Randhir Singh was already deeply in debt when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Looking out at his paltry cotton field by the side of a railway track, he walked in circles, hopeless. In early May, he killed himself by lying on the same track.
“This is what we feared,” said Rashpal Singh, Singh’s 22-year-old son, choking back tears in his family home in Sirsiwala, a small village in the northern Indian state of Punjab. “The lockdown killed my father.”
Months ago, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Singh’s livelihood came crashing down. His 1-acre farm had barely produced enough cotton to cover the cost of growing it, and the lockdown even robbed him of his side job as a bus driver.
India now leads the world in new daily reported coronavirus cases and has the second-highest number of cases globally, surpassing Brazil on Monday. In Punjab, where cases have surged, lockdowns have been imposed all over again. The measures, economists say, are forcing millions of households into poverty and contributing to a long-running tragedy: farmer suicides.
Farm bankruptcies and debts like the one that tormented Singh have been the source of misery in the country for decades, but experts say the suffering has reached new levels in the pandemic.
“This crisis is the making of this government,” said Vikas Rawal, a professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the capital. Rawal, who has spent the past 25 years studying agrarian distress in India, said that he believes thousands of people who live and work on farms have most likely killed themselves in the past few months.
After India’s lockdown was extended for the third time, Singh became convinced he would never pull himself out of debt with the economy shut down, his family said. “He kept saying, ‘It won’t open now,’” said Paramjeet Kaur, his widow, wiping away tears. “Now, what will happen to us? Who will feed us?”
India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In 2019, a total of 10,281 farmers and farm laborers died by suicide across the country, according to statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau. Taking one’s own life is still a crime in India, and experts have said for years that the actual numbers are far higher because most people fear the stigma of reporting.
Few of the recent examples among farmers have been reported in the Indian news, according to Rawal. “It’s hard to say exactly how many because there was massive underreporting of deaths, and even the media could not reach the hinterland because of the lockdown,” he said.
A spokeswoman from the Ministry of Agriculture in New Delhi declined to answer questions about farmer suicides. The office of the chief minister of Punjab also declined to comment, citing the demands of the coronavirus crisis.
Over the past five years, farmer suicides in Punjab increased by more than 12 times, according to government data. Three to four farm deaths are reported in the local news almost every day.
The state’s lush green fields that stretch all the way into the horizon mask decades of crippling debt and abuse of land. In the 1960s, the government introduced the high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat that eventually made India self-sufficient in grains. But over the years, groundwater dropped to critical levels.
Farmers, struggling to save their crops, dug their bore wells even deeper. And to fend off increasing pest attacks, they loaded their fields with chemicals. The skyrocketing agricultural costs forced many farmers to take on more debt, and crop failures over the years eventually destroyed generations of rural families.
Twenty years ago, Nirmal Singh’s father drank a bottle of pesticide when he lost most of the land he owned to a huge debt of nearly 2 million rupees (about $26,700). Then Singh’s sister took her own life because the family could not afford to bear the expenses for her wedding.
In 2016, Singh’s son died by putting himself in the path of a train after their cotton fields were devoured by whiteflies. “He was just 23,” said Singh, pointing to a framed portrait of his son.
Singh is trapped under a punishing debt of $20,000 that he accumulated over the years to keep his farm running. But farming, he said, is more unprofitable than ever. On a sweltering June afternoon, he walked gingerly through his parched fields. “Have you ever heard of a politician or an industrialist committing suicide?” he asked. “It’s always a farmer or a laborer.”
In his village alone, a suicide takes place almost every month, he said. “We are left with no tears,” he said. “It has turned our hearts to stone.”
Singh says he is spending even more money to run his farm these days because Modi’s government raised fuel prices in the middle of the pandemic, citing the costs of the lockdown. “Modi promised ‘better days,’ but he has only brought the worst days so far,” said Singh, adding that prices of fertilizers have also increased under Modi.
When farmers in Punjab began sowing rice in the pandemic, they had no access to farm labor. They scrambled to arrange and pay for buses, tractors — whatever they could find — to bring in workers who typically traveled from the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh every summer.
Desperate and jobless for nearly three months because of the lockdown, the workers demanded double and triple their usual rates.
In the early days of the lockdown, farmers were so constricted that they were only able to bring a small fraction of their produce to the market. Unable to sell their crops, they set their farms on fire and dumped millions of dollars worth of fruits and vegetables on the roads or plowed them back into the fields.
Leela Singh, a farmer in Akanwali village, feared his farm would be seized and tried to borrow a few thousand rupees, about $100, to help him stay afloat. Unable to secure the loan, he hanged himself in June, said Gurpreet Singh, his 24-year-old son, who dropped out of school so the family could save on tuition fees. “We are now having to beg for money from someone or the other,” he said.
“He just wanted to save his farm,” he added.
In early June, Modi’s government used its executive powers to push through sweeping changes aimed at privatizing agriculture. It promised farmers greater freedom to sell their produce outside large agricultural markets taxed by state governments.
In August, thousands of farmers gathered to protest the new orders, burning their copies in the street and arguing the orders could expose them to a monopoly of corporate buyers rather than empowering them.
On a recent afternoon in Nirmal Singh’s village, dozens of women and children led a procession to mark an ancient ritual: the funeral of a doll made of dry twigs and wrapped in fine silk. It is believed the funeral forces the gods to unleash rain and ease suffering on Earth.
“Look what you have done to our daughter,” the women sing in unison, some grieving, beating their breasts and throwing their hands up in the air. After the ceremony, it began to rain.
The ritual worked, said Singh. Some of their suffering had been relieved. “Now, we just hope Modi gets the message.”
Karan Deep Singh@c.2020 The New York Times Company