On May 14, Ramnariam Barma awoke intending to end his life. He had long been pondering the decision, and the government’s refusal to compensate him for the loss of his harvest was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“We had been losing money for four years because of the drought, but this winter’s heavy rains and hail have left us with nothing,” says the farmer. “I had borrowed 140,000 rupees [HK$17,125] from the bank and 130,000 rupees more from loan sharks, to pay for seeds and for my oldest daughter’s dowry, and I knew I could not return it.”
So, six days before the wedding was scheduled to take place, he grabbed a rope, told his wife he was taking his buffaloes to the hectare of land he owns, but went instead to a nearby electricity pylon. He climbed onto the metal skeleton and knotted the rope, but when he put it around his neck, he was spotted by neighbours.
“Think of your six children! What will your wife do without you?” Police soon arrived and helped persuade Barma to reconsider.
Now he fears the time when the moneylenders – concerned that he will soon succeed in committing suicide – will do more than use threats.
“Someday they will come to torture me. But I have nothing to pay them and nobody wants to buy my land because it has proven to be quite barren. The government has promised me 9,000 rupees as compensation, but that cannot pay for feeding or schooling for my children.”
The youngest of the offspring, only 18 months old, stares at his father while he talks. Showing a clear lack of activity for a child of his age, he is barefoot, he is dressed only in tattered underwear and his swollen abdomen suggests severe malnutrition. His mother, Shyambae, holds the infant on her lap and warns Barma: “If you kill yourself, I see no reason to continue living.”
This family drama is not an unusual one in the village of Tendura, a set of dusty streets and mud houses that is home to some 8,000 people, in Banda district, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
In the first five months of this year, five Tendura residents killed themselves. And, because the harvest has been particularly bad this year, the fifth consecutive year that it has been devastated by drought, more suicides are expected.
“Most of the farmers have contracted debts that they now can’t repay. Many don’t see another way out, and just between March and May this year, 65 people have committed suicide in Banda district alone,” says Raja Bhaiya, director of Vidya Dham Samiti, an organisation funded by ActionAid that is establishing a grain bank “so that farmers can at least eat”.
Uttar Pradesh is not the only state affected.
Suicides have become the deadliest epidemic in India since the country liberalised the agricultural sector in the 1990s. According to official statistics – which numerous NGOs contest because they don’t include many cases the authorities considered doubtful – more than 300,000 farmers have taken their lives since 1995.
Although the Indian economy is in the midst of a golden age, agriculture accounts for just 13 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, despite providing jobs to 60 per cent of the population – and, for farmers, 2015 is shaping up to become by far the worst year in the past two decades.
“The number of suicides has doubled in most of the towns in the state. In some it has even tripled,” says K.S. Singh Yadav, superintendent of health in the city of Lalitpur, in Uttar Pradesh. Experts forecast the number of suicides across the nation this year will surpass the 20,000 mark.
“We are willing to do whatever it takes to end this problem, but we haven’t yet come up with an effective solution,” Eknath Khadse, agriculture minister of the state of Maharashtra, has said, publicly.
Currently, the government does little more than grant a controversial 700,000 rupees in compensation to the families of farmers who take their lives, which many consider an incentive.
It certainly was for Boothe Prajapati.
On March 19, Prajapati’s son, Bhagunte, found his father’s body hanging in the family barn. Having seen hail destroy the wheat and spices he grew on 1.6 hectares of land in Patha village, Jhansi district, Uttar Pradesh, 60-year-old Prajapati believed the subsidy they’d get after his death was the only way he could help his family survive.
“He had had two taciturn days, barely speaking. I found him dead when I went to take him some food.
“I understand his desperation, because 28 family members depend on the harvest and we only managed to save around 300 kilos out of the six or seven tonnes we used to collect. That’s not even enough for our own consumption,” says Bhagunte, the eldest of six siblings and a father of three. “So now we barely have enough to eat and we will have to ask for another loan to cultivate the land next year.
“If we don’t get it I don’t know what we can do.”
The Prajapati family has begun the complicated procedure of applying for compensation. And they are awaiting a visit from moneylenders.
“We know a bank gave him 40,000 rupees, and they may write off the debt after the suicide, but my father didn’t tell us how much he had borrowed from local loan sharks, who generally charge an interest of 10 per cent per week,” says Bhagunte. “We will have to negotiate with them when we are given the compensation.”
If they actually get it, that is; the government prevents many suicide cases from being certified as such.
“We aren’t worried because the autopsy showed that he hanged himself and the press has published the photograph, but other people have taken their lives in vain,” says Bhagunte, holding the explicit image a local newspaper used to illustrate the tragedy.
Ajay Srivastava, director of ActionAid in Lalitpur, says that of the 32 suicides that occurred in this small town in the first five months of this year, only five of the families affected have received the compensation promised by the government.
“Obviously, politicians don’t want to pay that money and, in many cases, they justify their refusal to do so by saying the death was due to natural causes or consumption of alcohol and drugs.”
A doctor at the public hospital in Lalitpur, who asked not to be named, acknowledges that this is the case: “It is difficult to deny the obvious when someone has hanged himself or cut his wrists, but it is easier in cases of poisoning.”
About 40 per cent of farmers who commit suicide do so by drinking pesticide or hair dye.
“They are substances that cause laryngeal edema between two and six hours after ingestion,” says Rama Kesava Reddy, a doctor at a hospital in Anantapur, a city in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. “If they arrive at the hospital during that time, 100 per cent survive with a tracheotomy. But if they arrive when they are already suffering kidney failure, which is in most cases, we can’t do anything. The lungs fill with fluid, then comes muscular paralysis, they fall into a coma and drowning occurs.”
A dose of hair dye sufficient to cause death costs 35 rupees. Pesticide is even cheaper, at 15 rupees, but store owners say death by pesticide is much slower and more painful.
Brijmohan Shukla perhaps knew that because, on April 10, he swallowed Paraphenylenediamine, a hair dye. He was 28 years old.
“He was found by some kids, lying on the side of the road. He had been vomiting something black, and was already dead,” recalls his mother, Parvati. “But at the hospital they said he died of natural causes.”
Shukla farmed 1.2 hectares of wheat with his father in the Uttar Pradesh village of Kachnonda Kalan, and documents attribute his death to a cardiac arrest. For that reason, his parents will receive no compensation.
“It is true that intentional poisoning can eventually cause death from a heart attack, but it is also true that there are some families trying to pass a natural death off as suicide to collect the compensation,” says Yadav.
“Whenever the autopsy is done correctly, doctors can accurately judge what happened.”
Parvati, however, doubts that the small health centre to which the body of her son was sent has the equipment necessary to perform such an examination.
“My son was under too much pressure. The bank had begun to send notifications to demand repayment of a loan, and we had arranged his marriage to a girl from a nearby village. But the harvest had been much worse than expected and we have not received any help. A few days earlier he had told me he did not want to live like this, but I thought I had convinced him not to do anything stupid,” she says, unable to hold back her tears.
She now has just one son, Shukla’s younger brother.
“We don’t want him to work the land, because here the land kills you,” says Rameshwar Prasad, Parvati’s husband, who, at 65, continues to work as a labourer, earning 150 rupees a day to support the family. “We participate in the MGNREGA [the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employee Guarantee Scheme, a national plan to give at least 100 days of paid community service to farmers, typically building or repair work to communal infrastructure] but that won’t be enough to cover the debts of Brijmohan. So I’ve told the moneylenders that I will pay them little by little.”
It is easy to understand why more than 15 million Indian farmers have abandoned agriculture since 1991.
“While farming productivity has grown by 84 per cent, farmers’ real purchasing power has fallen by 22 per cent,” said P. Sainath, a journalist who specialises in agricultural issues, during a symposium titled “Death on the Farm”.
“The suicide of farmers is not the crisis, but the effect of the crisis.”
Srivastava is of the same opinion: “Cultivating the land implies a high risk, it has always been the case in India and around the world. But climate change, the arrival of transgenic seeds and the control exercised by big multinationals [squeezing small farmers on price] have made the drama of our farmers increase in the last decade.”
After persistent drought and extremely high temperatures, the monsoon arrives with unusual ferocity, the rain no longer falling in predictable patterns.
“Given that farmers are required by law to comply with the minimum prices set by the government, we believe that the aid should be much greater,” notes the ActionAid activist.
India grants compensation of 18,000 rupees per hectare of wheat damaged. On an area that size, however, up to five tonnes of cereal could be grown, which could bring in a total of 70,000 rupees, based on current market prices.
The aid given is not enough to cover even the cost of working the land – seeds, fertilisers, machinery, etc – let alone wages.
Despite that, in late April, the agriculture minister in the northern state of Haryana, Om Prakash Dhankar, told the press that “those who commit suicide are cowards and criminals”, a controversial statement with which Shakuntala Varma agrees.
The 35-year-old mother of four is still unable to forgive her husband, Mannulal Varma, for taking his own life.
“It was on April 20,” she says. “He had asked me to prepare breakfast and I told him that we had nothing to eat. I noticed him getting depressed, but he asked me to go into Atarra [a town in Uttar Pradesh] to get food with the ration coupons and I didn’t think anything of it. We had a good relationship, but we were under stress because we had borrowed 100,000 rupees for our daughter’s [16- year-old Shama] dowry and to rent some land, as we only have half an acre. When I returned and cooked the meal I realised that something was wrong with him, but I never thought he was going to hang himself.” He had climbed so high up the tree next to the family home that it took neighbours hours to bring the body down. “He is no longer suffering, but what about us? How am I going to provide for my children?” Belonging to the Dalit caste – the “untouchables” – illiterate and without resources, the tragedy of the Varma family has just begun.
“The government has given us only 50 kilos of wheat and may not grant us compensation for the death of my husband because the land is not entirely in his name, and that seems to be a prerequisite for the 700,000 rupees,” says an almost inaudible Shakuntala, sitting outside the small brick and mortar home she may be forced to sell to survive. “On top of that, there is no work. Our priority was to eat, so we didn’t send our children to school. Now I think that we have sentenced them to poverty forever, and maybe it would be better if I killed us all.”
At her side, Shama and her older brother remain silent. They know their mother, although still young, can’t remarry. Widows are considered unlucky in India; they are severely discriminated against and set apart from society. Without a man, Varma has few options.
Some 200km away, in the village of Patora, Vimala Ahirwar faces the same problem. But she is much younger. She was married when she began to menstruate and, now 23, she is the mother of two children, aged five and 3½. Her husband, four years her senior, hanged himself on February 26.
“We had lost almost the entire harvest and we had to sell the jewels of my dowry to tackle the debt he had contracted with moneylenders. But not even that was enough. Gradually, he began to drink and became violent.
One day he hit me so hard that I was knocked down and lost consciousness. When I opened my eyes, I found him hanging from the ceiling,” she says.
The rope still hangs as a grim reminder in the porch of their small mud house.
“I’ve already had a visit from two thugs demanding I give back the 75,000 rupees that my husband borrowed.
But they might as well rape and torture me, I have no money.”
Ahirwar doesn’t know what to do with the acre of land on which her husband cultivated cereals and vegetables.
“I’m trying to rent it out, but I don’t think that will provide us with enough to live on. I am looking for a job as a maid, but people don’t want widows. Maybe they will give me something as a temporary worker, but I don’t think it’ll pay more than 100 rupees per day. For now we have the help of my brothers-in-law, but I’m sure they will soon forget about us. I only care for the future of my children, because mine no longer exists.”
Sevarana Kushwaha has been luckier. Her children are 26 and 28 years old and can help her survive after the death of her husband, who committed suicide by drinking sulphate on March 19.
“We had been borrowing for three years, in the hope that one harvest would be good and we could make a profit,” says Kushwaha, who lives in Lalitpur. Her husband grew peas, spices and wheat on 1.2 hectares of land.
“But the weather has been getting worse and this year has been the most terrible. Some tell us we should have paid for agricultural insurance, but no one had advised us before and we were unaware of its existence. So we can only work as labourers, making bricks, or on the land of others. Most people have lost their harvest and there is not much to do.”
“The worst of this crisis is that politicians don’t seem to have any interest in stopping it, even if it’s killing far more people in India than anything else,” Srivastava says.
Official promises are made only when the public voices outrage over cases such as that of Gajendra Singh Rajput, who hanged himself from a tree during an Aam Aadmi Party rally on April 22 in the capital, New Delhi. But these tend to be empty promises.
Until the government can offer something more concrete, the land will continue to claim its debts with human lives.