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Gurtej Attempted Suicide to Escape Farm Stress But Was Pushed Back Into It

Gurtej Singh had to borrow more to pay his medical expenses, and more to pay his original creditors, and more to buy farm implements and fertilisers with which to farm again. All in the hope that one day he will settle all his debts.

Suhas Munshi | News18.com

Updated:August 3, 2017, 6:35 PM IST
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Gurtej Attempted Suicide to Escape Farm Stress But Was Pushed Back Into It
Gurtej today finds himself holding on to just half the land he owned just three years back, the rest sold off to pay his creditors, and his debt has doubled from Rs 3 lakh then to Rs 6 lakh now.
Bathinda: Three years ago Gurtej Singh, a Punjabi farmer broken by debt, consumed poison. It couldn’t get any worse for him. And yet he survived.

He had to borrow more to pay his medical expenses, and more to pay his original creditors, and more to buy farm implements and fertilisers with which to farm again. All in the hope that one day he will settle all his debts.

Wonder how it has gone for him? Gurtej today finds himself holding on to just half the land he owned just three years back, the rest sold off to pay his creditors, and his debt has doubled from Rs 3 lakh then to Rs 6 lakh now.

This despite him working for an additional two months of the year, when the farms are left fallow, as a daily labourer in the nearby air-force station.

In many ways Singh’s story is also the story of an average Punjabi farmer – he owns less than 2.5 acres of land, he’s collapsing under debt, he doesn’t benefit from loan waivers, and despite all these odds he continues to farm.

I met Gurtej in his fields near Bathinda, two days after Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh had announced a loan waiver of Rs 2 lakh for small and marginal farmers. Gurtej should have been the ideal beneficiary of this scheme. But CM’s loan waiver doesn’t affect him.

“Down here we don’t maintain books or keep records of our loans. I owe bank Rs 30,000 and the rest to ahrtiya [money lender]. How will I prove my loan amount? This loan waiver is not for people like me,” Singh says.

Between 40-70% of Punjab’s farming sector depends on an informal banking sector. In a lot of cases, loans are given in good faith and not against official signed documents. This is why loan waivers like these often make for better headlines than effective policies.

“Even if all the Rs 2 lakh is waived off, how will it help me? In another year or so I’ll be back to where I am today,” Singh adds.

Singh says this because he doesn’t earn enough to even pay interest on his loan amount.

gurtej farmer

“Have you a pen and paper with you?” Gurtej asks, before beginning to dictate his balance sheet. He owns .75 acre of farmland and takes on rent an additional 1 acre, from a farmer with a bigger land holding, for a season and pays Rs 22,500 for it.

“First, Rs 1000 has to be spent on diesel that a tractor uses up to furrow the farm. Then Rs 1200 on leveling the land, Rs 2000 on preparing the soil for plantation, Rs 1050 on fertiliser, Rs 3000 on labourers, Rs 600 on zinc treatment, Rs 1500 on Sulphur treatment, Rs 2300 on anti-termite sprays, Rs 1500 on seeds, Rs 1000 on harvesting and some more amount on de-weeding the crops. How much is it?” he asks.

Rs 38750, I respond, factoring in the rent as well. “Add Rs 400 in transportation costs. Now, I get 1470 for one quintal of paddy and I produce on an average 37 quintals from my land. So how much profit do I make?

It is simple arithmetic. His profit is Rs 15240 for one season which is five months long. In other words he makes just a little over Rs 3000 per month.

This income too is subject to weather, water supply and pest attacks. In fact, taken over a period of one year – where mechanical devices like tractors and water pumps require frequent maintenance, not to talk of the man hours he puts in – his actual monthly income is even lower.

And with it he supports a family and is working to pay off a debt, of Rs 6 lakh, which grows taller every passing year.

His other source of income, when there is no work to be done in the farms, is through a daily wage of Rs 300 as a construction labourer.

But wouldn’t his monthly income as a construction labourer be substantially more than his income from the fields? So why remain a farmer?

“We have to plan for the worst, always. Working as a construction labourer I earn more, but lose the support that I enjoy from the money-lenders in farming business. If any emergency hits me or my family while I work as a construction labourer, there will be nobody to help me. But here as a farmer, I will still be able to borrow more,” said Singh.

Singh says this with perfect composure. He comes from a place where people are discouraged from talking about their vulnerabilities openly. But at this juncture I decide to broach the topic of his suicide.

“It happened at the spur of a moment. I will never do it again,” Singh says sounding apologetic for the first time. His neighbours later inform that Singh had downed a canister of pesticide sometime early morning in his fields. He was taken to the district hospital where he lay for two days without consciousness.

This is how a lot of farmers suicides play out, says Inderjit Singh Jaijee who has been documenting farmer suicides in 110 villages of Punjab for the last 29 years.

“The surprising this is you go to the house of a farmer who’s killed himself and find out that his family had no clue about his suicide till they found the dead body in the morning. Sometimes the family doesn’t find the body. There is no indication that these farmers are going to commit suicide. They hide it from the family. They hide it from everyone. They just disappear.”

Suicide is almost a monthly occurrence in any village in South Punjab. According to one estimate, in just one block in South Punjab’s Mansa district, more than 200 people have killed themselves in last three decades, 84 of them from a single village. Another estimate puts the number of suicides in Punjab, in two months between March and May this year – at 45.

One month ago and just three km away from Singh’s village in Bathinda, a farmer similarly undone by debt decided to kill himself. But unlike Gurtej he didn’t want to wake up alive, burdened in even greater debt. So he first consumed a can of pesticide and then climbed to the highest point in the village – the electricity pole – and hung himself.

I ask Gurtej Singh from where did he get the idea of killing himself. Did any close acquaintance end his life similarly?

“14 to 15 people around me drank pesticide and killed themselves. So coming up with the idea was not really difficult. It was just one moment when I was thinking of problems at home, the debt and I saw a can of pesticide not far from me,” Gurtej says.

Loan waivers and economic help to farmers is one thing. Medical intervention to treat depression among them is another.

Till date no exhaustive study has been done on depression among farmers. So it is impossible to know how many farmers are clinically predisposed to depression or how can medical intervention help prevent suicides.

Farmers in Punjab don’t talk about debts or depression with each other. As a result there is no community support to those also, who could be helped just with conversations.

“Maine doctor voctor ko nahi dikhata. Ek baar ho gaya doobara nahi karunga [I don’t want to go to any doctor. I’ve made a mistake [of attempting suicide once, will never do it again],” Gurtej responds curtly when asked whether he would consider visiting a psychiatrist.

But some things have changed at his house since his suicide attempt, he admits. Earlier his son – who studies in standard X - would pester Gurtej to buy him branded shoes. Now he doesn’t utter a word. His wife, similarly, maintains her distance.

What will his son do when he grows up, I ask. Gurtej thinks for a while and says, “He should never become a farmer. He WILL never become a farmer. He should study hard.”

Where is he right now I ask? Absent mindedly Gurtej responds, “...but there is no option... he’s distributing milk to the city right now.”
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