Aijaz Rahi/AP
In an April 2008 photo, an unnamed money lender examines a poster of farmers who
committed suicide in a state that's been hard hit by difficult planting conditions and

Examining the Role of Finance in Suicides

April 27, 2009 07:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
While the worldwide recession seems to be driving some to suicide, India has long grappled with the problem of desperate farmers killing themselves.

Many Deny Suicide Is an Issue

More than 1500 farmers killed themselves in the Indian state of Chattisgarh during 2008. The majority did so because of their financial situation, according to the Independent.

Receding water levels may have contributed to a weakened crop causing more problems for farmers already burdened by “debt and economic distress.”

The Independent quoted Bharatendu Prakash’s of the Organic Farming Association of India who told the Press Association: “Farmers' suicides are increasing due to a vicious circle created by money lenders. They lure farmers to take money but when the crops fail, they are left with no option other than death.”

Raju Sahu, the son of a farmer who took his life, has inherited his father’s debt. He told Down to Earth Magazine, he paid back loans to his family even before he paid the bank, explaining, “My father died in shame that he could not return their loans.”

Shubhranshu Choudhary, a writer for Down to Earth, spoke with a leader in India’s congress. Like others in the community, he denied that there had been any farmer suicides at all. Choudary concluded, “Maybe the reason no one can see is because no rich farmer is committing suicide.”

India is not alone in its battle with suicide. In China a suicide takes place every two minutes, according to Agence France-Presse. And in Japan, there are 30,000 suicides each year—a problem exacerbated by the recent emergence of suicide clubs and chat rooms.
In the United States last week, the CEO of Freddie Mac, 41-year-old David Kellerman reportedly committed suicide at his home in Virginia, after the government began questioning his company’s accounting practice.

Newsweek reported on a rash of financier suicides in December and January and considered whether these deaths constituted a trend.

Speaking specifically of society’s upper echelon, Steven Craig, a therapist in Birmingham, Mich. told Newsweek, “In our world, we have come to a place where things like wealth and status become things that are intertwined with the self too much.”  For lower-income individuals, Craig notes that the problem isn’t tied as nearly to their wealth as with their identity as “providers.”

If one looks to the stock market crash of 1929 for context, the suicide rate initially decreased, and then climbed from 14 deaths per 100,000 people in 1929 to 17 deaths per 100,000 in 1933 as the unemployment rate rose from 3.2 percent to 24.9 percent, Newsweek reported.

National suicide statistics for 2008 won’t be available for another two years. Still, Paula Clayton, director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention noted, “The suicide rate has already gone up, and my suspicion is that it will not go down.”

Related Topic: Are genetically modified seeds responsible for famers’ deaths?

In November 2008, the Daily Mail profiled Shankara Mandauka, an Indian farmer, whose harvest had failed twice after he was persuaded to buy the GM seeds rather than traditional seeds. As the seeds were more expensive, Shankara was forced to take out loans that forced him into debt.

Like hundreds of thousands of other farmers, Shankara took his own life.

The seeds were sold by Monsanto. Vandana Shiva, an economist and activist in Delhi, said that in places where seeds have been destroyed and farmers are obligated to buy the genetically modified seeds, the farmers are killing themselves. In an interview with the Ecological Options Network’s Deep Democracy series, she explains, “High-cost seed is getting them into debt and that debt is pushing them to suicide.”

Monsanto’s Web Site responds to claims of a relationship between their products and farmer suicide saying, “The reality is that that the tragic phenomena of farmer suicides in India began long before the introduction of Bollgard in 2002.

The company also cites a 2004 survey of Indian farmers that "showed a 118 percent increase in profit for farmers planting Bollgard over traditional cotton." Monsanto’s statement said the survey, “showed a 64 percent increase in yield and a 25 percent reduction in pesticide costs.”

Shiva has helped create seed banks in "suicide zones" to help liberate farmers from their reliance on expensive seeds.

Background: Suicide across cultures and class

Contrary to popular belief, during the Depression, more working class people than bankers committed suicide, Newsweek reported.

In 2001, however, the BBC reported on a Danish study that found rich people who were mentally ill were at a greater risk for suicide. That said, the article clarified, scientists noted an important caveat: “[A]mong the general population the people with the lowest incomes were twice as likely to kill themselves.”

In 2009, Slate magazine’s Timothy Noah, asked “Why do so few financier suicides involve Americans?”

Noah cited a New York Magazine article by Michael Idov, which catalogued the suicides of financiers in December and January, noting that only one of the individuals on Idov’s list is American, the others are mostly European.

He wrote, “Judging from this admittedly superficial evidence, Europeans possess a greater tendency to internalize public disgrace and/or humiliation.”

Noah eventually concluded, “Our culture's relative incapacity for shame has a few advantages.”

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