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Why These Farmers Are Protesting With Skulls

Farmers are demanding better financial conditions to prevent an epidemic they fear could worsen.

Farmers in India are staging a protest with a striking prop—the skulls of those they say committed suicide as a result of an economic and climate crisis.

The farmers hail from India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, a region that has been struck by one of its worst droughts in decades.

For the second time this year, they are staging a protest to highlight the plight of farmers in India who they say are committing suicide as a result of crippling debt. According to the National Human Rights Commission, 100 Tamil Nadu farmers committed suicide in January of this year alone. The last conclusive estimates from India's National Bureau of Crime Statistics reported 12,600 farmer and agricultural laborer suicides in 2015.

Farmer suicides in India, where a fifth of the world's suicides occur, are a well-documented phenomenon. One 2014 report found that a farmer committed suicide every 30 minutes on average in India. A census conducted in India in 2011 found that suicide rates among farmers was 47 percent higher than the national average.

Protestors attribute crippling debt as the cause of the staggering numbers. In an interview with Voice of America, one woman claimed her husband committed suicide after facing a $1,250 loan payment that he was unable to return to the bank. Demands from the protestors include having bank loans waived and better prices for produce.

Worsening Conditions?

Indian farmers have for decades faced hardships from unpredictable crop yields and a lack of social safety nets, and one study recently found a warming climate could be making conditions worse.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a first-of-its-kind study argues that climate change may have contributed to more than 59,000 farmer suicides in the past three decades.

University of California at Berkeley researcher Tamma Carleton found that during years of high temperatures and low rainfall, the resulting decreases in crop yields led to an uptick in suicides in affected regions.

Droughts 101

Carleton reached her conclusion by looking at data from 1967 to 2013 collected in 32 states in the region. Her dataset consisted of records from India's National Crime Records Bureau, statistics on crop yields, and high-resolution climate data. By looking at the most critical months for crop productivity from June to September, she was able to isolate the climate shocks that correlated with reported suicides.

"Temperature was more powerful at explaining crop yields and suicide rates," explained Carleton in an interview with National Geographic. The data suggested that for regions over 20 degrees Celsius, a one degree increase in a single day's temperature caused an average of 70 suicides. This effect was only seen during growing periods, when crops are most at risk from high temperatures.

Prakash Behere is a professor of psychology who has written extensively about the rate of farmer suicides in India. In an interview with National Geographic, he said he agrees with the study's premise, saying warming climates could contribute to the rise in suicides. He noted that a greater infrastructure of mental healthcare was needed in India. In areas hardest hit by low crop yields, he has conducted field surveys and found higher rates of alcoholism and depression.

When asked about the farmer protests in Tamil Nadu, Behere was adamant that loan forgiveness would only alleviate a symptom, rather than solving a more serious underlying problem.

"We are not providing the mental healthcare that these people need," said Behere.

Until 2014, suicide was a criminal offense in India, meaning the number of suicides may have been historically underreported. Landmark legislation passed earlier this year aims to improve and provide mental healthcare throughout the country. However, as drought worsened in the south this year, thousands of farmers and laborers have been forced to take out loans from predatory lenders.

In addition to more mental healthcare facilities, Carleton says political safety nets or technological improvements such as more efficient irrigation could have positive impacts, even as temperatures are predicted to continue rising.

A Global Crisis

A rise in farmer suicides during adverse environmental conditions has been seen elsewhere. In Australia, there is a strong correlation between reported farmer suicides and drought. Following the Great Depression in the U.S., there was a rise in farmer suicides, which was abated with a government-funded farmers' insurance program.

A 2009 study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry found farmers to be particularly at risk of mental health disorders onset by environmental impacts. Unpredictable weather patterns and sometimes volatile markets exposed farmers to disproportionately high rates of stress.

Carleton hopes to next look at how implementing specific policies and economic regulations and programs could improve the plight currently facing farmers.

"I don’t yet have the data available to trace one individual farmer to see if these particular policies could be effective," said Carleton, but she hopes to find out. Her work has focused on how changing climate conditions impact civil conflict and personal well-being.

"A lot of consequences [from climate change] are occurring now, and in our generation," she said.

Both Carleton and Behere are optimistic that a multifaceted approach to the country's suicide epidemic is achievable.