Monday, 27 April 2015

Lies, damned lies & statistics - interpreting farmer suicides

Statistics is a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. Beware of those who throw it at you to justify their position. Question it. Challenge it. Scratch the surface. The reality may surprise you.

I have this bad habit of going back to verify the original source if I read something that seems illogical or politically motivated to me. This habit wastes a lot of my time and can be annoying too. So when I read this article claiming that there is no spike in farmer suicides, I was very sceptical about the claim. The argument that farm suicides in India are hyped up to attract attention by the critics of the government definitely needed a closer look.

I noticed that everyone quotes NCRB while making their claim and so I also got hold of their reports. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) compiles very useful data on accidental deaths and suicides in India but like all other data, it has to be interpreted with care.

The biggest revelation was that as of date, official NCRB data is only available till 2013. Be very wary when someone tells you that the official data does not support the view that there is an increase in farmer suicides in India.  There is no official data for 2014 - 15 to make such a statement. The truth is that we don't know if there is a spike or not. We can go by newspaper reports or our own extrapolations but we cannot claim that at this point the NCRB data supports either viewpoint. To do so is an outright lie.

In 2013, 11,772 farmers committed suicide, which amounts to 8.7% of the total suicides. I have seen interpretations that this is not a big deal compared to 16.9% share of housewife suicide. When looking at this comparison, please remember that this represents a share of total suicides and not the suicide rate. It tells us of the total suicides, what percentage were farmers and not if there is a higher rate of suicide among the farmer population. Two completely different things which can be very misleading if not presented clearly. A better figure to look at will be the male farmer suicide rate as compared to male non farmer suicide rate.

We know that farmer suicide is a bigger problem in the cotton belt due to falling commodity prices. No analysis of farmer suicides will therefore be complete without looking at the distribution of data by state. There is a very clear picture that emerges of the problem in cash crop growing states like Maharashtra. There is every reason to believe that this would still be the case.

I would direct those interested in studying the figures in greater detail to a LSE working paper on   interpretation of farmers suicides in India. For now, it is sufficient to say that the fact that farmer suicides also took place during the past is no excuse for justifying them. The trend in the years leading upto 2013 showed a decline but the recent crop failures and falling commodity prices have brought the issue to the forefront and we could very well be seeing a reversal of this trend.

Farmer suicide is more than just a statistic and let us not be led to believe by those quoting statistics that the problem doesn't exist. Government intervention to address this problem is definitely the need of the hour.


  1. Lies is clearly visible in your blogs ... How did I land here . I regret .... There are better blogs and stories to read ...

  2. Wow...amazing... Eye opener research !!