Saturday, November 15

A tale of two suicides

We have been hearing and talking about farmer suicides in India for a long time, and now the financial crunch is pushing the middle class into suicide. What do you do when you face immense losses? so tragic that you withdraw from the human race and your own existence. Worse is when you suddenly decide to take your family with you.

But the main point I want to make is the inconsistency which I find interesting. Farmer suicides are considered to be important enough to protest against but not these investor suicides. If the idea is to help people avoid killing themselves, then the cause should not matter. But as an economist, I find this dichotomy quite interesting. As a political analyst, I find this perfectly logical, agricultural suicides are more of a vote winning factor than investor suicides.

Also, the people who moan about this are clearly on the two ends of the political spectrum, the left side will be happier to moan about the farmer suicide than the investor suicide. As a financial analyst, I would question aspects relating to loss reduction, risk databases and credit control..As an ex-columnist and a current blogger, why is it that people find farmer suicides pity worthy but investor suicides as just desserts at worst and less pity at best?

Hmm, interesting indeed.


Ankur said...

This is the possible reason I think: An external factor like the climate / indifferent government policy are considered responsible for farmer suicides, whereas unwarranted risk taking is considered a reason for investor suicides. No one holds a gun to the heads of investors asking them to invest, but ostensibly, poor farmers have no option other than following their traditional occupation!

Anant said...

- why is it that people find farmers' suicides pity worthy -

That category 'people' is a very deceptive one. It makes the analyst feel comfortable enough to go on to a lot of hazardous conclusions. Are there people that are equipped with comparable information and insights into farmers' suicides and investors' suicides and find the former pityworthy and the latter a click of the tongue ?

OK. Let me leave it at that. It is possible that the government discovered somewhere along the way that farmers' suicides are an emotive issue in the countryside and that is why we now have a sort of a national registry of farmers' suicides. And the leftists are just being lazy.

Let us look at what has actually been said and done about suicides. There are several dominant accounts of why farmers are committing suicides and what needs to be done about it - including the one that you refer to with respect to investors 'the greedy bastard did himself in'. In the farmers' case it was in fact worse - there are numerous statements from public officials including senior politicians (often relying on expert committee reports)that suggest - "lure of compensation for family", alcoholism and a variety of mental illnesses; non availability of institutional credit for farm inputs and so on.

Some of these statements were so insulting to civic sense that there was an immediate reaction by way of research and data gathering and victim testimonies at public hearings and so on. It started in 1998-99 in Andhra Pradesh when 300 cotton farmers ate pesticides mixed with curd rice during one winter in one district. The first suicide happened the same day on which the newly restructured state electricity board's debt collection staff took away the doors and windows of the farmer's house for non payment of electricity bills.

So we have now alternative accounts which can be faulted on many grounds and actually do make a number of problematic assumptions but at least they began with a genuine question - who is committing suicides and why and what needs to be done. The trouble is that once the government recognized the value of these accounts, it created a database that cannot distinguish between the different trajectories through which large numbers of farmers in different parts of India are reaching the point of no return.

But before we move onto the investor suicides - it is worth noting that there are other kinds of suicides that have not even been recognized. In Hyderabad, every year over a hundred people jump into the Husain Sagar and end their lives. A majority of them have to do with domestic chaos and relationship breakdown due to financial troubles. some of them are suicide pacts involving entire families. and these suicides include autorickshaw drivers, call center workers, housewives, traders and and middle level businessmen.

Why is it that a disease so pandemic, so clearly indicative of a serious breakdown and crisis across society goes simply unnoticed ? Now you can add the investors to this.

My answer is that in the last 15 years, large numbers of individuals, social institutions and social groups have been inserted into markets that they are simply unable to comprehend. These are markets that stoke certain kinds of desires and make people desparate. Yet to succeed or at least survive in these markets you need intelligence, information and loads of non market resources that are simply unavailable to them. For instance, the farmers who committed suicide in Andhra PRadesh in 1997-1999 which is the only data that I have looked at closely were all mainly OBCs with small and marginal holdings, 30 to 40 age group. their failures were mainly on account of spurious pesticides, failed borewells, price reversals in international markets. Their debts were on account of medical expenses, school fees, motor cycles, dowries for family members. From what I know this is not very different from what happened in Kerala. In short, you have communities who have no caste advantages in trading corporations to get information about which way the wind is blowing, communities who nevertheless have to pay up in the markets of consumption/reproduction and are exposed to risks that remain imponderable for them.

Yes of course they are comparable to the suicides of the investors. But howmany policymakers or analysts do you think have the courage to think it through to the end and produce alternative accounts ?