There is concern again about missing persons and bodies found in canals in Haryana. Surfacing of such bodies in Punjab’s canals has figured in media reports for years. But neither Punjab nor Haryana police take interest in retrieving the bodies, as the recovery involves reporting it, then attempting to identify it and locating the kin, cremation and maintenance of a record. Pushing bodies downstream eliminates all this bother.
But if there is no record, there will remain questions about whose bodies these are, how many of these exist, and why did they end up in canals? Were they victims of accident, suicide or murder?
The suicide question is particularly relevant.
The Punjab government announced Rs 2.5 lakh relief to next of kin of suicide victims in 2001, then scaled it down to Rs 2 lakh in 2009. But how many victims are there?
Survey of 20 districts of Punjab conducted by university research teams once enumerated 6,658 suicides. The Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) found 6,100 suicides in a survey of six districts; Punjabi University, in a survey of seven districts, found 332; and Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU), also surveying seven districts, came up with only 226.
But are these figures accurate?
Press reports on bodies at Khanauri on the Bhakra Mainline Canal say that on an average, a body is reported every day — that is, 365 bodies a year. The 2011 Census records Punjab’s rural population as 62.51%. If one were to break up the a-body-a-day figure to get the data for rural areas, 62.51% of 365 gives us slightly more than 228 bodies a year. Many of these deaths would have to be suicides, and that too suicides motivated by economic distress.
The Bhakra Mainline passes through Ropar and Patiala, just two districts. Punjabi University researchers would have arrived at a figure almost seven times higher than 332 for 10 years if they had deputed one man to sit just at Khanauri and count bodies.
In Punjab’s vast canal system, there are many points similar to Khanauri, so bodies must be turning up elsewhere too. The number and frequency can be investigated. If an accurate count were made of bodies that turn up at such points on all Punjab’s canals, the figure would be higher than what the universities have enumerated by going from village to village.
University investigators did not go to every household, but instead, in the words of the PAU report, “the information was verified from the sarpanch, other elected member or one or more elder persons”. This enumeration is a survey; but it fails to qualify as a census.
The suicide survey results of the universities should be reviewed, especially the results of the Punjabi University and GNDU. The very high discrepancy in cases enumerated tells us that a common and proper methodology was not adopted or adhered to. It is possible to say that agrarian distress, and therefore the suicide rate, is more intense in Punjab’s southeastern region, but it is unlikely that the level of distress and suicide would be so markedly less in the other regions.
But, why should the Punjab Government want the truth about rural suicides? An accurate figure of rural suicides would do no credit to present chief minister Parkash Singh Badal. He has served five terms as CM – what was he doing as the tide of suicides rose?
For that matter, the Congress would also like to steer clear of an accurate figure. The highest figure in the state comes from the area that has always been represented by Congress leader Rajinder Kaur Bhattal — and she too served as CM.
Since the results of the university surveys are likely to be challenged, the reports have not been released. If the accuracy of this most recent survey has raised questions, then what to make of figures arrived at before the universities stepped in?
Just look at the findings of these organisations:
Punjab Police (2006): 7 farmers committed suicide between 2002 and 2006
Punjab revenue department (2006): 132 farmers committed suicide from 2002 to 2006
Institute for Development and Communication (2004): 2,000 per year, approx
PAU census (2009): 2,890 suicides in Bathinda and Sangrur between 2000 and 2008
MASR documentation (2010): 1,843 from Moonak and Lehra sub-divisions, between 1990 and 2010
Bharat Kisan Union: More than 90,000, for the entire state between 1990 and 2010
Far from laying to rest questions over the quantum of rural suicides in the state, the findings of the three universities have only intensified them. The state must re-count the suicides and give the job to independent professional survey agencies from outside the state.
The writer is a Chandigarh-based human rights activist. Views expressed are personal.