Rural Suicides in Punjab: A Quantum Jump
MASR’s reports of 1998 and 2000 brought about changes in the attitude of the media and the government. It is now accepted that there has been an increase in the number of deaths by suicide in rural Punjab and that many of those who committed suicide were driven to end their life because they could not repay large debts. Rural suicide reports, which were earlier taboo, are now beginning to appear in the press. District Ganganagar reported 175 rural suicide deaths in one year. District Amritsar reported 300 deaths during the past 30 months. The latest study by the Association for Democratic Rights pointed out 79 suicides in 29 villages, out of which 42 suicides were for the period 1997-2000. According to AFDR, suicides by Punjab farmers have increased by 250 per cent. These are sample cases; the actual number would be much higher. Haryana has reported a staggering growth in suicide cases, mostly along the state''s border with Punjab. The Punjabi Tribune of October 24, 2000, reported 10 suicides within a month in Lehra block of Sangrur district; the Hindustan Times of November 10, 2000, talks of seven suicides within a week in district Sangrur alone.
From June to August, 2000, 40 suicides were reported from 24 villages of Lehra and Andana blocks. (A list of 36 cases was attached; four names were withheld on request of the victims'' families.) Considering that more than half the villages in these blocks have not been covered and also that some families like to conceal suicides, the total of such deaths for these two blocks would be around 50 for this period.
This works out to 25 suicides per block per quarter. Suicides are reportedly more in Lehra, Andana and Barnala blocks. Farmers'' suicides also occur more immediately after harvest. After making appropriate discount for these two factors, it may be assumed that annual suicides in these three blocks would be about 80 in each block per year or a total of 240 suicides. Districts Sangrur, Mansa and Bhatinda are also badly affected districts. Fourteen blocks of these districts would have 40 suicides each, totaling 560. For the remaining 112 blocks of the state, the rate of suicide would be 20 -- a total of 2,240. The annual level of suicide in Punjab would be more than 3,000 in the rural sector.
The government''s response to these suicides has been disappointing. In 1998 the government denied that there were any suicides. In 1999, it admitted suicides but refused to accept that they were largely due to debt and impoverishment. In 2000, it admitted both these factors but failed to provide any direct support to the victims'' families. The government buries its head in the sand and hopes the problem will go away.
Up to 1998, police records showed zero rural suicides in Punjab. Later investigation of rural suicides ordered by the Chief Minister through police agencies brought out police obstinacy in concealing such deaths. It is unlikely that the police would faithfully record such claims in future. Villagers'' perception of the Punjab police as a cruel and exploiting agency persists. It is suggested that the findings of the panchayats in this regard be accepted as sufficient proof.
The Institute of Development and Communication (commissioned by the Punjab government) investigated 135 cases, out of which one-third were from Lehra and Andana blocks. Fifty-four cases were studied in depth.
Dr Gopal Iyer’s team of sociologists from Panjab University investigated 80 cases; of which 38 were from Lehra and Andana blocks. Association
For Democratic Rights, a body headquartered on the Punjabi University campus and headed by Professor Sucha Singh Gill, investigated 79 cases, a large number of which were from Lehra and Andana blocks.
MASR has reported more than 300 suicide cases from the 1996 onwards, all from the blocks of Lehra and Andana, 40 of them occurring in the period June-July-August, 1998. With this update, MASR brings to light a further 27 cases of suicide for the period April-May-June, 2001-- that is, from the date on which the state government announced its compensation package for next of kin of rural suicides. In two cases, the identity of the victims has been withheld at the request of the families. In 21 cases the testimony signed by the village sarpanch and panchayat members is offered as proof of the cause of death and the quantum of the victim’s approximate debt. In three cases, the village chowkidar has entered the cause of death as suicide in the village birth and death register. In one case, a local hospital has certified the cause of death as suicide.
In spite of authentication of hundreds of cases by these study groups, the police has failed to register a single case.
The police takes no cognizance of the suicides and the victim’s kin are reluctant to report the cases to the police. MASR believes that the police is actively discouraging people from reporting such cases. The police approach is clearly illustrated by the police instructions to canal beldars not to remove a body from the canal but to push it downstream.
How police and politicians shirk their responsibility to investigate deaths in Punjab is exemplified by the various figures on deaths given at various times. In an article published in The Tribune of July 10, 2001, former Punjab DGP P.C. Dogra refers to “12,000 precious civilian lives” lost in the period of militancy. His predecessor, former DGP K.P.S. Gill, however sets the figure sometimes as “low” as 15,000 civilian deaths and sometimes hiking the figure to 26,000 civilian deaths. During the years of Congress rule in Punjab, the party’s election manifesto cited 30,000 civilians killed. A senior Supreme Court lawyer, Ramaswami, who is representing Punjab police officers accused of illegal deaths, has submitted to the National Human Rights Commission, a figure of 55,000 civilian deaths during this same period. Neither of these estimates take into account the number of disappearances from the countryside or the missing prisoners. Punjab’s civil magistracy, citing police claims, set the figure at more than two lakh. Estimates made by human rights organizations of Punjab concur with the figures put forward by the state’s magistracy. However, whatever the correct figure may be, neither the state nor the central government is interested in investigating the deaths and ascertaining the exact figure.
The southern states had accepted the fact of economic stress and heavy debt as the cause of rural suicides and provided adequate compensation in the form of Rs 1 lakh grant, pension to the victim''s immediate family and job and other facilities.
The Akali government of Punjab now, in the 2001-2002 budget, has made provision for Rs 2.50 lakh grant to the survivors of each rural suicide victim who died in the budgetary year and has set aside Rs 2 crore for this purpose.
Unfortunately, instructions for the disbursal of this relief package have not been sent to the districts. Families of those who committed suicide in earlier years are not covered under the scheme. In all fairness, the scheme should have been made applicable from the time the present government took over or at least from the year 2000.
The survivors are entitled to immediate relief announced by the state government and the reason for the authorities'' failure to report and register these deaths as suicides must be examined.
In order for relief to victim’s kin to be meaningful, compensation should be dispensed within 30 days. Other ancilliary relief measures should also be undertaken immediately, such as providing pension to the elderly parents, destitute widow and children of the deceased as with the loss of the earning hand they are in dire straits. This is especially so considering the heavy debt that remains to be cleared.
MASR also recommends to the state that cells be created at the sub-division level, comprising of an officer not less than the rank of Sub Divisional Magistrate, a Deputy Superintendent of Police, a doctor and representatives of credible farm and labour organisations and political parties to monitor suicide deaths and ensure their registration with the police with a view to providing relief to the survivors at the earliest. This will also serve to give an accurate picture of the ground realities with regard to rural suicides and set in motion proper procedures for the recording of such deaths.
At the behest of the state government the Institute of Development and Communication carried out a study on rural indebtedness. Prof H.S. Shergill of the Panjab University Economics Department, who conducted the research, established that by 1998 rural debt had climbed to Rs 5,700 crore. Later Prof Gopal Iyer of the same university, while conducting a study on rural suicides went into the debt of families of suicide victims and established debt as the main causative factor of most suicides. MASR’s study of suicides for the period from April 1, 2001 (the date of the applicability of the state government’s relief package) to June 30, 2001, found 27 cases of suicide and in each case found the family was heavily in debt. The debt in some cases has been quantified as given in the chart appended with this report. It was found that both in the case of agricultural labour and farmers, the quantum of debt had climbed steeply from levels seen in Prof Iyer’s report of 1998.
Twenty-seven cases are too few from which to extrapolate a definitive opinion of the situation, it nevertheless points to the fact of increasing levels of rural debt and merits the immediate attention of the state and central governments. It appears that the debt for holdings ranging from two to four acres has climbed from Rs 60,000 to Rs 1,50,000 (as was seen in the period 1998-2000) to Rs 2 to 4 lakh in 2001. Ninety per cent of this is non-institutional debt.
There is absolutely no way the small farmer can repay a debt of this magnitude. The payments currently made are to meet the interest on the loan and do not touch the capital. In a very large number of cases, perhaps bordering on 80 per cent cases of non-institutional debt, land has been mortgaged in one way or another to the moneylenders. In truth, the farmer has nothing else to hypothecate.
In cases where the loan exceeds Rs 4 lakh, a common practice is for the farmer to take a loan from a bank, ostensibly to buy a tractor. He immediately sells the tractor and uses the money to repay a loan taken from a moneylender. Let the government investigate whether sale of tractors to farmers with small-holdings constitutes a business practice deleterious to social order. To tempt a man into debt in order to increase bank and tractor business, in collusion with the moneylender, may not be illegal but it is certainly immoral.
It may be reasonably assumed that as against a total debt of Rs 5,700 crore in 1998, the present rural debt position in the state may be closer to Rs 8,000 crore. There is no reason to suppose that debt has lessened since no concrete steps have been taken to reduce it.
The research carried out by the Panjab University professors brought out the dismal fact that national banks and the state’s financial institutions serve only 20 per cent of the debt; the balance 80 per cent is handled by private moneylenders who may charge as much as 50 per cent interest and in no case lower than 24 per cent. This means that the government has been knowingly permitting debt entrapment through illegal interest rates, suggesting patronage to moneylenders and arthias by the politicians. Spiralling debt and shrinking farm reserves are a sure indicator for a spurt in suicides in the coming years.
The government must own up to its responsibility to restrain and bring within the operation of the law moneylenders charging interest at usurious rates. Laws against usurious lending have been on the books since the 1920s; these laws must be strictly enforced. The state itself also must own up to the responsibility to position sufficient funds with the rural banks so that the farmers may not be pushed into a position where he does not get the necessary funds to carry out agricultural activity.
The sub-divisional committees that MASR mooted to monitor suicide deaths should also go into the matter of rural debt, its legality and reconciliation in debt repayment taking into consideration both practical and humanitarian factors.
Suicide is violence turned inward and today suicides in rural Punjab reflect a passive reaction. It will not be long before anger and despair are turned outward and result in destructive social and political turmoil. The root cause of this anger is the state’s indifference toward the rural sector as well as extreme state repression against which the common man has no recourse. Starting with the period of militancy, police had usurped the powers of the judiciary and began to interfere in civil suits such as enforcing repayment of debt and property transactions.
The obvious target for the violence to come is likely to be the politician-moneylender nexus. Time is running out. The government must enforce laws governing private lending immediately, legislate for a Debt Conciliation Board at the state level and implement other measures suggested in MASR’s report of 2000.
The case of industrial workers and government employees has been championed by all political parties but the interests of agricultural labour and the marginal and small farmers have been totally ignored to a point where the income of a marginal farmer is less than a quarter of the salary of the most lowly paid government employee. This is in spite of the fact that more than 75 per cent of the state’s population resides in villages and of these, 80 per cent belong to the “labour/small farmer” segment. Political parties, both those of left orientation and the Congress, have paraded the slogan of the “pampered farmer” for so long that they have been victims of their own propaganda, ignoring ground realities. Their belated awakening to the problems of the rural sector is late but welcome. The Shiromani Akali Dal and the kisan unions, who had nurtured this constituency under extreme police pressure, withdrew during the days of militancy. Now, under the influence of the urban-oriented BJP, the Akali Dal is not fully prepared to focus on it. A cross-party initiative of rural leaders is the need of the hour to save rural Punjab.
ü Disburse the promised relief within 30 days of the death to victim’s kin. Under this head, the state should include pension to destitute parents, widow and children of the deceased. This is essential considering the heavy debt that remains outstanding against the survivors.
ü The government must immediately legislate to set up a Debt Conciliation Board and enforce laws governing private lending.
ü In order to providing relief to the survivors at the earliest, the state government must create cells at the sub-division level, comprising of an officer not less than the rank of Sub Divisional Magistrate, a Deputy Superintendent of Police, a doctor, representatives of credible farm and labour organizations and political parties. The purpose of the cell should be to monitor suicide deaths and ensure their registration with the police and maintain accurate figures of rural suicides for the purpose of guiding policy formation in future.
ü Before transfer of land from debtor to moneylender, the subdivisional cell must examine circumstances leading to the sale and the legality of the debt. The cell must also make a recommendation for steps to be taken against the moneylender in case the loan is usurious, illegal or violative of any other sections of the law. They must also take into account whether previous loan instalment repayments met the requirements of law. -- This measure by itself may help to bring down rural debt by more than 50 per cent.
ü Place sufficient funds at the disposal of the banks and lending institutions to cover the withdrawal of private money-lending sources from the rural sector.
Inderjit Singh Jaijee
Last Updated ( Thursday, 28 January 2016 18:36 )