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The killing fields

By Anosh Malekar

Rani Kaur's husband committed suicide in 2003. Before that her eldest brother-in-law, Aloo Singh, took his own life in 1993, followed by another brother-in-law, Gurutej Singh, in 1996. In 2004, Gurutej's son, Kala Singh, ended his life. There have been 81 farmer suicides in Balran village alone in Punjab's Sangrur district, but the government still has no policy to deal with the worsening situation

"Is there anything for widows of farmers who committed suicide?" an anxious Sheela Devi wants to know of the latest Union Budget. Her husband, Prakash Singh, ended his life in January 2004 leaving her with three children: two daughters now aged 12 and 9, and a son now 7, besides his old mother who is now 70. They live in a mud-and-brick house and eat what grows on the two acres of farmland tilled by Sheela Devi's younger brother-in-law.

"The family originally owned around 16 acres. My husband sold off some 11 acres to repay debts from time to time. I sold three acres when bank officials started threatening to arrest my brother-in-law for failing to settle my dead husband's debt of Rs 2.5 lakh," says Sheela Devi, who sells milk to make ends meet.

"Agriculture is becoming increasingly difficult. I have taken loans from private sources to deepen the existing bore well. But the interest on the loans keeps multiplying while the crop production continues to decline," she says. There has been no government assistance all these years, except the Rs 500 per month as widow's pension for Sheela Devi and her mother-in-law. The last time it arrived was Diwali last year, they recall.

The widows fear the land sharks that are already on the prowl: "The poorer you get, the higher the interest they charge you with the intent to grab your land." Sheela Devi hopes she can keep them at bay till her children are educated and become independent. They are her only hope.

Sheela Devi lives in Balran, in Moonak sub-division of southern Punjab's Sangrur district. A nondescript village of around 500 mud-and-brick houses, what distinguishes Balran from the rest of the villages that dot the region is the 81 farmer suicides reported here since 1988.

Renu Kaur

There are at least 50 homes in Balran, where suicides are reported to have occurred; in some cases families have reported multiple suicides by father, sons, brothers, uncles and nephews. Take the case of Rani Kaur, whose husband, Darshan Singh, committed suicide in 2003. The first suicide in the family was by her eldest brother-in-law, Aloo Singh, in 1993, followed by another brother-in-law, Gurutej Singh, in 1996. Gurutej's son, Kala Singh, ended his life in 2004.

Then there is the family of Gurmail Singh, who lost his son, Avtaar Singh, and daughter, Akki Kaur, followed by Avtaar's widow, Gurupreet Kaur. Mounting debts were causing distress among families, claim the survivors. It appears strange that so many rural suicides should remain uninvestigated by the state government.

"Balran has the highest number of recorded suicides in Moonak sub-division, all of them identified and certified by the gram panchayat. We have been requesting the government to investigate all the suicide cases in Moonak, a total of 1,508, of which 1,408 are supported by gram panchayat affidavits. The suicide list covers 91 villages in the sub-division with a population of 1,95,553 (census 2001)," says Inderjit Singh Jaijee, convenor, Movement against State Repression (MASR), a non-government organisation.

The state government's response to these suicides has been disappointing. In 1998 it denied there were any suicides. In 1999 it admitted suicides had occurred but refused to accept that they were due to debt and poverty. In 2000 it admitted both these factors but failed to provide any direct support to the bereaved families.

Gurmil Singh

"The fact is that suicides are simply not reported in Punjab out of fear of police harassment and in certain cases due to the social stigma which sticks to the surviving family members. The response of the government seems to be to bury its head in the sand and kill the issue through non-recognition," says Jaijee.

Earlier, the government had made post-mortem reports essential for accepting agro-related deaths including accidental electrocutions and suicides. This was withdrawn later because there was no post-mortem facility at the block level. Instead, the government has made the police report a basis for accepting such claims. Till 1998 police records showed zero rural suicides in Punjab. Later investigations of rural suicides ordered by the chief minister brought out the police's obstinacy in concealing such deaths. Farmers' organisations have ever since been demanding that the findings by panchayats in this regard should be accepted as sufficient proof.

Moonak police say that as a matter of practice, cases of suicide were not explicitly recorded unless there was suspicion that a member of the family or other people drove someone to death. A senior police officer said: "If a family insists, for example, that a drug overdose was accidental, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, we record the death under Section 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code that deals with accidental death, to save the family social humiliation and legal harassment."

In the absence of authentic figures, the problem of farmer suicides in Punjab has been tied up in knots for two decades now, while the debate continues over whether the green revolution that once changed the face of the state is collapsing inwards.

What is the real picture? A 10-year study (1986-96) by Chandigarh's Institute for Development and Communication (IDC) found that the rapid modernisation of agriculture in the state had resulted in a considerably higher expenditure -- the compound rate of growth of cash expenditure on various crops between 1974-1975 and 1991-1992 ranged from 8.97 % to 11.17 % -- while the growth of yield per acre of key crops such as rice and wheat remained below 4 %.

With little surplus cash at their disposal, farmers were borrowing huge amounts regularly and routinely to finance cash expenditure on modern, market-supplied farm inputs. Small and marginal farmers bore the heaviest burden of debt. Debt per acre for farmers with small holdings stood at almost twice the statewide figure of Rs10,105. Semi-medium farmers' debt per operated acre was Rs 7,941. Besides this, considerable sums were borrowed from arthiyas and other informal-sector moneylenders to meet social expenditures.

The IDC's findings on the causes of suicide reveal that although by all-India standards Punjab has a very low suicide rate (the number of victims per 100,000 population), the suicide rate in Punjab increased from 0.58 in 1989 to 2.77 in 1997, with a sudden increase in 1993. The IDC puts the number of suicides in Punjab in recent years as follows: 128 in 1992, 127 in 1993, 193 in 1994, 220 in 1995 and 345 in 1996. While cases of suicide declined nationwide by 0.02 % from 1994 to 1995, Punjab recorded an increase of nearly 52 % in the same period. A variety of sources quote much higher figures in more recent years (see other report in this series, 'Nation's food bowl in crisis').

IDC's findings and a cursory glance at the suicide list compiled by MASR reveals that Sangrur accounted for 44 % of suicides in Punjab between 1991 and 1997. Both suicide rates and their growth were significantly higher among farmers than among non-farmers. High rates of suicide were also recorded in Mansa and Bhatinda districts in south-eastern Punjab, which, along with Sangrur, accounted for 61 % of deaths since 1991.

"These south-eastern districts of Punjab, bordering Haryana, are the least developed, with poor communication facilities and no industry. It is a semi-arid zone growing cotton, wheat and paddy, entirely dependent on irrigation," says Jaijee.

Independent researchers suggest the abuse of poppy husk and alcohol was leading to disastrous consequences for farmers in Sangrur. "Farmers in southern Punjab are known for regular drug abuse," says Chandigarh-based social scientist Santosh Singh. State agriculture department officials quote a 1995 National Crime Records Bureau study that found Punjab had by far the highest rate of deaths related to accidental alcohol poisoning among all states.

This has someone like Jaijee fuming: "What the hell are they talking about? Instead of appointing a commission to inquire into farmer suicides as promised, they make such baseless charges! This amounts to repression of facts, nothing else."

Inderjit Singh Jaijee

Jaijee, who is the author of the critically acclaimed book on the era of militancy, Politics of Genocide: Punjab 1984-1994, says the problem is also rooted in the deeper historical trauma. "The local perception of the Punjab police as a cruel and extorting agency persists. Hence they fear State repression, and the government's attitude is not helping here," he says

MASR has been demanding a census of suicides to determine the magnitude of the problem. In a memorandum to the government it said: 'It should not be difficult to do this (the census) if the government so desires. The census should be conducted through the revenue department. The medical department should also be involved in this exercise. Teams should visit all the villages, summon the panchayat, check the list of deaths in the village during the past five years and let the panchayat confirm how many of the people died by committing suicide.'

It is a pity that while Maharashtra and the southern states are paying compensation to the bereaved families, waiving repayment of loans, providing jobs to the family members of suicide victims, Punjab has given absolutely nothing to its distressed farmers.

'The situation is worse in the southern districts, and it is fast moving from bad to worse in the rest of Punjab. Once the land of abundance epitomised by its five waters, Punjab is now one of the worst affected, ecologically devastated and economically crumbling parts of the country. The sweetness of the green revolution has turned sour, pushing the Punjab farming society into debt, displacement and death trap,' says a statement of the Kheti Virasat Mission, which is propagating an ecological farmer's movement, an eco-friendly version of the green revolution.

The problem is widely acknowledged across the state and the solutions offered are many: return to traditional farming, free-market reform, and even renewed religious faith. The third part of this series looks at some of these solutions.

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008