India’s farmer suicides: the women left behind

Written against the backdrop of continuing suicides among Indian farmers, a new book describes the impact of the country’s agricultural crisis on women

In the last 15 years, more than a quarter of a million Indian farmers and agricultural workers have taken their own lives. Suicide rates in many parts of the country are still rising, as overwhelming debt, compounded by a host of ecological, economic and social pressures, drives farmers to despair.

One of the areas in which this crisis has been pronounced is India’s northern state of Punjab; the birthplace of India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s.

This region is the focus of feminist and activist writer Ranjana Padhi’s new book Those Who Did Not Die. Padhi describes how debt, crop failures, rising cost of pesticides and other agricultural inputs, ill health, costly dowries and a lack of alternative livelihoods continue to pose severe challenges for peasant farmers and the fabric of their society. Women, in particular face a worrying future.

Adopting a unique approach that combines data analysis with personal stories, Padhi has explored this issue by interviewing 136 women in Malwa, one of Punjab’s worst affected regions. She tells chinadialogue about the drivers of her work and her findings.

Anna da Costa: Your book highlights the scale of the challenges that have been unfolding for Punjab’s farmers and their families since the mid-1980s. Are conditions getting worse?

Ranjana Padhi: Yes, definitely. A large number of peasants are moving out of farming as a sole source of income now, and those who were landless but also worked in agriculture are also finding it more difficult to find wage work. So whether people are landless, or whether they have some land, it’s becoming more difficult. Social distress in Punjab’s agricultural communities is continuing to worsen, as agriculture becomes too expensive while state subsidies diminish.

AdC: What led you to your focus on the plight of women specifically?

RP: Since the mid-80s when I began work with the feminist collective Saheli, I have seen time and again that the burden of our economic reforms so often falls on our working class, and particularly our women. The farmer suicides were no different, and this particular issue affected me very deeply. I wanted to connect my work on feminism with the farmer suicides, and I knew there were issues beyond the male farmers that needed unlocking. Once an idea gets into your head, doors open up on their own, and I began to get very interested in Punjab.

AdC: You describe how the “indebtedness spiral” in which so many farmers and their families get caught is driving landlessness. Could you explain this “spiral” a little more?

RP: This so-called “indebtedness spiral” is forcing farmers into deep distress, causing many to sell their land and move out of farming, if not take their lives. It’s driven by multiple factors. While the cost of agricultural inputs such as pesticides, seeds and fertilisers, continues to rise, farmers are receiving less for their produce. They also have rising health costs and many a time, significant dowries to manage. All of these factors contribute.

Those with slightly larger landholdings are still able to eke out an existence or invest in something else when they sell their land. But the majority of farmers, who are small, marginal or landless, can’t sustain themselves. In 1991, Punjab had 500,000 farmers and by 2001 there were 300,000. That means almost 200,000 moved out of farming in those areas in 10 years. The number would be much more now.

AdC: What do they do once they leave farming?

RP: Many resort to wage work, but there are social stigmas around this in Punjab and in many cases it’s also hard to find. Some set up small shops or rent out their land. But with so much unemployment, many are sliding into a sort of abyss. Drug addiction has reached very high levels for Punjab’s youth: almost 70%. There isn’t any acknowledgement from the state that there is a serious problem. These are the different sorts of ways that social upheaval is happening beyond the male farmer.

AdC: The psychological strain on women, particularly following a suicide, is clear from your book. Panic attacks, sleep disorders and depression all feature heavily. Why has this not received more attention?

RP: There’s a lot of stigma around mental health today, which means that we often underrate it. Should you approach the government with these kinds of concerns, you will receive little recognition of the issue as a problem, particularly with the toiling classes. But this is where the deepest wear and tear happens. The fragmentation of self that results from poverty is growing daily and continues to be unrecognised.

AdC: Your approach to reporting this crisis is to weave together personal stories with statistics. How did this affect your findings?

RP: There is nothing that can substitute sharing at an individual level what happens to a person’s dignity and pride in such conditions. For this reason personal stories were necessary to share the lived reality as experienced by women. It brings us closer to understanding the implications of agricultural collapse at a very personal level.

Having said this, it was very important to tell this story not only through personal accounts, but also through numbers, to show how many women have to stay at home instead of farming to care for the family after a suicide, how many had mental health problems following a suicide.

Fifty percent of the women I spoke to, for example, reported “feeling sad all day”. Putting this down in statistics can better convey these messages to government, agriculturalists and mainstream economists: to draw attention to some of the things not adequately quantified today.

AdC: With so much distress and fragmentation within Punjab’s farming communities, how likely are we to see riots and uprisings in the near future?

RP: It’s fairly inevitable not only in Punjab but across India’s states. There is growing unrest and we’re seeing many communities organising themselves to draw the state’s attention to what is happening. Whether it is factory workers, agricultural workers, fisher folk, forest-dwellers – people are asking for their due. This is only going to increase over time, because the state is exposing its inadequacies more and more in the current global economy. The economic system is providing so little support to agriculture now, as it has become completely commercialised.

AdC: You focus primarily on social issues, but there are clear ecological drivers associated with these challenges. What is the relationship between the two?

RP: The two are intimately connected. Many of the challenges I wrote about are the result of Punjab’s transition to cash crops and mechanised, intensive forms of farming. Punjab was never meant to be used to farm rice paddy. It was a dry, arid area where wheat was grown. The changes in farming practices have depleted the water table very badly, not to mention the soil quality and local biodiversity. Heavy pesticide use has also contaminated the water in a major way, causing terrible health problems. Vandana Shiva wrote about this a lot in [her book] “Violence of the Green Revolution”.

But these social problems have not just been about the transition in agricultural practices, but the economic policies that coupled it. There is too little support from the state to support not just those who own and farm land, but also those landless workers, most particularly the women who underlie these communities.

AdC: You propose a “revolution in our socio-economic order”. What does that look like?

RP: We need to begin with women stepping out, especially peasant and working class women. They need to formulate their demandsnot only within agriculture, but beyond it too; for the society they wish to see.

The current system with its neoliberal economic paradigm needs to be overthrown. It is based on the looting and exploitation of people’s labour and of natural resources. It is a system in which profit is maximised at the cost of labourers. This needs to be overturned radically. We need a society that is more representative of the working class, where they have more say in how to run their own lives; [and people] don’t simply become the recipients of whatever is decided by those in power. It needs to be far more democratic, far more empowering for those who are underprivileged today.