Tales of life and death

Print edition : November 21, 1998

An academic investigation into the phenomenon of increasing suicide rates in Punjab shows that the problem is related more to a breakdown in agrarian society than to any crisis in the agricultural economy.

A FIVE-MEMBER expert group and researchers from Chandigarh's Institute for Development and Communication (IDC) have affirmed that politicians and the mainstream media misrepresented the scale and causes of what they claimed were debt-driven suicides by farmers in Punjab (Frontline, April 24, 1998). This is the first serious academic investigation of such suicides in the State.

The IDC monograph, Suicides in Rural Punjab, authored by agricultural economist G.S. Bhalla, sociologist S.L. Sharma, psychiatrist N.N. Wig, geographer Swaranjit Mehta and IDC Director Pramod Kumar, is significant not only for the findings on the suicides but for its broad insights into the State's problematic engagement with modernisation.

Farming activity in south Punjab.-HARDIP PURI

The debate on suicides by farmers in Punjab were set off early this year by Inderjeet Singh Jaijee, convener of the Movement Against State Repression (MASR). Jaijee wrote in a letter to President K.R. Narayanan that 93 poverty-driven suicides, which took place in a cluster of five villages in Sangrur district, were the result of "a lack of opportunities and economic injustice". Jaijee advocated "a steep upward revision in land ceilings". He urged the President to "do away with pegged food prices so that farmers may derive the benefit of liberalisation and sell their grain in a free market."

Frontline's investigation at Chotian, one of the five villages where Jaijee claimed suicides had taken place, centred on three points. First, several of the suicides he claimed had taken place found no mention in the village register of births and deaths. Curiously, almost all deaths in certain age groups were claimed to be suicides. Second, although indebtedness was endemic, much of it was caused by unproductive expenditure such as payment of dowry and expenditure on narcotics and alcohol. Finally, Frontline found that despite high levels of debt there was no evidence of widespread poverty in the countryside. Most of Punjab's poor are recent urban migrants and not rural farmers or workers.

The Frontline report sparked off sharp responses. A newspaper report claimed on April 21 that the suicides were the outcome of a "sense of frustration coupled with humiliation out of the ever-increasing debts in the rural areas which has been caused basically due to crop failures, unemployment and exploitation by moneylenders." A subsequent report in the newspaper stated that the suicides were not recorded as such because of the stigma attached to the act and the fact that the people were afraid of the police. The bodies of suicide victims were cremated and their deaths subsequently attributed to "accident, fever or even a snake bite", it said.

PUNJAB'S principal political parties, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Congress(I), are dominated by landowners and this possibly explains their unquestioning endorsement of the thesis of widespread peasant deprivation and suicides. The thesis of farmer hardship meant that greater Central and State financial support would be forthcoming and that this in turn would bring obvious benefits to the landed constituencies of these parties. Overcoming its initial embarrassment, the Government led by Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal ordered an official investigation into the issue. The Punjab State Co-operative Apex Bank and the Department of Cooperation separately commissioned the IDC to study the alleged suicides and make recommendations to deal with their causes.

For a start, the IDC field survey found little empirical merit in the MASR data. The IDC survey covered the 93 cases of suicide in Jaijee's list and 42 cases of officially recorded suicides elsewhere. The survey found only 53 verifiable cases. Presumably, only 11 cases in Jaijee's list were real ones. The IDC refused to discuss individual cases but told Frontline that there was "considerable evidence of exaggeration". Nor did debt appear to be a cause in many of the suicides, it said. In one case, at Mahal Kalan village, the victim hanged himself because he considered manual labour beneath his dignity. Another suicide at Chotian was the outcome of marital and family disputes. IDC researchers also found several cases of farm workers' deaths following exposure to pesticides. When Frontline raised the possibility of pesticide-related deaths, the MASR and its supporters in the media dismissed it outright.

The IDC's findings on the causes of suicide and their structure are riveting. Although by all-India standards Punjab has a very low suicide rate (the number of victims per 100,000 population), there has been a bizarre pattern of growth in the number of suicides in certain regions of the State. The suicide rate in Punjab increased from 0.58 in 1989 to 2.77 in 1997, but the figure is nowhere near the national average of 8.48. Suicides in Rural Punjab records that instances of suicide suddenly increased after 1993. The figures for the number of suicides in Punjab in recent years are as follows: 128 in 1992, 127 in 1993, 193 in 1994, 220 in 1995 and 345 in 1996. While cases of suicide declined nationwide by 0.02 per cent from 1994 to 1995, Punjab recorded an increase of nearly 52 per cent in the same period.

Punjab's suicide pattern was not indicative of poverty, land fragmentation or indebtedness. The growth in the number of suicides curiously coincided with the period of post-terrorism peace. Suicides in Rural Punjab tentatively points to the fact that several countries in Western Europe registered high levels of hospitalisation after attempted suicide in the wake of the World Wars. The IDC report notes: "The hypothesis that the incidence of suicide decreased at a time of social turmoil and increased with the restoration of social peace and stability needs in-depth investigation." The three-yearly moving averages suggest that suicide levels in the State may have declined since 1997.

Even more intriguing was the question of just who committed suicide. Cultivator farmers accounted for a quarter or less of all suicides in all districts barring Sangrur, the district in south Punjab where the cluster of five villages identified by Jaijee is located. Sangrur accounted for 44 per cent of suicides in Punjab between 1991 and 1997. Both suicide rates and their growth were significantly higher among farmers than among non-farmers, but this had been the case in Punjab since 1988. Moreover, this rate had been driven by high rates of suicide in Mansa, Sangrur and Bhatinda districts in south Punjab, which accounted for 61 per cent of such deaths since 1991. The number of suicides was evenly dispersed through the year and it grew steadily despite the quality of harvests.

On account of the sharply regional character of the suicide pattern, Suicides in Rural Punjab says that "it would be difficult to attribute macro-causal factors such as crop or examination failure." Indebtedness as a cause of suicide remained. Borrowings per operated acre in Sangrur are the highest statewide. However, the IDC study found that the character of debt was more critical than its gross scale. Its field surveys showed that "sixty-eight per cent of suicide victims' families have a debt on them because of unproductive expenditure, compared to 20 per cent of general households." Suicide-hit households generally "used loans for meeting daily household needs, marriages and family celebrations and events, buying of consumer goods, alcohol and drugs."

Researchers of the IDC found interesting explanations for the high suicide rate in southern Punjab. The use of bhukhi, or poppy husk, is common in the region. Independent research has suggested that up to 90 per cent of the farmers of Sangrur district abuse this opiate, often with disastrous consequences. About 26 per cent of the suicide victims were found to have been abusing narcotics and 41.5 per cent alcohol. These figures are 22 per cent and 29 per cent higher than those for the general population. A 26-year-old respondent in Sangrur told IDC field workers that her husband sold a 1.5-acre landholding to feed his drug habit. He committed suicide although the family had no agriculture-related debts. In another case in south Punjab, loans taken to pay for a daughter's dowry running into lakhs led to the sale of family land and the suicide of a son. A 1995 National Crime Records Bureau study found that Punjab had by far the highest rate of deaths related to accidental alcohol poisoning among all States.

THE central point of the IDC findings is clear. Suicides in south Punjab and elsewhere in the State have more to do with the breakdown of agrarian society than with a crisis in the agricultural economy. The IDC data show that the principal victims of this breakdown were not landed and indebted farmers at all. About 45.2 per cent of suicide victims were landless compared to 24.5 per cent who had holdings of up to five acres. It is of relevance that the landless have only limited access to loans and therefore would be the least likely to suffer from heavy agriculture-related indebtedness. Farmers with larger holdings, the principal beneficiaries of the market-oriented reforms that Jaijee advocated in his letter to the President, clearly account for a peripheral share of suicide victims.

Young people, the IDC's field surveys show, are the worst victims of the agrarian breakdown. Over 60 per cent of the suicide victims were between 15 and 29 years of age. These disturbing data are in stark contrast to national and international trends. It is of significance that 59 per cent of the suicide victims in Punjab were illiterate against the nationwide figure of 29 per cent. In the context of the mass, often illegal, emigration of young people from Punjab, the vulnerability of the State's young people to suicide indicate that access to education and opportunities for employment have failed to keep pace with post-Green Revolution expectations. Case studies suggest that stressful life events and disputes with close kin played a key role in precipitating the final act.

What are the lessons of the IDC study? First, Punjab is no Andhra Pradesh. Cases of suicide were evidently exaggerated early this year in the context of suicides by farmers in Andhra Pradesh to push a disingenuous agenda of pro-landowner, market-oriented reform as reflected in the letter written by Jaijee to the Chief Minister on February 25, 1998 (Frontline, May 22). Although the number of suicides has grown sharply in Punjab, this has no evident relationship with a precipitate breakdown of the rural economy. Free market prices for grain, as demanded by Jaijee, is likely to cause more hurt to than help small and medium farmers who are unable to resist private purchasing cartels. Instead, there should be vigorous state intervention in finding creative solutions to landlessness and marginal holdings, improving technology, providing crop insurance and expanding access to education and employment.

Economic reforms, however, will do little to halt the suicide trend as the problem is rooted in deeper historical trauma. Suicides in Rural Punjab says: "Economic development and 10 years of turmoil have fractured the village community - its traditional institutions, the authority system and normative patterns. During the period of terrorism, all these institutions, authority systems and normative patterns were undermined. The panchayats were replaced by notional Khalsa panchayats, village elders like Nambardars were replaced by young militants and community norms and practices flouted. The near collapse of these social processes created a situation of rootlessness and traumatised the people."

But in at least some senses the Khalistan insurgency itself was only a manifestation of the curious state of social entropy in post-Green Revolution Punjab. The Green Revolution's promise of a prosperous future vanished as the benefits of improved agricultural technology approached a plateau. Given the existence of a hegemonic feudal class unable to offer a meaningful agenda for social change and development, fundamentalism flourished. And after the Khalistan movement's collapse, civil society discovered an equally mindless new god, hard cash. Its worship drives some to make the dangerous journey to the West as illegal immigrants, and others to drug abuse and depression. The problem is widely acknowledged but the solutions offered - renewed religious faith, return to tradition, and free-market reform - are sterile. Punjab's transition to a modern society seems certain to be a long and painful one.

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