Harvard shocked at Punjab’s rural suicides: Activist work appreciated
CHANDIGARH, April 10, 2009:
The work of a Chandigarh-based NGO, Baba Nanak Educational Society, was appreciated at the just-concluded annual Bridge-Builders Conference held at Harvard University. Harman Kaur Sharda, project director of Chandigarh-based NGO Baba Nanak Educational Society (BNES) presented an overview the society’s work in rural Punjab among families whose breadwinners have committed suicide.
Sharda was selected as one of only 10 NGO leaders from around the world to attend the 2009 Harvard University Bridge Builders Conference from April 6-10. The annual Bridge Builders Conference invites grassroots leaders from around the world to share their experiences with academics and researchers.
Commending the NGO’s efforts, conference organizer Kathrin Bimesdoerfer, said: “I particularly like BNES’ approach of working with the families in their own home environment, rather than finding them shelter or schools outside their villages.” Sharda explains: “Sending children to orphanages and elderly parents to old age homes, would uproot them, thereby adding to the trauma.”
Since 2004, BNES has been running the Rescue and Revival Mission. The Mission’s primary objective is to enable children who have lost their fathers to suicide to remain in school at least through Class XII and on through college or vocational courses if the students are able to continue. The Mission provides a subsistence of Rs 1200 per month to each family and free education to the school-age children. The money is provided by donors who adopt the families.
“Harman's story struck me not just because of the immediacy of her message about the Punjab agricultural debt trap, but the intimacy of her stories about families and villages in the vicious cycle of debt,” said Harvard student Stephen Elliott who participated in the conference. Elliot, who is pursuing his Masters’ in Public Policy from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The JFK School of Government sponsors the conference each year. “Harvard was truly privileged to host a community activist as committed, intelligent, kind and rare as Harman,” said Elliot.
Sharda spoke at length on the multiple reasons of Punjabi farmer suicides and the lack of government concern. Describing the small land-holder’s compulsion to take loans for at very high interest rates from local arhtiyas, she placed part of the blame on the formal banking system which excludes small farmers from loans. Another reason was that agricultural prices do not yield enough profit to pay off these loans, so with each harvest, the cycle of debt increases.
“For example, with the ever-depleting water table, farmers have to take loans for new tube wells, which means a loan of Rs 1 lakh. The moneylenders’ interest rates can be as high as 60 per cent!” explained Sharda adding “The government encourages the Punjabi farmer to sow two crops per year, by subsidizing seeds and pesticide. But each crop leaves the small farmer with bigger debt.”
Crop sale prices and land ceilings are determined by the Central Government. Absence of canal irrigation means the farmers must sink tubewells. The lowering water table makes costly re-boring of wells necessary at frequent intervals and often the pumps must be powered by diesel motors. Thus water becomes a costly commodity.
Farmers take several loans to sow, grow, harvest their crops. When they can’t re-pay, some resort to the ultimate desperate measure. BNES has recorded more than 200 cases of ‘multiple suicides,’ where over time, more than one family member commits suicide due to debt—for e.g., first the father, then the elder son, followed by the younger son.
BNES extends support only to families whose breadwinners were under heavy debt. The economic condition of the suicide victim is verified by the local panchayat in the form of a sworn affidavit. “Their method cannot be denied and the problem can no longer be ignored. Agrarian crises have serious repercussions,” said Natalie Sanchez, of the JFK School of Government.
Harvard University is America’s oldest university and highly respected throughout the world.
Last Updated ( Thursday, 28 January 2016 18:36 )