The Hidden Victims of India’s Suicide Belt

AKHORA, INDIA—In what has become known as Punjab’s suicide belt, men may be the ones taking their lives in an instant, but women are increasingly at risk of suffering over the long term.

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A blue and white wooden sign marks the “stitching room” in the Gurdwara in the small village of Bakhora. The walls of the room are aligned with hand-drawn posters illustrating steps to making a “ladies kameez,” or tunic. Samples of colorful bags, belts, and toys are scattered all around. A quiet hum fills the room as some 20 women huddle over sewing machines, at work on long and short stitches – “neat, ’til perfect,” explains the instructor.

Preeti, one of the chattiest students, holds a sniffling child under her shawl as she sews.

“Why not come here? One would just be gossiping at home otherwise, sitting, doing nothing,” Preeti explains. And here, she laughs, “we all get to gossip together.”

Four years ago, Preeti was brought to Bakhora in India’s Punjab state to marry her cousin after her father committed suicide in a nearby village. One of Punjab’s many destitute farmers, her father took his own life – ingesting the same pesticides he used on his fields – because he could no longer pay back his debts. A few months later her mother died “of a heartbreak” says Preeti. She was orphaned along with her four sisters.

After her marriage, Preeti came to work at the sewing center, a vocational site established to support the women who are being left behind by the disquieting rate of suicide in India’s agrarian heartland.

Since 1995, according to data compiled by India’s National Crime Records Bureau, more than 290,000 farmers have killed themselves in India. Yet other studies of suicide, which remain criminalized and highly stigmatized in India, suggest that the official figures may even under report the problem. According to a 2011 report  by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law, one Indian farmer commits suicides every 30 minutes. (By contrast, a 2012 report in the medical journal Lancet questioned whether the rates of suicide among farmers are actually higher than the national average.)

One way or the other, there is little doubt that India’s farmers are in trouble. Stagnant prices for produce, a lack of crop insurance and loan-forgiveness policies, and an unregulated lending market have left many farmers in insurmountable debt, fueling the disturbing suicide trend.

The problem is particularly acute in Punjab. The epicenter of India’s agriculture bounty, Punjab reportedly has the highest rate of farmer suicide among the country’s states. Baba Nanak Education Society, an NGO working in the region that helped found the Bakhora sewing center, reports that at least 44 families in Bakhora alone have experienced a debt-related suicide.

While suicide victims are overwhelmingly men, the surviving women are particularly vulnerable to problems after their husbands, fathers, or other male family members are gone. Female heads of households traditionally have little earning power or independence. In some cases, families have dealt with multiple suicides, and the dependents, unable to cope with the resulting economic burden, also resort to the ultimate step of desperation. Widows routinely face disinheritance and dislocation, or abuse at the hands of their in-laws, while children – especially girls – are affected by abrupt removal from schools, nutritional deficits, and at times even bonded labor.

Noting these dangers, NGOs have stepped up their efforts to provide relief for women in Punjab. This includes the stitching center, which provides both training and employment. And the message of such efforts is clear:

In the 1960s, the “Green Revolution” came to Punjab. With droughts threatening food security in India, the government implemented a series of agricultural reforms – primarily importing high-yield seed varieties – aimed at ensuring that an independent India could feed itself. The efforts were hastened, in part by the United States, which tied food aid to certain agrarian sector reorganization. Though a relatively dry state, Punjab was the site for these efforts because it was equipped with a network of colonial-era canal networks and a predominantly agrarian population.

Yet by the 1970s, even as yields increased for larger landowners, small farmers were not sharing in the bounty. Unable to afford the expensive inputs required in the new agrarian economy, many farmers found their holdings becoming less profitable. They went into debt simply to buy seeds and provide irrigation for the season. Meanwhile, revenue from grain sales remained stagnant even as input costs increased. Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) of grains – the preseason price guarantee for farmers, set by the federal government – were not adjusted for inflation. Thus, the farmers who provided food security to the nation began facing insecurity within their own homes.

Frustration among food growers resulted in mass farmer protests through the 1980s and 1990s, and they continue today. But desperation also turned inward, farmers resorted to killing themselves.

NGOs in the region began noting farmer suicides in the late 1980s. A 1990 report by the NGO Movement Against State Repression (MASR) listed nine suicides in a single village in the state. By 1998, NGO appeals to the president of India and the government of Punjab listed 93 suicides in the region’s south.

When the warning bells elicited little response, NGOs continued documenting suicides, hoping stark statistics would eventually provoke action. Between 1998 and 2008, Baba Nanak Education Society documented 1,774 suicides in just one of Punjab’s 20 districts; in all the NGO estimates that there were as many 50,000 suicides across Punjab in those 10 years. Farmer unions place the figure close to 90,000 between 1990 and 2006.

The Punjab government finally acknowledged the crisis in 2001 and announced the allocation of compensation to family members. Yet like many promises that are made during election cycles, and ignored once politicians are in office, the actual disbursement was delayed for another decade. Meanwhile, little else has ever been done to curtail the crisis.

Compensation, certainly is critical. But addressing the roots of the problem requires wholesale policy changes. Lawmakers in Delhi must increase MSPs in tandem with inflation. For instance,  all levels of government must work to implement loan-forgiveness programs and regulations for credit systems.

This March, during election campaigning and under pressure from farmer’s unions to pay long-overdue compensation to suicide-affected families, Punjabi authorities agreed to reassess the scale of crisis. But 27 years after the first debt-induced suicide was brought to the state’s attention, the government’s sole move was simply to commission yet another survey.

The agrarian debt that has fueled farmer suicide has also had a broad ripple effect in communities, affecting both men and women. Meena’s family is one of them.

Meena, whose name has been changed for her protection, is from a village near Bakhora. In the winter of 2011, Meena’s husband parked his motorcycle outside their daughters’ primary school to pick them up after classes. He drove away with the three girls, telling them they were going to buy new clothes. Careening through some fields, he abruptly stopped at a fast-flowing point in a nearby canal.

Then, one by one, the father tossed his girls into the water.

A shopkeeper, Meena’s husband had suffered serious losses as the farming community in his village came on desperate times. He was dismayed, Meena says, at the birth of each daughter viewed as burdens on the family. He left his only son  the lone potential caregiver, in his father’s eyes  at home with his wife on the day he tried to kill the girls.

The girls lived, their shivering bodies were pulled from the canal by local farmers who heard their shrieks. Their father was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

With her husband detained in the local police station, Meena was left on her own. “He is our only source of support,” she says. She doesn’t condone his crime, but she is also resigned to his prejudice. “What are we to do with three daughters?”

While family violence is pervasive across the country, there is also a noted correlation between socioeconomic upheaval and violence inflicted on women. In tough economic times, women and young girls are at high risk for becoming the repositories of everyday frustrations felt by men. The perceived burden of an unmarried daughter  who offers little in the way of earning potential and whose wedding dowry is customarily paid by her family. 

Meena’s husband returned home six months after he was arrested. (He was never convicted of a crime.) Today, three years later, it is now Meena who bears the brunt of his desperation: She has bruises on her arms, a small gash on cheek, and a recovering bloody nose.

“Don’t worry,” she says, struggling to make eye contact, “he doesn’t hurt the girls now.”

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In Bakhora’s stitching center, the women work quietly, fastening two small bells to each stretch of embroidery. They are making key chains to sell in craft stores in the cities nearby.

The stitching center, a collaboration between Building Bridges India and Baba Nanak Education Society, is one of five vocational projects the two NGOs set up to respond to the particularly precarious place of many women in the suicide belt. The products created are just one measure of the program’s success; for the women, a teacher tells me, the center is something of a safe house.

“Certain days, someone just wants to sit for a while. Not being able to work. You know, life happens, that is okay,” she says.

Yet the center’s efforts only go so far. It can instill women with marketable skills, which are valuable, and it can provide a sense of community. But those are no substitute for compensation, crop insurance, interest rate caps, and loan-forgiveness and among other things that are desperately needed to stem the suicide crisis and its effects.

Preeti’s husband, a small farmer, is deeply in debt. The stitching center provides her some additional income, but with three children at home, it is not enough to pull her family out of poverty.

“This last one isn’t a girl, but I have two at home,” explains Preeti rocking her son. “Something needs to change, especially for their sake.”


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