, 37 (2): 199225.

21 Münster D. (2012). Farmers’ Suicides and the State in India: Conceptual and Ethnographic Notes from Wayanad, Kerala. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 46 (1–2): 181208.

22 The present-day Wayanad district was formed in 1980 and is made up of three Taluks (and three State Assembly constituencies): Vythiri, Mananthavadi and Sultan Bathery. My fieldwork was mainly carried out in Sultan Bathery Taluk.

23 The official name of that register was ‘kaṭakkeni mūlum ātmahatya ceytavaruṭe pērunkaḷ’ (Mal.)—literally, ‘names of those who committed suicide due to debt’.

24 The source is a document obtained from the District Revenue Department in Kalpetta. It lists all beneficiaries of the 50,000-rupee compensation from the Chief Minister's Distress Relief Fund. A report by the Kerala Department of Economics and Statistics reports a total number of 317 farmers’ suicides for Wayanad (979 for Kerala in total) from 2003 to 2007 on the basis of police reports, Revenue Department reports and field surveys. See Government of Kerala. (2009). Report of Survey on Farmers’ Suicides in Kerala, Department of Economics and Statistics, Thiruvananthapuram.

25 The findings of the consortium are summarized in the Kerala Social Service Forum. Wayanad Suicides: A Psycho-Social Autopsy, KSSF Kottayam, Adichira. See also the earlier publication by Shreyas, a member of the Safe Farmers Campaign network of NGOs, Shreyas (2007). Increasing Suicides in Wayanad: A Study Report, Shreyas Publication, Sulthan Bathery.

26 Weber M. (1990 [1922]). Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie, Mohr, Tübingen.

27 Li, Exit from Agriculture, pp. 629–636.

28 Quoted in Jodhka S. S. (2002). Nation and Village: Images of Rural India in Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar. Economic and Political Weekly, 37 (32): 33433353.

29 There is a huge debate about the nature of sati (the burning or customary suicide of widows on their husband's funeral pyre in India), its uses in colonialist and orientalist writings and its reality. See Mani L. (1998). Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India, Oxford University Press, Oxford; Sen M. (2002). Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry, Death, And Female Infanticide in Modern India, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick; Spivak G. C.Can The Subaltern Speak?’ in Williams P. and Chrisman L. (1994). Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 66111.

30 Durkheim, Suicide, p. 200.

31 Thompson E. P. (1971). The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century. Past & Present, 50 (1): 76136.

32 Ibid., p. 78.

33 Ibid., p. 78.

34 Mohanakumar and Sharma, Analysis of Farmer Suicides in Kerala, p. 1553.

35 Ibid., p. 1553, emphasis added.

36 Ortner S. (1995). Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 37 (1): 137193.

37 Thompson, The Moral Economy, p. 77f.

38 Examples of the Farmers Relief Forum's direct-action interventions include the protection of farmers threatened with eviction notices from their land by shutting in bankers and village officers and preventing land auctions from taking place. The Forum also independently called a general strike (hartal) in 2008 and staged protests against the high-level (and in their view hypocritical) visits of state and central politicians at the height of the agrarian crisis.

39 A. C. Varkey, Nadavayal, 28 August 2008.

40 Here, the most important hurdle was the waiver of exclusively ‘agricultural loans’. This was perceived as a great injustice, as a large amount of rural debt either lay with informal moneylenders or was categorized as ‘consumer loans’ or ‘housing loans’. The availability of agricultural loans was very restricted. According to Varkey, ‘We are an agricultural district. Everything we do is agriculture-related.’ Another local scandal involved the strict application of cut-off dates for debt relief.

41 Wu F. (2010). Suicide and Justice: A Chinese Perspective, Routledge, London.

42 Malinowski B. (1978 [1926]). Crime and Custom in Savage Society, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

43 Firth R. (1967). ‘Suicide and Risk-Taking’ in Tikopia Ritual and Belief, Allen and Unwin, London, pp. 116140.

44 Giddens A. (1964). Suicide, Attempted Suicide, and the Suicidal Threat. Man, 64 (3): 115116; Giddens A. (1977). Studies in Social and Political Theory, Basic Books, New York.

45 Feldman A. (1991). Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

46 Andriolo K. (2002). Murder by Suicide: Episodes from Muslim History. American Anthropologist, 104 (3): 736742; Andriolo K. (2006). The Twice-Killed: Imagining Protest Suicide. American Anthropologist, 108 (1): 100113.

47 Ibid., p. 102

49 The ‘Vidarbha package’ is a central government scheme exclusively for suicide-prone districts. Officially, it is called ‘Prime Minister's Package for Rehabilitation’ or ‘Rehabilitation Package for Suicide-Prone Districts’ and was implemented by the union government in 2006/2007 in 31 districts. It permitted writing off overdue loans for the families of the dead farmers as well as an income-generating programme (livestock) for the widows, but its funds were otherwise spent through the agricultural offices. Its shorthand, ‘Vidarbha Package’, is derived from Vidarbha, the region in eastern Maharastra that is most notorious in the country for farmers’ suicides, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited in June 2006. In Kerala, the districts of Wayanad, Palakkad and Kasaragod were included in the scheme.

50 Lee S. and Kleinman A.Suicide as Resistance in Chinese Society’ in Perry E. J. and Selden M. (2003) Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance, Routledge, New York, pp. 289311.

51 Sainath, P. (2007). Farmers’ Suicides: Striking a Note of Dissent. The Hindu, 27 January 2007.

52 Visvanathan S. (1998). The Sadness of Cotton. Economic and Political Weekly, 33 (7): 323324.

53 Sainath, Farmers’ Suicides.

54 At the time of writing this paper, the self-immolation of farmer Jabardaan Gadhvi in Rapar, Kutch (Gujarat) on 21 February 2011 had become a matter of heated debate between the government and its opposition in the Gujarat Assembly. According to Mishra, 4.5 per cent of all suicides by farmers in Virdarbha were committed by self-immolation, see Mishra S. (2006). Suicide Mortality Rates across States of India: 1975–2001: A Statistical Note. Economic and Political Weekly, 41 (16): 15661569. Self-immolations in India are more frequent amongst female suicides and are often associated with instances of dowry harassment and other cases of domestic violence, see Oldenburg V. T. (2002). Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime, Oxford University Press, Oxford; and Sen, Death by Fire. Most commentators agree that in such instances, the moment of accusation and protest outweighs possible elements of psychopathology, see Singh S. P., Santosh P. J., Avasthi A. and Kulhara P. (1998). A Psychosocial Study of ‘Self-Immolation’ in India. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 97 (1): 7175.

55 Brooke, J. (2003). Farming is Korean's Life and He Ends it in Despair. The New York Times, 16 September 2003.

56 Sainath, P. (2004). So Near to God, So Far From Heaven. The Hindu, 14 December 2004.

57 Münster D. and Strümpell C. (2014). The Anthropology of Neoliberal India: An Introduction. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 48 (1): 116.

58 Münster D. and Münster U. (2012). Consuming the Forest in an Environment of Crisis: Nature Tourism, Forest Conservation and Neoliberal Agriculture in South India. Development and Change, 43 (1): 205227.

59 On the issue of choices in small-scale capitalist farming, see Tharakan P. K.Coffee, Tea or Pepper: Factors Affecting Choice of Crops by Agro-Entrepreneurs in Nineteenth Century South-West India, Working Paper, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.

60 This type of capitalist entrepreneurial farming is one amongst many types of agriculture. A more comprehensive picture would have to include the corporate plantation sector in addition to the considerable organic movement in Wayanad and a large number of medium-sized ‘traditional farmers’ whose long-term strategies and diversified cropping patterns have made them relatively immune to distress.

61 This is a very simplified picture of the class question. A more detailed treatment would have to take Adivasis, traders (many of them Muslims) and salaried classes into account. This statement refers to those who would identify their occupation as ‘agriculture’ (inline-graphic).

62 Pseudonym.

63 Wu, Suicide and Justice, p. 31f.

64 On the process of targeting, see Corbridge S., Williams G., Srivastava M. and Véron R. (2005). Seeing the State: Governance and Governmentality in India, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

65 Sharma A. (2008). Logics of Empowerment: Development, Gender, and Governance in Neoliberal India, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

66 See also Shah E. (2012). ‘A Life Wasted Making Dust’: Affective Histories of Dearth, Death, Debt and Farmers’ Suicides in India. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 39 (5): 1169.

67 See also Münster, Farmers’ Suicides and the State in India.

68 Douglas J. D. (1967). The Social Meanings of Suicide, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 153.

69 Ibid., p. 242.

70 Chua J. L. (2014). In Pursuit of the Good Life: Aspiration and Suicide in Globalizing South India. University of California Press, Berkeley, p. 53.

* I would like to thank the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram for affiliating me during fieldwork. My special gratitude goes to Joby Clement for assisting me in the field and to the farmers of Wayanad who have received me with great hospitality and curious minds. I thank Ludek Broz, Ursula Münster and the anonymous reviewers for Modern Asian Studies for their constructive comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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