The tribulations of India’s poorest workers are leading to record numbers of deaths by suicide

The tribulations of India's poorest workers are leading to record numbers of deaths by suicide

Supriya Kagwade’s husband, Arjun, was among the 164,033 people who died by suicide in 2021, according to official data. The true figure is thought to be much higher.

(Sanket Jain)

Supriya Kagwade learned over a hundred different ways to ask: ‘Is everything OK?’ “However, all of them failed,” she says, as her husband, Arjun, died by suicide in April 2021.

“He was desperately looking for a job,” she tells Equal Times. His frustration wasn’t visible to anyone around him except her. “He would joke around, but looking at his face, I knew something was wrong.” However, he always ignored her questions, raising more doubts.

In March 2020, India’s far-right prime minister Narendra Modi declared a 21-day total lockdown (later extended to 67 days) to curb the spread of Covid-19 with a mere four-hour notice. The result was catastrophic. Images beamed around the world of millions of daily wage workers fleeing India’s shuttered cities and attempting to return to their home villages on foot.

Some 79 million small traders and daily wage earners lost their jobs within a month, while some 230 million Indians were pushed into poverty during the first year of the pandemic. Moreover, by December 2020, an additional 15 million people, including Arjun, remained out of work.

Most of the workers, who previously kept India’s cities running – cooking and serving food, driving transport, working in construction and collecting waste, amongst other jobs – returned to their home villages where, in theory, they could at least grow enough food to eat. The Kagwade family, from Khochi village in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, managed to survive thanks to Supriya, who works as a tenant-farmer cultivating sugarcane, groundnuts and soybeans. But 13 months into the pandemic and with no work, Arjun, a father of three, began to lose hope. “The frustration was evident as he took to alcohol quite often,” recalls Supriya.

A day before his suicide attempt, Arjun told his mother that it would be the last time she would see him. The following evening, Supriya found him consuming pesticides. Although she rushed him to a local doctor and later to a district hospital, the damage had already been done. “After eight days, we lost him,” she recalls, sadly. “During that time he was so frustrated that while he was still alive he kept yelling at me. He would ask me why I tried saving him.”

Arjun is one of 164,033 Indians who died by suicide in 2021. Since 2010, India has lost over 1.6 million people to suicide, with numbers rising 7.1 per cent in 2021 to reach an all-time high since records began. Moreover, for the first time, India’s daily wage earners comprised over 25 per cent of the country’s deaths by suicide in 2021. This is a staggering 113 per cent rise from 2014 when daily wage earners comprised 12 per cent of recorded suicide cases.

A worsening agrarian disaster

As per the 2011 Census, India has approximately 263.1 million agricultural workers, and roughly 57.8 per cent of rural households are engaged in smallholder farming. Most of the daily wage earners who returned to their villages had hoped they could rely on agriculture to sustain themselves and their families but they have been met with a series of obstacles.

For instance, following a 80 per cent surge in fertiliser prices last year, farmers are paying an additional 30 per cent this year. “However, still, we get paid much less for our farm produce,” shares Supriya. In the first week of September this year, the prices of tomatoes fell to a mere Rs 3 (€0.03) per kilogram, (down from Rs80, approximately €1, in May this year) pushing farmers into a cycle of devastation. Farmer Bhagat Gaikwad from Maharashtra’s Jambhali village, has lost hundreds of kilograms of tomatoes because the price he would have got for them was so low that he couldn’t even afford to transport them to the market: “There’s a steady rise in the input cost; at the same time, the price that we are paid for our produce is falling rapidly [editor’s note: due to oversupply and a lack of legal measures to ensure a fair price]. Clearly, it’s not the poor benefitting from this crisis.”

Statistics confirm his observation. As per a report by the National Office of Statistics published in September 2021, more than half of agricultural households were in debt to the tune of €935 in 2019, which accounts for a significant proportion, and in some cases more than, annual household income.

A.B. Patil, treasurer for the Kolhapur branch of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), says that Indian agriculture has been destroyed systematically since the 1990s with the “broken and flawed promise of a free market.” He continues: “The Government’s policy is clear; remove most of the people from farming and use them as labourers to build cities,” he says. “Globally, the giant corporations are overtaking farming. Today, less than 2 percent of the population is in agriculture in the USA, and the same trend will come to India eventually.”

Patil further points out that post-Covid, most small-scale industries haven’t been able to survive. “So who will employ the people who left farming? It’s just a few giant corporations who are flourishing.”

According to official figures, between 1995 and 2018, around 400,000 farmers died by suicide. But it is thought that the true number is much higher. “These are incorrect figures,” says Patil. “There are many suicide cases that the government doesn’t record,” he says. For example, in many places, women aren’t considered as farmers because the land is not in their name. They might be working over 12 hours in the field every day, but they are still called ‘housewives’, which skews the figures for the total number of farmers who died by suicide. According to veteran journalist P. Sainath, women are the single largest exclusion in farmer suicide data.

A perfect storm

Supriya has been finding it increasingly difficult to survive on farming. Moreover, life hasn’t been easy for her. After Arjun’s death, she was forced to sell the family’s buffalo to repay the loans he had taken, which she had no clue about. Healthcare supervisor Mansingh Wadar from Kolhapur’s Nandani Primary Health Centre says that life is becoming increasingly difficult for India’s rural communities: “In the past three years, several villages in Kolhapur first faced floods, and then Covid made everything worse. Moreover, with rising inflation, even everyday essentials are becoming unaffordable. It is putting such a strain on people.”

And then there’s the climate crisis. India reported two of the worst ten financially devastating climate disasters in 2021, accounting for a loss of over US$1 billion and more than 1750 deaths, according to the Indian Meteorological Department.

“During Covid, people’s stress levels increased significantly and then the floods worsened it. Almost every patient talked either of rising debt or the stress of not being able to get a job,” explains Wadar.

Before losing his job, Arjun worked as a security guard in a textile mill in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district. Earlier, he had performed odd jobs in various industries, including at a dairy.

Since his death, Arjun’s wife Supriya has been the subject of scorn. “Despite trying to save him, everyone blamed me,” she says. Community healthcare worker, Suraiyya Terdale from Maharashtra’s Ganeshwadi village, tells Equal Times: “After any suicide, it is the woman who is blamed, through no fault of her own.” Terdale, who has observed several such cases, adds: “This puts the lives of women at risk, and many I know personally even had to leave their village.”

Mental healthcare remains out of bounds

Globally, an estimated 800,000 people die by suicide every year. In 2021, India reported a suicide death rate of 12 per 100,000 people, an increment of 58 per cent since 1966. But there are scant mental health resources to deal with the problem.

The National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16 found that 150 million Indians needed mental healthcare intervention, of which only 30 million were seeking it. The survey added that a staggering 80 per cent of people suffering from mental disorders didn’t receive any treatment despite over 12 months of persisting illness.

There are a multitude of reasons for this, including the fact that discussion around mental health is still a taboo in India, but a major factor is the severe shortage of adequate mental healthcare facilities. For example, there are just 9,000 psychiatrists and 1,000 psychologists for 1.3 billion people.

“To visit any public mental healthcare professional, one has to go to a district hospital which is not easy for everyone,” says Dr Madhuri Panhalkar, a community healthcare officer in Maharashtra. Furthermore, India has just 810 district hospitals for its 833 million-strong rural population.

The village where she is working currently, Chikhali, has been experiencing recurring floods, and across India the impacts of the climate emergency are further eroding people’s mental health, as highlighted in the most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Panhalkar says things need to be understood according to the situation, and interventions should be made according to the community’s needs. “Even if a person looks normal, stress can affect them subconsciously. Proper counselling goes a long way.”