A farmer is committing suicide every five hours, in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
As many as 1982 farmers and farm labourers committed suicide in the state in one year from February 2016 to mid-February 2017. The numbers have shot up for the first time since 2001.
Reechu, a 55-year-old tribal farmer from Terka village in Alirajpur, committed suicide on October 14 . Police identified “excessive drinking” as the reason behind his extreme step.
However, Reechu’s two wives – Rambai and Nanbai – say it was debt that drove him to suicide. “He used to drink, but never in excess,” insisted Nanbai, adding that she was not sure how much money he owed to the cooperative society and his neighbourhood moneylender.
“I gave my silver ornaments to the moneylender as surety, and people from the cooperative society would regularly ask my husband to pay up. Reechu sank into depression. And then, one day, he consumed pesticide,” she said.
Nanbai said police did not enquire about the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death. They simply told her to place her thumb impression on a blank sheet of paper, which later became her “statement”.
The case of 53-year-old Bharpa Singh, who committed suicide at Bhorkuan village in March 2014, was similar. The “investigation” that followed the marginal farmer’s death didn’t go beyond asking his 12-year-old son, Shankar, to drop by the police station and sign a blank piece of paper. The reason cited for Singh’s suicide was the same as Reechu’s. Excessive drinking.
According to figures obtained through RTIs, 546 suicides – including 224 cases pertaining to farmers and 73 to landless labourers – were recorded in Alirajpur between 2014 and 2016. Now, if police are to be believed, 69 killed themselves in an intoxicated state and 142 felt they were better off dying than living with illnesses. Only seven committed suicide due to their inability to pay off debts.
Some way off in the Chambal region, Akhlakh Singh Yadav – a 40-year-old farmer from Umri village in Bhind district – committed suicide in April 2015 after his rabi plantation came a cropper. He had bought a piece of land from a fellow villager for Rs1.5 lakh, and a large portion of the money was to be paid after the crops were harvested. Though Yadav left behind a note describing the circumstances surrounding his suicide, police attributed his decision to a domestic feud.
The National Crime Record Bureau’s (NCRB) data for 2015 reports ‘family problems’ and ‘illnesses’ as dominant cause of suicides among agricultural labourers in the country — accounting for 40.1% (1,843) and 19.0% (872) of 4,595 such cases respectively.
Debt-related issues emanating from financial and non-financial institutions accounted for just 3.4% (155) and 2.2% (100) suicides.
The issue of farmer suicides rocked the winter session of the state assembly held in December.
However, the state government’s claim that only a few farmers committed suicide due to financial debt is flawed because the police inquiries — which form the basis for the claim — are mostly conducted with the intent of sparing the ruling party any untoward criticism.
When a Hindustan Times team visited families of such farmers in the tribal districts of Alirajpur (western Madhya Pradesh), Sagar (Bundelkhand) and Bhind (Chambal), it found that the police investigations were carried out improperly — invariably attributing the cause of suicide to health issues or intoxication.
The financial debt factor was conveniently ignored in most cases, and the fact that most farmers did not leave behind a suicide note further helped police present their own version of the story.
In private, law enforcement officers admit that they were nudged by higherups to refrain from attributing the suicides to loans taken from cooperatives or private moneylenders. Few protest because even police constables can be a source of fear in rural areas.
Villagers – especially the poor – cannot even imagine arguing with the formidable men in khaki when they turn up at their doorstep.
Alirajpur superintendent of police K Karthikeyan said the suicides in question had occurred before he assumed charge.
“However, if any shortcomings are found in the investigations, we will reopen the files and incorporate the new evidence,” he added.
Experts say factors like crop failure and inability to repay loans cause extreme stress among farmers, pushing them towards taking the extreme step. The fear of defaulting on payments to cooperatives is great, because a blacklisted farmer wouldn’t be able to avail of subsidised seeds and fertilisers from there.
This would leave them with no option but to approach private moneylenders, who charge exorbitant interest rates on loans.
However, food security analyst Sachin Jain believes there is more to the story. “It’s not just droughts or floods that lead to crop loss for farmers. The way the economy has been structured around them also creates problems,” he said. Home minister Bhupendra Singh denied knowledge of police conducting shoddy probes into farmer suicides. “If something comes to light, I will look into it,” he said.
(Inputs from Punya Priya Mitra, Neeraj Santoshi, Shruti Tomar, CB Singh and Anupam Pateria)