By Sanjiv Phansalkar*
Suicide is among the leading causes of death in India, especially in the 15-29-year age group. Interestingly, the better developed and governed states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Andhra Pradesh show a higher incidence of suicides (number of suicides per 100,000 population) than the relatively backward states. Bihar, for instance, shows a suicide rate that is under 1 per 100,000 of the population.
It is interesting as well as instructive to compare suicide trends in different regions—especially when one sees that objective adversity does not necessarily mean a higher suicide rate...
The past two decades have shown a spurt in suicides among farm families. This started becoming a public issue with the rise of suicides in Telangana, spreading through Vidarbha, Punjab, and Karnataka. The latest leader in the morbid race has been the Marathwada region in Maharashtra. Beed district in Marathwada alone has reported over a thousand suicides in the last two years.
There have been numerous analyses of suicide, including farm deaths, in recent years. Suicides are said to be a result of acute distress. In most cases of young suicides, such distress arises out of failure (in exams, in romantic affairs, in marriages or at post-partum stage in a woman's life) and may be rooted in mental illness. In older people, the situational factors may be different. Within this subset, farm distress-led suicides often said to be resulting from unmanageable debt burden. Of the total suicide figures, those associated with farm distress are in a minority, but they attract far more media attention as they can be sensationally ascribed to the presumed failure of government policies and programs.
The Bihar paradox
It is interesting as well as instructive to compare suicide trends in different regions—especially when one sees that objective adversity does not necessarily mean a higher suicide rate than an area that is not so badly afflicted. Hence I will take the example of north Bihar, which is highly prone to floods.
Now, the population density in flood-prone Bihar regions is at least three times that in the drought-prone regions. In 2011, Madhubani had a population density exceeding 1200 persons per sq. km compared with a population density varying between 200 and 350 for drought-prone regions in Maharashtra.
As a consequence, farmlands in flood plains tend to be much smaller, running for an average family in less than half an acre, compared to 7-8 acres in the dry areas. While the dry areas suffer periodic droughts, complete crop failures are rare. For the flood plains, not only are there complete crop failures but also the loss of land, habitation and animals are not uncommon. It is thus not possible to argue that the adversity experienced by Bihar's flood-prone areas is in any sense smaller than that of the dry lands.
What does Bihar have that other regions do not have? What are the takeaways from Bihar, which can be profitably deployed in the dry lands to save lives?
Yet, the suicide rates in flood-prone Bihar are extremely low—read through the hundreds of the reports on farm suicide and perhaps the number of those mentioning cases in Bihar could be counted on the fingers of one hand, if at all. So, what does Bihar have that these regions do not have? What are the takeaways from Bihar, which can be profitably deployed in the dry lands to save lives?
Some might argue that Bihar's society is deeply mired in institutionalised inequity, the region being the epitome of the oppressive zamindari systems of the Permanent Settlement. Two consequences derive from this history. One, the masses have always lived in penury and hence have evolved ways of living in adversity. Secondly, the social systems emerged in which the solidarity of the poor of sorts had a place. While exploitative, these systems seldom led to suicides.
Most importantly, these historical experiences have led to an expectation management ethos where the poor in Bihar have limited aspirations. The second and a powerful factor is that of wage income from distant but circular migration. After all, Punjab and Haryana's Green Revolution happened on the back of Bihar labour, as did the prosperity of cities like Mumbai. Since migration income is not correlated with floods, there is a sort of stability in their total income flows.
The situation in drought-prone regions is different. A bulk of the suicides from dry lands is among the landed gentry, perhaps second-generation males of considerably well-off homes. They have seen good days as children but the future seems insufferably bleak. They have social expectations placed on them by dint of being descendants of prosperous families and they have no ability to meet these expectations. So the causes of distress have elements other than objective adversity alone.
No short-term solutions
Are these factors adequate to explain the sharply different rates of farm distress-led suicides in the two regions? If so, then one can say that nothing can be done in the short run. We cannot change the history of the dry lands, nor can we change the labour migration pattern on a large scale in the short run. Before we supinely admit this to be the case, we have to confront the reality that scholars of suicide have a different point of view. They argue that access to means of committing suicides, perceived gap between aspirations and reality, inability to share the mental burden with peers are some factors which are more proximal to suicidal behaviour than the presence of mental stress alone.
The real culprit?
In this set of factors, we may perhaps find the real culprit. Deadly pesticides, including horrible, poisonous organo-phosphoric formulations, are used to a far greater extent in the drylands than in flood-prone Bihar. American boll weevil caused more damage to human life through misuse of the pesticide meant to kill it than it did to crops. There is, in fact, a race among pesticide manufacturers to sell more and more of their products in these regions. Even a whiff of some of these can be injurious, a swallow decidedly fatal.
Bihar simply does not consume so much poison in its farms. Is low consumption of pesticides the true lesson from Bihar?
And these pesticide cans are jostling against each other in average farm homes in Marathwada or Vidarbha. Can access to means to suicide be easier anywhere? Whether due to default crop patterns (wheat, mustard, and gram) or whether by its life pattern, Bihar simply does not consume so much poison in its farms. Is low consumption of pesticides the true lesson from Bihar?
Can this indicate what needs to be done in drylands? Is it, for instance, conceivable that pesticide purchase too needs the strict regime of expert prescription and quantitative regulations which currently govern the sale of Schedule H medicines including, in particular, the most abused class of sleep drugs? Or, can one see a system where centralised village authorities carry out pesticide spraying?
Such a system could, of course, attract much opposition from multi-national as well as Indian vendors of these poisons. It would also need the creation and stabilisation of village-level bodies. Yet, I think it could save a number of lives.
Sanjiv Phansalkar is Programme Director at Tata Trusts. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.