The slaughter of suicide data

Change the way of counting and the count changes

Official NCRB data shows dramatic increase in suicides under OTHERS category Official NCRB data shows dramatic increase in suicides under OTHERS category

The total number of farmer suicides in the country since 1995 crossed the 300,000-mark in 2014. However, the 2014 data are not comparable with 19 earlier years of farm suicide data. This is so due to major changes in methodology of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

With the new parameters, the number of farmer suicides in 2014 falls to 5,650. That’s less than half their 2013 figure of 11,772. This happens simply by shuffling the suicide numbers across new or revised categories in the NCRB tables. The “fall” in farmer suicides accompanies a stunning increase in suicides by “Others.” Karnataka, the second worst state for such suicides in the country, saw 321 farmers take their lives in 2014. That’s a big drop from the previous year’s figure of 1,403. In the same 12 months, though, suicide numbers in the “Others” column of that state went up by 245 per cent. From 1,482 to 5,120 suicides. On average, the five worst states for farmer suicides saw a rise of 128 per cent in suicides by “Others.”

NCRB suicides data tables 2.6 and 2.7

The NCRB 2014 data also record thousands of tenant farmer suicides as those by “agricultural labourers.” This too, helps dilute the numbers in the main “farmers” column in a big way. By NCRB’s own admission, there has been no data audit of its new numbers. The agency simply says it has “already decided to organize data audit in the year on random basis.” (Read: they will now audit numbers already published as authentic). Nor were policemen at the lowest level stations – those who will record the data – trained for this new exercise.

Further, a record 12 states and six union territories declared “zero” farmer suicides in 2014. This includes three big farming states: West Bengal, Rajasthan and Bihar. In 2010, by contrast, not a single big state had claimed ‘zero’ suicides. And just three union territories had done so. Now, these states assert that not a single farmer, in the millions amongst them, took his or her life in 2014. For any reason at all.

On these counts, the NCRB says they “may seek clarification from the concerned states/ UTs where data is perceived to be abnormal…” (emphasis added).

There is little explanation of how the data for the new/ revised categories in the NCRB’s Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India 2014 are collected. And when it comes to causes, the report goes, as always, by what state governments say were distress-driven suicides. Even so, the number of farmer suicides since 1995 touches 3,02,116. And while the changes render comparisons dubious, the aggregate figure across all farm-related suicides at 12,336 is marginally higher than in 2013.

Maharashtra, AP including Telangana, Karnataka, MP and Chhattisgarh are the ‘Big 5’ states of farmer suicides. For a decade, they logged two-thirds of all such suicides in the country. In the new accounting, the Big 5 recorded well over 90 per cent of all farmers’ suicides in 2014. Maharashtra, whose 20-year total now stands at 63,318, witnessed over 45 per cent of all farmer suicides in the country last year. However, serious questions on the changes in categories remain unanswered. As do even more troubling ones on the data collection.

The NCRB is not a data collection machinery. It collates and tabulates statistics coming in from the states. In that respect, it has no vested interest in the numbers. However, the changes in formats seem to further embolden and enable state government fudging of data. Officials in state capitals will now find that job much easier.

A heavy distortion of the data began with Chhattisgarh in 2011. The state had, in its own count, averaged 1,555 farm suicides each year between 2006-10. In 2011 it went to zero, cold turkey. It declared nil farm suicides that year, four in 2012 and zero again in 2013. West Bengal followed suit from 2012. Others too began to massage their numbers. Farm suicides had become a politically damaging issue. Now with new categories and columns to shuffle the deaths across, state governments can more easily reduce the numbers in the main farmers group. The new (sub) categories include: farmers owning their land, those working on contract / lease, agricultural labourers and more.

According to the NCRB, there is “no reclassification” here. “Just further segregation” of a table that it has published for 19 years: ‘Self-employed persons in Agriculture/Farming.’ It doesn’t wash. Never, at any time in the past were agricultural labourers stated to be ‘self-employed’ in NCRB data or anywhere else. A defining characteristic of agricultural labourers is that they are not self-employed. They roam the country seeking work from others.

It gets worse.

The constable at the lowest police station in a district will apparently lay down whether the person who committed suicide was a farmer, a cultivator, a tenant, landowner or labourer. Something that is difficult even for a trained surveyor. The NCRB does say that ”data is based on official records of police stations.” The data on unnatural deaths (UDs) are fed to the district crime records bureaus (DCRBs). And upwards to the state crime records bureaus – which format them and sends them on to the NCRB.

The NCRB says that in fact it held a “one-month rigorous training of trainers (ToT)” last year. That is, for officials of the state crimes records bureaus (SCRBs). These are people located in state capitals. Not at the local police stations. “The trained officials of the SCRBs,” says the NCRB, “were requested to impart similar training for concerned officials of the DCRBs/ police stations of their respective states for data feeding.” Did the SCRBs ever do that? It just never happened.

Police stations we contacted in high farm-suicide regions like Vidarbha in Maharashtra and Mandya in Karnataka seemed baffled. So were top police officials in four of the Big 5 states. “We know of no circular asking us to collect or collate the data this way, recording those categories,” said a senior police official in Andhra Pradesh.

In Telangana, a top police official said: “The classification is not the job of the constable but of the tehsildar. Who is a farmer or not, that is the revenue department’s call. A copy of the FIR goes to the tehsildar. The policeman present simply notes the apparent reason of the suicide.” This means the classification can get done at the revenue department or the state crime records bureau in the capital. And, when in doubt, he said, “the entry will likely go into the ‘Others’ category.” That last seems to have happened with thousands of cases.

In Maharashtra, the worst affected state, senior police officials we contacted were only aware of a 2006 state government circular on the farm crisis. “That required us to report any farm suicide to the district collector,” said one officer. He also forwarded us a copy of the circular.

In Karnataka, reeling under a spate of farm suicides at present, police said they were mystified by the new data classification system. Local stations had not been instructed to make such distinctions in the FIR or its summary. Top police officials in Madhya Pradesh said that to their knowledge, the constable in the field had not been asked to collect such data.

The NCRB report itself reflects the confusion the new moves have caused. The second paragraph of its note on farm suicides says quite correctly: “Farmers include those who own and work on field (viz. cultivators) as well as those who employ/hire workers for field work/farming activities. It excludes agricultural labourers.” Then how do the latter fit into a table of ‘self-employed?’

Take tenant farmers, those who cultivate the land owned by others, paying a rent in cash or with a share of the produce. Most tenancy contracts in India are informal and not recorded. So tenant farmers struggle to get bank credit. They are deep in debt to moneylenders and many have committed suicide. However, with no record of identity, tenant farmers have all along been undercounted in the farmers suicide category.

Now they will be even more decisively excluded. Only a tiny fraction with recorded tenancy will make it to NCRB’s new sub-category for them. Most will simply be counted as agricultural labourers. And this has clearly happened in the latest data. The number of agricultural labourers across India committing suicide in 2014, at 6,710, is over a thousand higher than farmers. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance. The record shows just 160 farmer suicides for 2014 but nearly three times as many agricultural labourer suicides in the same year.

The NCRB’s response to this: “It is presumed that the concerned police station has fed the category of victims viz. agricultural labourers, farmers, etc., based on finding of enquiry into such unnatural deaths.” However, the agency concedes that, given the potential problems, “the Bureau will seek clarification from the concerned state.”

The NCRB knows there is a problem. And senior officials admit only those whose tenancy has been recorded will have been counted. Yet, it also says: “NCRB at present does not intend to carry out detailed study on tenancy rights/issues which varies from State to State.” Alas, that’s precisely the point. The recording or lack of it, of tenant farmers is a mess that wrecks the 2014 data. “The NCRB 2014 misclassifies many tenant farmers as agricultural labourers,” says All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) Vice President Malla Reddy.

Forced by the Kisan Sabha in 2011, the AP government had introduced the Andhra Pradesh Licensed Cultivators Act to confer clear proof of identity to tenant farmers. They were to be issued ‘Loan Eligibility Cards’ to enable them to seek bank credit. “But 90 per cent of 32 lakh tenant farmers in the present AP have not been issued the cards, “ says Malla Reddy. “How will they prove their identity?” Tenants account for a third of all farmers in AP. Incidentally, the AIKS counted more farmer suicides in AP in seven months of 2014 than the NCRB does for that whole year.

(Even the Indian Banks Association had recognised the problems of this group across the country. It reported in 2008 that they faced a “range of problems dominantly stemming from the lack of official recognition of tenancy and the fact that their status as actual cultivators is nowhere recorded” ).

Besides the tenant farmer issue, there are other problems that discredit the latest farm suicides data. Most vital is the spectacular increase in suicides recorded under “Others.” Particularly in the Big 5 States – where they have doubled in the 12 months of 2014. “Others” in Karnataka shot up by 245 per cent in just that one year. In Andhra Pradesh by 138 per cent. In Maharashtra by 94 per cent. In Madhya Pradesh it was up by 89 per cent. Chhattisgarh, saw a rise of 30 per cent.

Official NCRB data shows dramatic increase in suicides under OTHERS category

Official NCRB data shows dramatic increase in suicides under OTHERS category

In the years 2011-14,when Chhattisgarh was declaring ‘zero’ (or single digit) farmers suicides, its average for suicides under “Others” grew by 83 per cent to 1,472. No prizes for guessing who many of those “Others” were.

The “Others” overall has swollen as a result from 24,809 in 2013 to 41,216 in 2014. Astonishingly, the “Others” category balloons to that figure despite the fact that 15,735 deaths have been withdrawn from it to form the new category of “daily wage earners.”

Others” in 2014 accounts for almost a third, 31.3 per cent, of ALL suicides in the country. The Big 5 alone contribute 16,234 of those. In 2013, their number was 7,107.

There is also the “Self-employed persons (Others)” column within the farm data whose numbers have shrunk. Creating the new categories obviously implies a carving up of that grouping. In Chhattisgarh, though,  there’s an obvious link  between the farmer suicide and the SEP (“Others”)   columns. When the state reported a high farmer suicide figure of 1,802 in 2009, its SEP (Others) figure was 861. When it claimed ‘zero’ farmer suicides in 2013 (for a third year running), the SEP (Others) figure reaches 2077. If in the three years 2011-13, we add “SEP (Others)” and the ‘Others’ categories, they account for around 60% of total suicides in the state.

Within their limits, the NCRB data gave us a fair trend, if not accurate figures, for 19 years. Now that integrity is badly compromised.

Why did the government feel the need to reclassify farm suicides data? Were the numbers proving an embarrassment? Hence a need to prove that the data – which is entirely gathered by arms of the government – were an overestimation?

The NCRB says format revisions are routine. “A regular exercise considering the data requests of various stakeholders.” They say there is nothing on record to show that the government or any particular agency sought the revision. However, it does seem the agency acted on a “request” from the agricultural ministry in 2013 (the time of Mr. Sharad Pawar as agricultural minister).

The argument appears to be: oh, we were lumping all the categories together earlier. So now we’re breaking them up to make sense. It wasn’t all farmers. That won’t work because: The data up to 2013 refer clearly to self-employed in agriculture. Agricultural labourers are NOT self-employed. To questions raised in Parliament over the years, the government cited the NCRB figures as being those relating to farmers only, not to other categories.

Faced with a tragic, deepening crisis (of which the suicides are but one symptom), how do governments react? Not by facing up to the problem, but by fiddling the data in sometimes blatant, often ingenious ways. The trend that began with the ‘zero’ declarations has worsened. This year’s fudging is more sophisticated. But there is also this self-delusion: If we don’t know the numbers there is no problem. Change the way of counting and the count changes. And quiet flows the countryside.

Of “Others” and others…

The “Others” column has long had a notorious history. In 2001, the district crime records bureau had put down “sickness” as the cause of 1,061 suicides that had occurred in Anantapur between 1997 and 2000. In a large number of these, the “sickness” was reported as “unbearable stomach ache.” These, as it turned out, were overwhelmingly farmers who had killed themselves by consuming pesticide. Drinking pesticide guarantees a terrible stomach ache before death. But the police had turned the process on its head. They recorded that the farmers had killed themselves being unable to bear stomach pain. Consequently, “Others” and “sickness” accounted for 82 per cent of all suicides in Anantapur in that period.

The new ways of classifying the data could mark a return to Anantapur’s days of creative accounting.

Not that there are no other dodges. Women farmers suicides are routinely undercounted because conventional societies mostly do not acknowledge women as farmers. And only a few have their names on title deeds or pattas. One result of this is that the “housewives” category explodes in those years where states claim nil women farmers suicides. In some states, “housewives” (including many who are farmers but not so acknowledged) make up 70 per cent of all women suicides in some years.

Caste prejudice also makes its entry in determining whether the persons killing themselves were farmers are not. Dalits and adivasis rarely have a clear title to land. They are often seen as “encroachers” and worse. Their suicides are rarely recorded as those by farmers.

The point is that while these undercounting prejudices have long been around, the new system will legitimize and institutionalise them. What was arbitrary or an aberration can now become the norm. The fraud that began with Chhattisgarh and West Bengal in 2011-12, can now legitimately be practised by other states. The power this places in the hands of government officials in the state capitals is enormous. Numbers will be tailored to the political situation. And state governments can pretty much fit the figures into any category they like.

With all its drawbacks the NCRB data, while reflecting some flaws of state-routed data, still gave us a very different picture from that of state governments. For instance, the Maharashtra government declared 1,296 farmers suicides in 2013. The NCRB figure for the same year was 3,146. Similar gaps show in the 2011-12 numbers. In 2014, though, the NCRBs count of 2,658 is much closer to the state’s claim of 1,981. From the next year, you may just be getting the numbers cooked up by officials in the state’s capital – with an NCRB stamp on them.