Thoughts after reading Nilotpal Kumar’s book “Unraveling Farmer Suicides in India: Egoism and Masculinity in Peasant Life

The day on which I have started writing this note is marked by a tragic event in Kerala. A middle-aged man has killed his wife and three children and committed suicide. It seems that he has been facing difficulties in paying back loans taken for his real-estate business. Such family suicides are not that uncommon in Kerala. The other set of suicides that we have seen in a number of Indian states including Kerala is that of farmers. Economists and journalists have highlighted agrarian distress and indebtedness as the causes of these farmers’ suicides.

A colleague of mine – Nilotpal Kumar – has published a book on farmer’s suicides in India1. In this book, he questions the prevalent discourse on these suicides as an outcome of agrarian distress and indebtedness. His ethnographic research brings out a spectrum of reasons and only some of these are related to farming. He could also see an institutional and discursive environment wherein the relatives of the deceased and the government officials report most suicides of men from agricultural families as farmers’ suicides even when these are not due to farming-related issues. His research demonstrates the manifestation of male egoism and the internalization of norms of `manliness’ as important reasons for taking up risky farming investments – say by digging a tube-well in an area where the outcome of such an investment is uncertain – or for committing suicide if there is a failure in agricultural operations. A perceived loss of hierarchical authority within the household and defeat in competitions of honour outside the family have encouraged these men to commit suicide.

His research and insights are plausible and relevant even if we do not underestimate the difficulties caused by agrarian distress and indebtedness. Even when economic activities lead to uncertainties and indebtedness, the way people respond to these may depend on their socially-constructed perceptions on failure. The prevailing gender norms, and caste structure which encourages the so-called lower-caste groups to internalise the norms of the upper-caste as part of their struggle for upward mobility, do shape these perceptions.

Image Source: Wikipedia

The family suicides in Kerala too reflect the highly gendered nature of the provisioning for the household. Though this is an issue all over India, Kerala is also trapped in this situation notwithstanding the advances in terms of basic development indicators for women there. Despite the spread of education among them, Female Work Participation Rate (FWPR) in Kerala continues to be lower than the all India average2. The notions that a household’s income-needs have to be met by the male, the female’s role is to deliver and take care of children, any failure in terms of provisioning is the man’s failure and his honour is to be recovered through self-sacrifice (and the brutal killing of others)……all these are manifestations of highly regressive social norms.

Even when such norms do not lead to suicides, these are costly for both women and men. The way Indian marriages make even educated and employed women subservient to their husbands is discussed in a previous essay posted here. However the social perception that assigns an excessive provisioning role to men is costly for them too. Many boys from the middle-class households in India do not have a meaningful adult life. They will be pushed to complete a professional education and to get a job immediately after, which is expected to be a longer-term (if not life-long) one. Within three-four years in first employment, parents strongly encourage such a boy to marry a girl who is educated but not employed or is continuing in an employment which is seen as a secondary source of income. It is seen favourably if the girl quits the job after the marriage or child-delivery. However the implication for the man is that the whole financial burden to manage the household falls on him. Though the girl brings in dowry in terms of property or wealth, society does not view favourably if this wealth is used for meeting their recurring expenses. (On the other hand, it may be used for meeting capital expenses such as buying a house.) Within a year or two after the marriage, there is a `compulsion’ to have children. The compulsion to have two children (and at least one boy) continues in most parts of India. Such a compulsion may take a ridiculous form among the lower middle-class which may lead to having two children within a short span of 3-4 years and then to strongly encouraging girls to terminate their reproductive capacity.

These compulsions may affect the locations where men can work or their geographical mobility if such a mobility is important for the career. Marriage may prevent men from carrying out meaningful activities even within their own selected career. It may encourage men to continue in a job/profession even if these have become less joyful and meaningful and if alternative options can be attempted. It is quite natural to see preferences regarding occupation or work changing, and only the well-endowed or the most-daring among Indian men can change careers according to these changing preferences. Marriage is a major sunk investment for Indians. It is like buying a house at an early stage of one’s career through mortgage. Buying a house ties one person to a location even if that location turns out to be not the best in terms of career or other aspects of life. There is a need to continue at the current income levels to pay back the mortgage and hence a job-shift which may lead to fluctuations in income becomes much more difficult to manage. The continuation in the same job affects life-long learning. This curtails not only their creative expressions but also limits them to a very narrow path in terms of life-long occupation.

Is this issue unique to India? One can see 3-4 patterns in this regard in the world. Most of the European countries were similar to contemporary India in this regard, until a century ago. (This was also the situation in countries like US or Canada settled by Europeans.) However the long-run industrial and economic development that have led to the education and participation of women in employment have changed gender norms there gradually. Socialist countries in general stressed the schooling for all including girls and encouraged their participation in non-agricultural work outside home. Countries which have followed a capitalist path of development in the twentieth century –like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and so on – have also prioritised the education of girls and their participation in industrial work. Hence all these countries which have started with what can be called `intense patriarchy’ have moved towards a somewhat enabling and empowering environment for women. On other hand, countries located closer to the equator (like those in South-East Asia) have a traditional occupation pattern in which female labour is valued highly, and that created different institutional structures related to the marriage – with bride-price instead of dowry, matri-local residence instead of patri-local residence, and inheritance of property by women. They started acquiring education and participating in industrial employment as and when such job opportunities became available as part of economic development.


Women workers Woolwich Arsenal 1917 London

However India has followed a different path. It did not focus much on `schooling for all’ until recently. It has not attempted to bring women to the industrial workforce as in the case of socialist countries like China or the non-socialist ones like South Korea. The political leadership in India has been too `liberal’ – it has neither enforced a mandatory schooling policy nor addressed the social norms which discourage the work-participation of women. Hence India became closer to the Islam-dominant countries3 located to its western border and in the middle-East (starting from Pakistan and Afghanistan). The contribution of women in all these economies through paid work is less than one-third of that of men4. Though some of these have oil-wealth and that has led to certain improvements in their development status, others in this group continue to be vulnerable economically and socially. The cultural scene of these countries sustains a vision of society wherein only men get education and participate in formal employment, and they have to bear the whole burden of the provisioning for the family. Some of these men take on the burden of spreading this vision of development to others forcefully and sometimes violently. Though India wants to see itself different from these countries, it shares (unfortunately) the same cultural milieu.

Image Source


In summary, the taming of the ego of Indian male has to be one of the goals of social change that the country has to go through. It requires the completion of secondary education by all girls and their participation in employment in industrial and service sectors. The norms that see marriage as the main institution mediating the personal, financial and social security of girls should recede.


1. Nilotpal Kumar, Unravelling Farmer’s Suicides in India, Oxford University Press, 2017

2. Source:

Completion of Schooling and Work Participation by Girls

3. On the other hand, Islam-dominant countries located to the east of India (Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia) are relatively better in terms of the education and work participation of girls.