Climate crisis exacerbates farmer suicides in India

August 19, 2023
4 mins read
Image: Manish Swarup/AP Photo/picture alliance

Mahesh Bhagwat Thorat, a 30-year-old farmer from Kumbhphen village in Beed district, Marathwada region, tragically ended his life on July 16, 2023. He had borrowed 100,000 INR (US$ 1,200) from a bank for soybean cultivation. However, his hopes for a successful crop were dashed as the delayed monsoon in June led to crop destruction despite timely sowing and subsequent insect attacks.

Mahesh’s father revealed, “Mahesh brought a rope home; I hadn’t realized its purpose.” Unmarried, Mahesh left behind his elderly father, mother, and brother.

The death of Mahesh is not an isolated case. Marathwada, located in the Maharashtra state of India, is a region comprising eight districts and a population of approximately 18.7 million. This region is unfortunately marked by its vulnerability to drought and has been deeply affected by an ongoing agro-rural crisis.

In Marathwada, as many as 101 farmer suicides have been reported in July this year, while 92 farmers died by suicide in June. Government data reveal a total of 2,392 farmer suicides in the region from January 2021 to June 2023.

India’s farming community averages 28 suicides a day with bankruptcy and debt being major reasons for farmer suicides other than family issues, crop failure, illness, and substance abuse.

Farmers’ suicide and climate change

Experts have warned that climate change-induced extreme weather events are exacerbating this problem, not only in Marathwada but also across different parts of India. 

In June 2023 and the first half of July 2023, there was a significant delay in the arrival of the monsoon. Typically, June marks the onset of the monsoon season in India and is an important time for farmers to begin their sowing practices. However, Marathwada experienced a substantial deficit in rainfall during this crucial month. On average, the region receives 134 mm of rainfall in June, but this year there was only 55.5 mm of rainfall. This rainfall deficit had devastating consequences, leading to the tragic suicide of 92 farmers in the month of June alone.

Experts have tried to establish the potential link between climate change and the alarming rate of farmer suicides. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) presented these findings in a paper titled “Urgent Preventative Action for Climate-related Suicides in Rural India.” The research revealed that suicide rates are impacted by rainfall variation, as well as access to wage employment. It recognizes that farmers are among the most vulnerable groups in India, with an elevated risk of death by suicide. 

According to Ira Devulgavkar, the project coordinator of IIED and one of the authors of the paper, there is a need for anticipatory social protection schemes and action-based initiatives for vulnerable farmers in India.

In 2021, farmers in India held protests to oppose new agricultural laws they said would have stripped them of their livelihoods. Image: Brookings Institute

Indian agriculture and climate crisis

According to government figures, two-thirds of India’s population of 1.3 billion depends on farming for their livelihood, but agriculture makes up just around 17% of the nation’s total economic output, amounting to around US$2.3 trillion.

The Central Research Institute of Dryland Agriculture, under the union government, released a report in 2019 titled “Risk and Vulnerability Assessment of Indian Agriculture to Climate Change.” According to the report, developing countries like India, which heavily rely on agriculture for livelihood, are more likely to face the adverse impacts of climate change. The report identifies climate change as a significant threat to the sustainability of agriculture.

In this report, 22 districts are classified as being highly vulnerable to climate change, while 171 districts are categorized as vulnerable to climate change.

The Central Research Institute of Dryland Agriculture report has enlisted names of the districts which are in high and very high-risk categories. This list includes 13 districts of Maharashtra province, of which seven are from Marathwada region itself. Out of these seven districts, Beed and Nanded have been categorized under high risk. 

A recent research study conducted by Chaitnya Adhav from the National Dairy Research Institute and Dr. R Sendhil from the Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research has determined that 11 out of 36 districts in the Maharashtra province of India are highly susceptible to the effects of climate change. Additionally, the study has identified another 14 districts as moderately vulnerable to climate change. The research paper titled ‘Socio-economic vulnerability to climate change – Index development and mapping for districts in Maharashtra’ follows the assessment methodology recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for evaluating regional-level climate vulnerabilities. The authors of the study have issued a warning that crops such as jowar, rice, wheat, sugarcane, and cotton will experience adverse impacts due to climate change.

Adhav said, “There are many factors contributing to the issues. We can say that climate change is one risk factor for the farmers’ suicides.” In this paper, the researchers have proposed strategies for overcoming climate-related vulnerabilities in these districts. 

Most Indians live in climate-vulnerable areas

A private think tank Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) in its Climate Vulnerability Index has categorized 463 out of 640 districts of India – accounting for 80% of India’s population, as vulnerable to extreme floods, droughts, and cyclones and pointed out that Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar and Karnataka are the most vulnerable to extreme climate events. 

In 2014, the NCBR presented a detailed analysis of the farmers’ suicides. It has been pointed out that small farmers (having 1 hectare to below two hectares of land) had 44.5% of the farmers’ suicides, while marginal farmers (having less than 1 hectare of land) accounted for the highest number of farmers’ suicides. 

Both the union government and several state governments have acknowledged the critical issue of farmer suicides and waivered farm loans. In 2020, Maharashtra introduced a targeted loan waiver program exclusively tailored for small and marginal farmers, providing relief by forgiving loans totaling less than US$ 2,500.

The alarming trend of farmer suicides in Marathwada and throughout India highlights the increasingly clear role of climate change as a significant risk factor in this ongoing crisis. The delayed monsoon and resulting rainfall deficits, exacerbated by climate change, have brought vulnerable farmers like Mahesh to the brink of despair. Experts and research findings consistently emphasize the link between climate variability and farmer suicides.


Mohsin Mulla

Mohsin Mulla is a digital editor for Daily Pudhari - a Marathi language newspaper in the state of Maharashtra of India. He writes about climate change and technology.

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