Inderjit Singh Jaijee has spent last 29 years of his life documenting farmer suicides in Punjab. At first, it sounds like a mildly virtuous endeavor in a good-samaritan-passing-his-time sort of way.
But after spending some time in trying to understand how Jaijee and his team worked for three decades to meticulously report 2375 farmer suicides from 110 villages of Punjab, in the face of successive governments’ efforts to downplay this continuing tragedy, his work — spread over scores of files — seems invaluable.
Before we begin the interview, Jaijee hands over a few files to me. In them are details of farmers who committed suicide.
Every time a suicide is reported, he and his field reporters, spread over 110 villages, mostly in Sangrur and nearby districts, get a call. The field reporters visit the house, talk to the family members and note down details like the quantum of debt on the farmer, reasons behind his suicide, details of his family members, his age, house and village name, date and manner in which the farmer took his life.
If debt is found to be the reason behind the suicide, the team gets all these details attested on an affidavit by the relevant gram panchayat member and adds the name in its database.
Behind each entry, a tragic story
As I flip through the pages containing details of suicides, I come across an entry in the name of one Babbu Khan. He owned half an acre of land and was only 18 years old when he killed himself. At an age when students graduate from schools, one can imagine Babbu Khan wilting under pressure from his creditors. He owed somebody Rs 3 lakh. Khan consumed poison and died on May 12, 2015.
Down the same list I find ‘Avtar Singh’ from village Alampur who owed somebody Rs 3 lakh. When he killed himself with poison, on May 25, 2001, he was only 16 years old.
Searching by the ‘father’s name’ I realise that some families have lost as many as three members, a father and two sons in one case, to debt induced suicide.
Jaijee pointing out files containing details of his donors. (Photo: Suhas Munshi)
In the list l find some people whose ‘land-holdings’ are mentioned as ‘Nil’. These people, I’m told, were landless farm labourers. One Maghar Singh of Daska, a landless field labourer, threw himself under a train for a debt of just Rs 60,000.
Karnail Singh of Chural Kalan was another landless farm labourer. He was 22 years old when he killed himself with poison. He was under a debt of Rs 40,000. The machine you are reading this story on is probably worth more.
How the project came into being
“I had returned to Punjab after operation Bluestar and was working among people. Then in 1985 I got elected as an MLA on Akali ticket. I never associated with any party after that. But it was during that time when I first compiled a list of farmers who had committed suicide in my villages. A total of 31 farmers from five villages had killed themselves in one year and I had all their details,” Jaijee says.
List of suicide cases from records compiled by Jaijee and his team. (Photograph by Suhas Munshi)
He sent a report to both the state and the central governments, but received very vague responses. One minister responded by telling him that all the suicides had been committed as result of personal rivalries and grudges. One bureaucrat at secretariat told him that the numbers were deliberately being downplayed “so as not to give fillip to militancy.”
He would go on collecting information about farmer suicides and submitting it to state and central governments.
In a book he has written on the subject ‘Debt and Death in Rural India – The Punjab Story’, Jaijee mentions how state agencies responded to his findings. In 2007 Punjab police prepared a report in which they found that only seven farmers had committed suicide in previous five years. The state revenue department put the number at 132.
Jaijee had by then compiled an exhaustive list of 1508 names from just one subdivision of Sangrur district. Many studies of farmer suicides in Punjab use figures provided by Jaijee to make sense of the ongoing farm crisis in the state.
Fight against government apathy
One such study published in the Economic and Political Weekly uses farmer Suicide Mortality Rate (SMR) — farmer suicides normalised by the population of peasants in the state — to study farm distress. Using figures provided by Jaijee, the study finds that Punjab has the third highest farmer SMR in India, following Kerala and Maharashtra.
“The governments not only neglected farmers when they were alive, they took pains to deny farmer suicides. Till now not one state commissioned survey has found the actual extent of farm crisis in the state. From a cluster of 100 villages, we have found 24 farmer suicide cases from January to June this year already. But the government still doesn’t acknowledge that Punjab has become home to the biggest farm crisis in the country,” Jaijee says.
Punjab has the third highest farmer Suicide Mortality Rate in India.
Three state universities were tasked with finding out the actual quantum of farmer suicides in Punjab between April 2010 and March 2013. According to one news report, the findings of the three universities were considered to be 'politically damaging'. The findings were then expected to be released after state elections. But they haven't been made public till now.
Frustrated by the continued refusal to acknowledge farmer suicides in Punjab, Jaijee and his team put out a 12:53 minute video of washed-up bodies lying on the banks of a canal in Khanauri village in April last year. The bodies were piling up barely 300 feet from a police station.
So regularly were bodies washing-up on the banks, about 30 to 40 a month, that Khanauri villagers had set up a rest house to accommodate people who used to come there to identify bodies of their relatives. Jaijee and his team petitioned National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and Punjab government.
“Since they wouldn’t believe anything we said, we released this video and asked them to take a look at it,” Jaijee says, adding, “We told them that this was just one canal. Punjab is crisscrossed with canals, so imagine how many suicides were happening daily.” But nothing changed on ground.
Ripple effects of farm stress
Jaijee makes an interesting observation on farmer suicides in his book.“The areas of Punjab most affected by suicides are also the areas having the lowest literacy rates… Lower literacy rates mean severely restricted life opportunities. As farming income nosedives, the people of these areas are unequipped to take up any other livelihood except labour.”
One of the lowest literacy rates in Punjab is in Mansa district’s Budhlada block — 28 per cent. Over 212 farmers from this block have committed suicide in last 29 years, 84 of them from a single village — Kishangarh.
The areas of Punjab most affected by suicides are also the areas having the lowest literacy rates.
— Inderjit Singh Jaijee
As we are discussing the area, Jaijee remembers story of a family wrecked by agrarian debts whom he had come across on a field trip.
“It is about a moneylender actually. He had a good house and comfortably placed family, his three daughters used to study in a good public school. But over time many farmers who owed him money stopped paying up. So one day he went to the school and told the girls, ‘kudiyon aao tumhe shopping karake lawan [girls come let me take you shopping]’.”
The girls were very happy and sat behind him on his motorcycle. “To their surprise, he started going towards the canal instead of going to town. He stopped right in front of the canal and told them ‘aao tumhe pehle sair karawan [come let me take you on a walk]’.”
As they got near the canal, one by one he started throwing his daughters in.
"The girls started shouting for help. Fortunately, there was a young farmer nearby and he came to the spot, and jumped in the canal. He pulled all four of them out." But only one daughter and the father survived.
Family of Nazar Singh with his photograph in village Sangatpura. He committed suicide on June 2, 2017. (Photograph by Surjit Singh)
The mother of the girls later realised that her husband was in deep debt. “As he was pulled out of the canal, the chap went insane. But because he’d thrown his daughters in the canal, police arrested him and put a case of attempt to murder against him.”
“But his wife testified in the court that the man had not thrown their children in the canal. That the girls had fallen by accident.”
“I brought them to a college to reward the young farmer who had saved two lives. We brought along the family also. The man couldn’t come because he is lodged in a mental asylum now. The whole village joined us in rewarding the young farmer.
“There was an old lady sitting near the dais. She was a teacher. She asked us to reward the farmer’s father also. ‘Aede baap ne bhi ek kudi nu bachaya si [His father also saved a girl’s life.’ So the principal asked ‘o kaunsi [who was she]?’ The teacher said ‘o main si [It was I]’.”
Going beyond record keeping
Jaijee said, “We have been supporting the family.”
He has founded an NGO Baba Nanak Educational Society to fund the education of children whose farmer parents commit suicide. “We give Rs 1,500 to each child, if there are two children, and Rs 1,000 if there are more than two children left behind. But on the condition that the children aren’t sent to till the fields, that they are allowed to study.” Till now his NGO has supported over 500 such families.
He flips pages of a file containing records of the families whom his NGO is supporting right now. He comes across a family photograph of a mother with seven children. “Oh she has got a lot of children,” he remarks sending people around him chuckling.
As Jaijee digs deeper in the paperwork, I beg his leave with a bundle of papers and books he has tasked me to read. In these papers are names and photographs of dead farmers, their details, correspondences, some surveys, a lot of data, and a hope that his life’s project of tracking suicides will one day come to an end.