The morbid story of suicides in India

India’s tryst with economic globalisation began firmly from the 1990s onwards.

Written by Pratima Singh | Published: June 2, 2012 1:53 am

More affluent states are seeing increasing numbers of suicides. Also,suicides in the informal sector,ignored so far,are the highest

India’s tryst with economic globalisation began firmly from the 1990s onwards. The last two decades have witnessed major changes in the organisation of production in different industries as well as changes in the nature of economic institutions. During this period,the trend pattern of suicides in the country has also shown considerable variation (Figure 1) with a fluctuating trend during the 1990s being replaced by a firm upward trajectory in the last decade.

The trend growth rate in suicides was quite volatile during the 1990s with the y-o-y growth ranging from -1.8% to 9.3%,showing variations of more than 10 percentage points. The volatility became less during the 2000s with the range cramping from -0.1% to 5.9% at a dispersion band of around six percentage points. The emergence of a steady positive trend during the last decade indicates that the overall growth pattern in suicides in India has become more stable and steadily increased over time.

State-wise disaggregated profiles

Figure 3 shows the aggregate suicides in 14 major states of India during 1991-2010 decomposed into the sub-periods 1991-2000 and 2001-2010. The 14 states are those with at least a 1% share in total suicides (combined suicides of 25 states excluding Chhattisgarh,Jharkhand and Uttaranchal and also the seven union territories). These 14—Andhra Pradesh,Assam,Bihar,Gujarat,Haryana,Karnataka,Kerala,Madhya Pradesh,Maharashtra,Orissa,Tamil Nadu,Rajasthan,Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal—are the key ‘suicide’ states in the country,accounting for 97.6% of total suicides during 1991-2010 and 97.7% and 97.5% of total suicides during 1991-2000 and 2001-2010,respectively.

West Bengal recorded the highest number of suicides (276,431; 13.7%) during the last two decades,followed by Maharashtra (264,303; 13.1%) and Tamil Nadu (226,077; 11.2%). Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh each account for more than 10% of total suicides and are ranked 4th and 5th. Kerala,Madhya Pradesh,Gujarat,Uttar Pradesh and Orissa are ranked from 6th to 10th,respectively.

Decadal comparisons show West Bengal’s share in total suicides reduced from 14.5% in 1991-2000 to 13.1% during 2001-2010. On the other hand,shares of Andhra Pradesh,Tamil Nadu,Maharashtra,Haryana,Rajasthan,Orissa,Gujarat and Karnataka have increased,with the increases for the last three being marginal. The most substantive increases are for Andhra,Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Andhra’s share in total suicides increased by 2.3 percentage points between the two decades,while those of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have increased by 1.4 and 0.7 percentage points respectively (Figure 1).

There are some states whose shares in total suicides have declined. These include (other than West Bengal),Assam,Bihar,Kerala,Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh show substantive drops of 1.8 and 1.9 percentage points,respectively,in their shares. Declines in shares of Kerala and Bihar have also been substantive,while that of Assam is marginal (Figure 3).

Interestingly,states whose shares in total suicides have increased during the last decade,include those which are recognised as the better economic performers. Andhra,Tamil Nadu,Maharashtra,Gujarat,Haryana and Karnataka are India’s more prosperous states,with their per capita incomes higher than the all-India average. The gaps between per capita incomes of these states and the national average per capita income are enlarging over time,showing that these states are pulling ahead of the rest. Rajasthan and Orissa are the only two states with increasing shares in total suicides whose per capita incomes from the national average are falling behind over time. States experiencing reductions in shares in total suicides—Assam,Bihar,Madhya Pradesh,Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal—have per capita incomes lower than the national average and are less prosperous,with their income gaps from the richer states becoming larger over time. Kerala is a rare state whose share in suicides has reduced in spite of its per capita income being higher than the national average.

State-wise suicides: the occupational dimension

Suicide victims have been recorded in the NCRB statistics according to their occupations since 1996. These include: housewife,service (government),service (private),public sector undertaking (PSU),student,unemployed,self-employed (business),self-employed (professional),self-employed (farming/agriculture),self-employed (others),retired persons and ‘others’. The present analysis excludes housewives,retired persons and ‘others’,clubs service (government) and PSU in one category and reports trends in shares of suicides in total suicides (aggregate of 14 states in Figure 3 for eight occupational categories (Figure 2). The share of self-employed (others) is highest (32.5%) followed by self-employment (farming/agriculture) at 18.2%,service (private) at 12.0% and unemployed (10.0%) for the year 2010.

The NCRB statistics do not define which specific self-employment occupations are included in ‘others’. Intuitively,however,with the self-employed in business,professional and agriculture reported separately,the ‘others’ would be those not classifiable in these three and should cover occupations mostly in the informal sector. Indeed,it is important to note that share of suicide victims in self-employed (others) has always been higher than the corresponding share of self-employed (farming),except for 1996.

It is also noteworthy that the rising trend in share of farmer suicides has given way to a steadily declining trend from 2004 onward. From 24.6% of total suicides in 2004,the share of farmers’ suicides has reduced to 18.2% in 2010. On the other hand,the share of self-employed (others) has been steadily increasing and has grown to 32.5% from 21.6% in 1996. However,it must be noted that self-employment (farming/agriculture) includes only farmers or cultivators owning land. Agricultural labourers and landless farmers do not figure in this category and could well be included in the self-employed (others) group. Thus,while share of self-employed (farming) is reducing it might be erroneous to conclude that farmer suicides are genuinely declining as fast.

Attention over suicides in India has focused almost entirely on farmer’s suicides. However,it is clear that suicides in informal sector are becoming increasingly large. These suicides are taking place in a broad-based manner across the country and are the main reason behind India’s overall suicide rate showing a steadily increasing trend. It is sad that neither the authorities,nor the academia and civil society have yet agitated over high suicides in the informal sector. Is this because the informal sector is not a political constituency?

Dr Amitendu Palit and Ms Pratima Singh are visiting senior research fellow,and research associate,respectively,at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) in the National University of Singapore (NUS). The authors can be reached at and

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