Print edition : August 21, 2015

THE “Others” column has long had a notorious history. In 2001, the District Crime Records Bureau in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, had put down “sickness” as the cause of 1,061 suicides that had occurred there between 1997 and 2000. In a large number of these, the “sickness” was reported as “unbearable stomach ache”. These, as it turned out, were overwhelmingly farmers who had killed themselves by consuming pesticide. Drinking pesticide guarantees a terrible stomach ache before death. But the police turned the process on its head. They recorded that the farmers had killed themselves being unable to bear stomach pain. Consequently, “Others” and “sickness” accounted for 82 per cent of all suicides in Anantapur district in that period.

The NCRB’s new ways of classifying data could mark a return to Anantapur’s days of creative accounting.

Not that there are no other dodges. Women farmers’ suicides are routinely undercounted because conventional societies mostly do not acknowledge women as farmers. And only a few have their names on title deeds or pattas. One result of this is that the “housewives” category explodes in those years where States claim nil women farmer suicides. In some States, “housewives” (including many who are farmers but not so acknowledged) make up 70 per cent of all women suicides in some years.

Caste prejudice also makes its entry in determining whether the persons killing themselves were farmers or not. Dalits and Adivasis rarely have a clear title to land. They are often seen as “encroachers” and worse. Their suicides are rarely recorded as those by farmers.

The point is that, while these undercounting prejudices have long been around, the new system will legitimise and institutionalise them. What was arbitrary or an aberration can now become the norm. The fraud that began with Chhattisgarh and West Bengal in 2011-12 can now legitimately be practised by other States. The power this places in the hands of government officials in the State capitals is enormous. Numbers will be tailored to the political situation. And State governments can pretty much fit the figures into any category they like.

With all its drawbacks, the NCRB data, while reflecting some flaws of State-routed data, still gave us a very different picture from that of State governments. For instance, the Maharashtra government declared 1,296 farmers suicides in 2013. The NCRB figure for the same year was 3,146. Similar gaps show in the 2011-12 numbers. In 2014, though, the NCRB’s count of 2,658 is much closer to the State’s claim of 1,981. From the next year, you may just be getting the numbers cooked up by officials in the State’s capital —with an NCRB stamp on them.

P. Sainath

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