In Sangrur, wives and daughters get left behind

Documentary tells stories of Sangrur villages where farmer families have seen multiple suicides

Chotian, a village in Sangrur district of Punjab, has seen 65 suicides by farmers since 1990. The numbers in Balra — another village of the district — is a higher 87. But while the figures are given by an NGO, and could be debated, 85-year-old Gurnam Kaur is least worried whether the suicides by three men of her family are acknowledged or not. She has a more immediate concern — of feeding a family which has no male earning member left.

For Gurmit Kaur, the end of her father’s life also ended school education of her two younger sisters, and her plans to be a college graduate. Jasvir Kaur’s grief is coupled with a hint of guilt. “My husband was being hounded by moneylenders. I saw him tossing in the bed a night before he finally consumed poison, but I could not save him,” she says.

Filmmaker Anwar Jamal’s documentary ‘Harvest of grief’, screened for the media here on Monday, is not about the numbers but families scarred by suicides. It puts together stories of women with a similar fate, involving debt, death and deprivation. From the aged Gurnam Kaur, who is left with no sons but granddaughters of marriageable age, to the physically challenged Nazma who has to fend for her two daughters and a son, the film pleads strongly for empowering women, as the agrarian crisis in Punjab claims more lives.

“As a filmmaker, it helps being an outsider as you have to be objective. But the plight of families where farmers have committed suicides shook us. All three earning men of Gurnam Kaur’s family committed suicide. When we went to her house she wanted to offer us tea but had no sugar or jaggery. The family had not bought lentils for four months. I told her since many in our crew have diabetes, we would have tea without sugar,” says Jamal, who has wo11 international and five national awards for his short films and documentaries.

Inderjit Singh Jaijee, convener, Movement against State Repression, an organisation working for farmers, claims there have been over 200 cases of multiple suicides in Punjab. “It’s a case of wilful ignorance on part of the government. According to police reports, the number of farmer suicides in Punjab since 1988 is just seven. The revenue department report puts the figure at 232. But as per our estimate after visiting villages, nearly 3,500 to 4,000 farmers are committing suicides every year in Punjab. The government too admits in confidence that the figure could be 2,000 per year, but there is no attempt to acknowledge the problem and suggest ways to mitigate it,” he says.

“In 2009 alone, four villages in Sangrur district reported five suicides each. And these are just the cases that we know of,” he adds.

Dr Pramod Kumar, who heads the Institute of Development Communication (IDC), Chandigarh, and also lends an insight to Punjab’s agrarian crisis in the documentary, says as a result of the crisis Punjab is emerging as a “society of paradoxes”.

“The agrarian crisis is also manifesting itself in increasing drug addiction and alcoholism among rural youth and increasing poverty among the Dalit population of the state,” he adds.

The film also highlights how villages are devastated by the use of pesticides. Environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva, who explains the advent of agrarian crisis in Punjab in the documentary, says farmers in Punjab villages use the term dawai (medicine) for pesticides. They do not know what they are spraying indiscriminately is poison, but admit they feel giddy after spraying it. And that birds don’t sing in their village any more.”

Numbers still open to debate as state survey battles fund crunch Almost two years after the Punjab Farmers’ Commission, on the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, had recommended pension for families of farmers who had committed suicide, the actual number of farmer suicides has only been determined for two districts, Sangrur and Bathinda. “We had recommended Rs 2 lakh pension for widows/kin of these farmers by way of Rs 50,000 in cash and fixed deposit for remaining Rs 1.5 lakh, which can bring them a monthly income of Rs 1500,” commission chairman GS Kalkat says. However, though Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, was made the coordinator for the survey being undertaken by Punjabi University and Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU), they have not been granted funds to complete the survey in other districts. “The pension scheme can only be implemented after the survey to find the number of farmer suicides is complete, which has not been done due to lack of adequate finance,” Dr P S Rangi of the commission adds.

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