Farmer suicides rise in India as climate warms, study shows

When Rani’s husband died by drinking pesticide, he left the family in debt. But even if they could pay off the loans, Rani said their farming days are over.

“There are no rains,” said the 44-year-old woman from drought-stricken Tamil Nadu, one of hundreds of farmers protesting in the capital for more government support. “Even for drinking, we get water only once in 10 days.”

A new study suggests that India will see more such tragedies as climate change brings hotter temperatures that damage crops and exacerbate drought. For every 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming above 20 degrees C (68 degrees F) during the growing season in India, there are 67 more suicides on average, according to the findings published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS.

The message “is that farming is an inherently risky occupation, with annual incomes often held hostage to the weather, and it’s getting riskier in the era of climate change,” said Vikram Patel, an Indian psychiatrist and mental health expert with Harvard Medical School in Boston who was not involved in the study.

Experts said the study’s findings should raise alarms, especially with India’s average temperatures expected to rise another 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees F) by 2050. That will bring more erratic weather events, more drought and stronger storms.

“Anything that will affect occupational stability is going to affect farmers’ mental health,” Patel said.

Farming has always been considered a high-risk profession, and a single damaged harvest can drive some to desperation. With agriculture supporting more than half of India’s 1.3 billion people, farmers have long been seen as the heart and soul of the country. But they’ve also seen their economic clout diminish over the last three decades. Once accounting for a third of India’s gross domestic product, they now contribute only 15 percent of India’s $2.26 billion economy.

There are many factors that can contribute to suicide, including poor crop yields, financial devastation or debt, access to easy methods of self-harm, or a lack of community support. In India, many farmers will drink toxic pesticides as a way out of backbreaking debt, with the government in some cases guaranteeing monetary aid to their surviving families. That provides a perverse incentive for suicide, “rewarding people who end their lives by paying family compensation, but only if they die,” Patel said.

“We may not be able to stop the…

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