Baba Nanak Educational Society

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Suicide and survivors' survival

Suicide and survivors' survival
Behind every statistic about farmers taking their own lives is a story of what drove them to the edge. After the tragedy comes a struggle for the family, which has to cope with the loss and find ways to fend for itself.
Mallika Kaur

The numbers war that has raged around the issue of rural suicides is unacceptable when one looks at the urgent needs of the children of suicide-affected families.

Even as the grim reality of farmer suicides in Punjab has been increasingly exposed in recent years, the inter-generational and gendered effects of suicides have received scant attention. These are more than mere ''collateral damage'' as they exhibit the deeply afflicted condition of rural Punjab and call for urgent policy changes at the Centre and state levels.

Currently, masking apathy in various political and economic clich├ęs, we are ignoring how the children of suicide victims continue to suffer the very plight that led to the suicide in the first place. Unsurprising then are the multiple suicides in a single family: right on our watch.

A puerile numbers war has raged around the issue of rural suicides. Accuracy of various statistics has been noisily challenged, while equally boisterous calls for more statistics have been made. While the state and Central government can agree to disagree with civil society''s estimates, they can no longer limit their response to questioning the authenticity of suicide statistics.

Such delay tactics are particularly unacceptable when one looks at the urgent needs of the children of suicide-affected families. Take the case of Gurmeet Kaur, from Bhutal Khurd village, Sangrur district. In 2005, Gurmeet had completed her Class XII boards. Then one day, not too soon after, Gurmeet''s father, Roop Singh, committed suicide.

"We had no clue that the debt situation was so bad. He didn''t really tell any of us anything. He had left for work at 9 am that morning, and apparently ran into some bank official on the way, who reminded him of the outstanding debt. He walked into the fields where he worked, and drank pesticide," Gurmeet recalls. The family took Roop Singh to a local hospital, where, after 15 days and Rs 80,000 spent on treatment, he breathed his last.

In post-Green Revolution Punjab, marginal and small farmers such as Roop Singh find themselves facing mounting debt, since the input costs of agriculture far outweigh the returns. The Green Revolution was ushered in with the encouragement of the US, where the prevailing wisdom in the 1960s was that Communism could be kept at bay by combating low standards of living and rural discontent stemming from food shortage.

Punjab was singled out by the Central Government as the site for the counter-revolutionary Green Revolution experiment. Though a relatively dry state, Punjab had the colonial-era canal network and a predominant agrarian population.

The ''success'', in terms of increased yield, of the ''revolution'' depended on foreign-developed high-yield seed varieties. However, these seeds increased yield only under certain circumstances: they needed increased fertiliser and irrigation. Starting in the 1970s, small farmers, unable to afford sufficient amounts of expensive inputs, found their holding becoming progressively less profitable.

Meanwhile, grain prices remain comparatively low even as input costs increase. Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) of grains - the pre-season price guarantee for farmers that is set by the Centre - are not associated with the Price Index, which is adjusted for inflation every six months and dictates all other prices in the country. Thus, the farmer who provides food security to the nation faces insecurity within his own home.

Gurmeet''s father had owned 1.5 acres of land which he put up as collateral with moneylenders about a decade ago. "Even after he lost his land, he didn''t lose all hope. He kept working hard on other people''s land to pay back loans and to keep us alive. But the loans were too big, and he didn''t even make enough to pay the interest every month. "

Commission agents in the area continue to charge incredible 40-60 per cent interest rates. While older laws such as the 1900 Punjab Land Alienation Act under Sir Chottu Ram have fallen inexplicably into disuse, the government has, just as inexplicably, shied away from passing a new legislation to regulate money-lending, a routine and necessary activity in Punjab villages where institutional credit is hard to come by.

By 2005, Roop Singh had taken Rs 40,000 from the local cooperative bank, about Rs 1,00,000 from the State Bank, and a little over Rs 1,00,000 from a local aartiya (commission agent).

"The banks were still further away, but the aartiya was right there, in our village - he would stop by and taunt my father, and make demands," Gurmeet recalls. "You can calculate, he killed himself over about 2.5 lakh rupees. That amount is still outstanding today; it''s sitting there, accumulating interest for us to pay - someday." While lenders can recover from the deceased''s estate, including the family house -regardless of the fact that there may even be minor children in it - often the kin like Gurmeet remain unaware of the legal limits of such recovery or the legality of the means employed for recovery.

Neither in 2005 nor today is Gurmeet''s family in a position to repay the debt. But in 2005, there was also no source to pay day-to-day expenses. Gurmeet is the oldest of five children. The second eldest, Gurjeevan Singh, began looking for work as a daily labourer to bring home some income, while Gurmeet and her mother began looking for work from fellow villagers. "We stitched suits, made daris, and tried to earn whatever little we could. What other honourable work is there for women in our villages?"

However, Gurmeet''s mother''s eyesight was failing, and she was having difficulty doing this work. "Anyway, I kept thinking, this all will hardly even pay for our daily rations. In many families, after the first suicides, things get so bad that other family members also eventually resort to suicide - I didn''t want to think like that, but things were very bad at home."

Then, Gurmeet heard of another option. The Baba Nanak Education Society (BNES), an NGO operating in Moonak and Lehra subdivisions of Sangrur district, was asking about families where the breadwinner had committed suicide due to agrarian debt. They were ''adopting'' such families, giving them between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 a month, but on one condition: the children of the family must continue their education.

Gurmeet met with BNES field workers and answered all their questions. "I thought that this money would help with our daily expenses and also allow for me to study and get a job, to get my family out of this situation."

While Gurjeevan Singh remained skeptical and saw ''no point'' in going to school, Gurmeet eagerly shared information with BNES and was hoping they would help her.

Gurmeet Kaur and her family were duly sponsored by the society. Gurmeet''s younger siblings went to school and Gurmeet was given a full scholarship to go to Jashmer Singh Jaijee College at Gurney Kalan, also run by BNES. I kept thinking, "If I do well, I can help pay for my sisters to also go to college." Gurmeet earned her BA in 2009 and started working as an office administrator at the college itself.

"Education helps as the children at least have some chance to get jobs. There is no future in agriculture for most people. And for girls, if they are educated, lesser dowry is demanded, and they get respect as they are earning members of the family," explains Gurmeet.

Looking for a slightly better salary, Gurmeet asked BNES if she could be employed in their Chandigarh office, where she now works as an Office Assistant. "This means more exposure, and a chance to work on my computer skills because those are essential these days," she says with the confidence of a self-starter. "Also, it allows me to work for other families of people who have committed suicide. In Bhutal Khurd alone, 17 or 18 farmers have committed suicide."

But Gurmeet''s worries are far from over. "The work is great, but I don''t make much. I want to work very hard and earn enough to pay back the lenders, and help with my siblings'' weddings. I don''t want to get married. When some relative sometimes mentions it, I ask, "Why would someone else''s son come and take responsibility of my siblings and of our family debt?"

Once again, recognising herself a role model for other girls in the village, she says, "I want to show my sisters, and the others, that girls can study, make money, and don''t have to be dependants. Except from BNES, we''ve never received any compensation or scholarships from the government. Now, I want a government job. I''ll work for my family''s future."

Gurmeet provides a painful reminder of the long-festering agrarian problem in the country and the state. Immediate solutions include providing relief to families that have had suicides, while long-term solutions require a holistic governmental approach that both ensures renewed profitability of agriculture and creates clean industries as alternatives to agriculture.

The Gurmeets of Punjab are not asking for handouts. They have a right to be heard beyond the election cycles and provided the minimum necessities required to dig their way out of a debt that accumulated despite their being the brave and hard-working daughters of the ''bread basket''.

The writer focuses on gender and security issues in South Asia. She holds a Master in Public Policy from Harvard, and a JD from the UC Berkeley School of Law.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 28 January 2016 18:36 )