Our FIRST 40 YEARS
Baba Nanak Educational Society (BNES) and its project, the Rescue and Revival Mission, began to take shape in Lehra Tehsil of Sangrur District in the mid-1990s. Two shadows hung over Punjab at that time:
- Violence flowing from conflict: the Government of India and the State of Punjab on one side and proponents of Khalistan on the other.
- The collapse of the Green Revolution, faltering from the end of the 1970s, worsening through the 1980s and full-blown by the 1990s
Declining returns from agriculture, lack of non-farm employment opportunities, occasional crop failure along with high consumption standards pushed farmers into debt. Unable to repay and unable to face the loss of their land, Increasing numbers of farmers committed suicide.
The founder of BNES, Inderjit Singh Jaijee, belongs to Village Chural Kalan of Lehra Tehsil. The village has been home to five generations of his ancestors. Chural Kalan was the nucleus around which the Baba Nanak Educational Society and Rescue and Revival began to grow.
Rescue and Revival covered 146 villages and supported 532 families. The college's stadium, named in honour of Sukhjit Inder Singh Phoolka, was inaugurated.
Another generous donation came with the stipulation that it be used for a sports stadium and playing field. The campus was expanded with the purchase of another two acres, bringing the total campus area to 12 acres.
Rescue and Revival covered 135 villages of Sub-Divisions Andana, Lehragaga, Sunam, Dirba and Budhlada and supported 552 families. A generous donor funded the construction of an auditorium for the college. BCom was added. Enrollment stood at 1042.
Rescue and Revival expanded to cover 110 villages and supported 470 families. College enrolment rose to 1268 with the staff numbering 27. By this time the college was offering both BA, BSc, MA and BCom.
Awareness of rural suicides began to spread beyond southeast Punjab's remote interior villages. The Lal Bahadur Shastri National Administrative Academy asked Inderjit Singh to conduct a seminar on the problem. LBSNAA is the institution that trains persons selected for the Indian Administrative Service.
Debt and Death in Rural India: the Punjab Story by Inderjit Singh Jaijee and Aman Sidhu, was published by Sage Publishers, New Delhi. It was a path-breaking book at the time and is still widely quoted.
Rescue and Revival covered 106 villages and supported 319 families.
A second storey was added to the JSJ College building, bringing the number of classrooms to 12 plus a library-cum-study room. Enrolment rose to 414 and the Information Technology Department was expanded.
The first (and so far only) survey of rural suicides was conducted in Punjab -- a direct outcome of the BNES's 15-year campaign to get relief for families of rural suicide victims.
John F Kennedy School of Government [a department of Harvard University, USA] invited BNES Project Director Harman Kaur Sharda to attend its annual Bridge Builders Conference. BNES was the only Indian organisation chosen to attend and at the conference was commended for its efficient use of funds and for keeping families together in their own villages.
Acting on the recommendations of the Punjab Farmers Commission (established at the instance of the High Court) the Punjab Government ordered a census of rural suicides. The first step in this exercise was a pilot census conducted by Punjab Agricultural University.
BNES wrote to then Speaker of the Lok Sabha Somnath Chatterjee apprising him of Punjab's rural suicide problem. The letter was accompanied by data on 1508 suicide victims from the villages covered by BNES. The Speaker forwarded the information to the Punjab Government which in turn had the information verified through officers of the Revenue Department. Embarrassed by the large number of cases, the State Government found a way out: it directed Sub-divisional Revenue officers to ignore all cases that were not in police records or supported by medical or death certificates. Rural families want nothing to do with the police or officialdom generally.
Aman Kaur Sidhu, Inderjit Singh Jaijee's daughter, and one of the founders of BNES, died in a car accident. At the time of her death she was a PhD student of Punjab University: her thesis was an investigation of rural suicides. As a memorial to his daughter, Jaijee took over her research notes and began to expand and build on them.
Within five years from its founding, Rescue and Revival had expanded to cover 106 villages and found donors to adopt 243 families.
Jasmer Singh Jaijee College, affiliated to Punjabi University, opened its doors in 2004. At that time, it occupied an eight acre campus and had a single-storey building that provided six classrooms, a computer training hall and two rooms for administration. Enrolment in the first year was 27. Two streams were offered: BA and Bachelor of Computer Applications.
Jasmer Singh Jaijee bequeathed funds to set up the college and construction began on the first block of classrooms. The college was named in honour of this benefactor
The Punjab Government finally admitted that debt was driving farmers to commit suicide; in its 2001 State Budget, Rs 2.5 crore was earmarked for providing relief to suicide-affected families. The government was voted out before this relief materialised.
Slowly, the relentless effort to highlight the issue of Punjab's rural suicides began to make a dent.
- In 1998, the state government denied rural suicides altogether
- In 1999, it admitted that villagers were committing suicide but denied that debt and poverty were the motivations.
- In 2000, the government admitted debt-related suicides were taking place but refuse to consider relief to victim's families.
Through BNES, families of rural suicide victims turned to Punjab and Haryana High Court for help. In 2002, through Civil Writ Petition 17844, the High Court was asked to direct the state government to conduct a statewide census of next-of-kin of rural suicide victims and provide relief to these families. In response, the Court directed the Punjab government to set up a Farmers’ Commission and abide by its recommendations.
As the number of cases rose, Jaijee saw that helping destitute families could not be a one-man job so he turned to his family and friends. They agreed that the way to rescue the families was to make the children employable, which meant ensuring that they were educated at least through high school. They established the Baba Nanak Educational Society (registered as a charitable society in October, 2001.) The Society had two projects
- Help children of rural suicide victims to continue their education by providing financial support to their families -- this became known as the Rescue and Revival Mission. In its first year, Rescue and Revival covered 85 villages and found donors for 164 families
- Establish a college at Gurney Kalan, District Sangrur. At that time, the college nearest the villages served by BNES was 30 kms away.
Inderjit Singh Jaijee wrote to President of India K.R. Narayanan; accompanying this letter was a list of 93 recent suicides. In response, the President forwarded the letter to the Union Ministries of Agriculture and Social Welfare, to the Reserve Bank of India and to the Chief Minister of Punjab. The RBI sent senior officers to inquire into rural indebtedness in Punjab and their report substantiated both heavy agricultural debt and rural suicide, however this report was never made public Likewise a team from Union Ministry of Agriculture visited Punjab on a fact-finding mission. Despite the high-level inquiries, no remedial action was taken.
Inderjit Singh Jaijee began to meet government officials, reporters and editors to bring the phenomenon to their attention. This was much before any notice was taken of rural suicides in states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat or Andhra Pradesh. Officials and media persons alike brushed aside the evidence. They could not accept that debt was driving farmers to suicide -- alcohol or drug addiction maybe, romantic disappointment maybe, mental illness maybe ... anything but debt.
He then turned to the academics, writing to the vice chancellors of Punjab Agricultural University, Punjabi University, Guru Nanak Dev University and Panjab University as well at the Director of the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research and the Director, Rajendra Medical College and Hospital, Patiala. All replied that they had no funds for the purpose of investigating rural suicides
In 1985 he was elected to the state legislature. This was when he began visiting all the villages in District Sangrur's tehsils of Lehra and Moonak. That government lasted all of 20 months (Sept 29 1985 to May 11, 1987) and since then he has had nothing to do with politics.
In the course of human rights work, he heard of suicide cases and began noting down the details. It soon became clear that the suicides were becoming more frequent --not just in his own village but in dozens of nearby villages. Finding most of the families of suicide victims in desperate straits, he initially helped them out of his own pocket.