Bangkok Post

FARMER SUICIDES ADD TO VIRUS MIS­ERY, DE­SPAIR

Farm bank­rupt­cies and debts have been the source of mis­ery in In­dia for decades but ex­perts say the suf­fer­ing has reached new lev­els amid the pan­demic

- KARAN DEEP SINGH India News · Agriculture · Infectious Diseases · Industries · Health Conditions · Narendra Modi · India · Brazil · Jawaharlal Nehru · New Delhi · National Crime Records Bureau · Chinese Ministry of Agriculture · Nirmal Singh · Uttar Pradesh · Haryana · Haryana · Delhi · Randhir Singh · Punjab · Nehru University · Bihar · Fatehabad

Rand­hir Singh was al­ready deep in debt when the coro­n­avirus pan­demic struck. Look­ing out at his pal­try cot­ton field by the side of a rail­way track, he walked around in cir­cles, hope­less. In early May, he killed him­self by ly­ing on the same track.

“This is what we feared,” said Rash­pal Singh, Singh’s 22-year-old son, chok­ing back tears at his fam­ily home in Sirsiwala, a small vil­lage in the north­ern In­dian state of Pun­jab. “The lock­down killed my fa­ther.”

Months ago, when Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi im­posed one of the world’s strictest lock­downs to pre­vent the spread of the coro­n­avirus, Singh’s liveli­hood came crash­ing down. His 0.4-hectare farm had barely pro­duced enough cot­ton to cover the cost of grow­ing it and the lock­down even robbed him of his side job as a bus driver.

In­dia now leads the world in new daily re­ported coro­n­avirus cases and has the sec­ond­high­est num­ber of cases glob­ally, sur­pass­ing Brazil on Mon­day. In Pun­jab, where cases have surged, lock­downs have been im­posed all over again. The mea­sures, econ­o­mists say, are forc­ing mil­lions of house­holds into poverty and con­tribut­ing to a long-run­ning tragedy: farmer suicides.

Farm bank­rupt­cies and debts like the one that tor­mented Singh have been the source of mis­ery in the coun­try for decades, but ex­perts say the suf­fer­ing has reached new lev­els amid the pan­demic. “This cri­sis is the mak­ing of this gov­ern­ment,” said Vikas Rawal, a pro­fes­sor of eco­nom­ics at Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity in New Delhi. Prof Rawal, who has spent the past 25 years study­ing agrar­ian dis­tress in In­dia, said he be­lieved thou­sands of peo­ple who lived and worked on farms had most likely killed them­selves over the past few months.

Af­ter In­dia’s lock­down was ex­tended for the third time, Singh’s fam­ily said he be­came con­vinced he would never pull him­self out of debt with the econ­omy shut down. “He kept say­ing ‘It won’t open now,’” said Param­jeet Kaur, his widow, wip­ing away tears. “Now, what will hap­pen to us? Who will feed us?”

In­dia has one of the high­est sui­cide rates in the world. In 2019, a to­tal of 10,281 farm­ers and farm labour­ers died by sui­cide across the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Crime Records Bureau. Tak­ing one’s own life is still a crime in In­dia and ex­perts have said for years that the ac­tual num­bers are far higher be­cause most peo­ple fear the stigma of re­port­ing them.

Few of the re­cent ex­am­ples among farm­ers have been re­ported in the In­dian news me­dia, ac­cord­ing to Prof Rawal. “It’s hard to say ex­actly how many be­cause there was mas­sive un­der­re­port­ing of deaths and even the me­dia could not reach the hin­ter­land be­cause of the lock­down,” he said.

A spokes­woman from the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture in New Delhi de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about farmer suicides and the of­fice of the chief min­is­ter of Pun­jab also de­clined to com­ment, cit­ing the de­mands of the coro­n­avirus cri­sis. Over the past five years, farmer suicides in Pun­jab have in­creased by more than 12 times, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment data. Three to four farm deaths are re­ported in the lo­cal news al­most every day.

The state’s lush green fields that stretch all the way into the hori­zon mask decades of crip­pling debt and abuse of land. In the 1960s, the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced high-yield­ing va­ri­eties of rice and wheat that even­tu­ally made In­dia self-suf­fi­cient in grains. But over the years, ground­wa­ter dropped to crit­i­cal lev­els.

Farm­ers, strug­gling to save their crops, dug their bore wells even deeper. And to fend off in­creas­ing pest at­tacks, they loaded their fields with chem­i­cals. The sky­rock­et­ing agri­cul­tural costs forced many farm­ers to take on more debt and crop fail­ures over the years even­tu­ally de­stroyed gen­er­a­tions of ru­ral fam­i­lies.

Twenty years ago, Nir­mal Singh’s fa­ther drank a bot­tle of pes­ti­cide when he lost most of the land he owned to a huge debt of nearly 2 mil­lion ru­pees (856,400 baht). Then Singh’s sis­ter took her own life be­cause the fam­ily could not af­ford to bear the ex­penses for her wed­ding.

In 2016, Singh’s son died by putting him­self in the path of a train af­ter their cot­ton fields were de­voured by white­flies. “He was just 23,” said Singh, point­ing to a framed por­trait of his son.

Singh is trapped un­der a pun­ish­ing debt of US$20,000 (629,000 baht) that he ac­cu­mu­lated over the years to keep his farm run­ning. But farm­ing, he said, is more un­prof­itable than ever. On a swel­ter­ing June af­ter­noon, he walked gin­gerly through his parched fields. “Have you ever heard of a politi­cian or an in­dus­tri­al­ist com­mit­ting sui­cide?” he asked. “It’s al­ways a farmer or a labourer.”

In his vil­lage alone, a sui­cide takes place al­most every month. “We are left with no tears,” he said. “It has turned our hearts to stone.”

Singh says he is spend­ing even more money to run his farm th­ese days be­cause Mr Modi’s gov­ern­ment raised fuel prices in the mid­dle of the pan­demic, cit­ing the costs of the lock­down. “Modi promised ‘bet­ter days’ but he has only brought the worst days so far,” said Singh, adding that prices of fer­tilis­ers had also in­creased un­der Mr Modi.

When farm­ers in Pun­jab be­gan sow­ing rice in the pan­demic, they had no ac­cess to farm labour. They scram­bled to ar­range and pay for buses, trac­tors — what­ever they could find — to bring in work­ers who typ­i­cally trav­elled from the north­ern states of Bi­har and Ut­tar Pradesh every sum­mer.

Des­per­ate and job­less for nearly three months be­cause of the lock­down, the work­ers de­manded dou­ble and triple their usual rates. In the early days of the lock­down, farm­ers were so con­stricted that they were only able to bring a small frac­tion of their pro­duce to the mar­ket. Un­able to sell their crops, they set their farms on fire and dumped mil­lions of dol­lars worth of fruits and veg­eta­bles on the roads or ploughed them back into the fields.

Leela Singh, a farmer in Akan­wali, a vil­lage in the Fate­habad district of Haryana state, feared his farm would be seized and tried to bor­row a few thou­sand ru­pees, about $100, to help him stay afloat. Un­able to se­cure the loan, he hanged him­self in June, said Gur­preet Singh, his 24-yearold son, who dropped out of school so the fam­ily could save on tu­ition fees. “We are now hav­ing to beg for money from some­one or the other,” he said. “He just wanted to save his farm.”

In early June, Mr Modi’s gov­ern­ment used its ex­ec­u­tive pow­ers to push through sweep­ing changes aimed at pri­vatis­ing agri­cul­ture. It promised farm­ers greater free­dom to sell their pro­duce out­side large agri­cul­tural mar­kets taxed by state gov­ern­ments.

In Au­gust, thou­sands of farm­ers gath­ered to protest the new or­ders, burn­ing their copies in the street and ar­gu­ing the or­ders could ex­pose them to a mo­nop­oly of cor­po­rate buy­ers rather than em­pow­er­ing them.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon in Nir­mal Singh’s vil­lage, dozens of women and chil­dren led a pro­ces­sion to mark an an­cient rit­ual: the fu­neral of a doll made of dry twigs and wrapped in fine silk. It is be­lieved the fu­neral forces the gods to un­leash rain and ease suf­fer­ing on Earth.

“Look what you have done to our daugh­ter,” the women sing in unison, some griev­ing, beat­ing their breasts and throw­ing their hands up in the air. Af­ter the cer­e­mony, it be­gan to rain. The rit­ual worked, said Singh. Some of their suf­fer­ing had been re­lieved. “Now, we just hope Modi gets the mes­sage.”

It’s hard to say ex­actly how many be­cause there was mas­sive un­der­re­port­ing of deaths. VIKAS RAWAL A PRO­FES­SOR OF ECO­NOM­ICS AT JAWA­HAR­LAL NEHRU UNIVER­SITY IN NEW DELHI

 ??  ?? Rand­hir Singh’s widow, Param­jeet Kaur, and son Rash­pal Singh at their vil­lage home­inPun­jab.
Rand­hir Singh’s widow, Param­jeet Kaur, and son Rash­pal Singh at their vil­lage home­inPun­jab.
 ??  ?? Women of Sirsiwala, In­dia, gather for an an­cient rit­ual be­lieved to force the gods to un­leash rain and ease suf­fer­ing.
Women of Sirsiwala, In­dia, gather for an an­cient rit­ual be­lieved to force the gods to un­leash rain and ease suf­fer­ing.
 ??  ?? Mi­grant work­ers from Har­doi, In­dia ride on the back of a trac­tor full of rice stalks in Pun­jab.
Mi­grant work­ers from Har­doi, In­dia ride on the back of a trac­tor full of rice stalks in Pun­jab.
 ??  ?? Mi­grant work­ers at the world’s largest grain mar­ket in Khanna.
Mi­grant work­ers at the world’s largest grain mar­ket in Khanna.
 ??  ?? Bi­jay Kumar, a mi­grant worker from Bi­har, uses a flash­light to pre­pare a meal.
Bi­jay Kumar, a mi­grant worker from Bi­har, uses a flash­light to pre­pare a meal.
 ??  ?? Nir­mal Singh, whose son died by putting him­self in the path of a train af­ter their cot­ton fields were de­voured by white­flies, in Pun­jab.
Nir­mal Singh, whose son died by putting him­self in the path of a train af­ter their cot­ton fields were de­voured by white­flies, in Pun­jab.

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