In India’s Punjab region, the widows of men who died by suicide, fight for a better future
Words by Daniela Sala and Ankita Anand, Images by Marco Valle
Sukjeet Kaur was making rotis for breakfast while her children, Sahal Preet and Akash, who were nine and seven at the time, were getting ready for school. The food was ready, but her husband, Jagmail Singh, still hadn’t shown up. He was taking a bath, she thought, or maybe he was feeding the two milk buffalo they kept in the courtyard, like most of their neighbours in Ralla, a rural village in Punjab in northern India.
‘It has been a while now – you should go and look for him,’ insisted Sukjeet’s mother-in-law. And so, Sukjeet put aside the roti she was making, crossed the courtyard and found him: her husband had hanged himself.
Jagmail was a farmer and the nature of his death is part of a much larger story. According to a door-to-door survey carried out by researchers from Punjab Agriculture University, in the past 20 years, 16,600 farmers and farm labourers died by suicide in the six districts of Punjab’s cotton belt. All were crushed by debts.
The great euphoria of the Green Revolution, which made Punjab the breadbasket of India during the 1970s, is long gone; only the consequences remain. The revolution began when, half a century ago, scientists developed high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds of wheat, rice and cotton. Considered ‘miracle seeds’, they were designed to improve food production and reduce the frequency of famines. HYV seeds can produce up to ten times more than regular seeds, although they also need more fertilisers, pesticides and water.
In Punjab, these seeds entirely replaced indigenous crops. Farmers increased their expenditure to buy the required fertilisers and pesticides. They didn’t know that they were walking into a trap. The new varieties are more prone to crop failure when there’s even a slight deviation from ideal conditions, which are difficult to fully ensure. It was a recipe for a disaster – one that’s now unfolding as the climate crisis takes hold. Today, Punjab’s agricultural sector has a debt of one trillion rupees (around £10 billion), an average of one million rupees per farming family, more than three times the average annual income.
When Sukjeet and her husband were married in 2005, they already had some debt. According to what she heard, Jagmail’s father died during the 1990s as a result of debt-related acute stress, although the actual cause of death is unclear. Jagmail was only a child back then, but he dropped out of school to start working in agriculture. ‘He was a hard worker and bit by bit he was paying back the debt he inherited,’ Sukjeet says. But they could never clear the debt and in 2006, unprecedented heavy rains destroyed their rice harvest. Over the next ten years, the family accumulated three lakh rupees (300,000 rupees) of further debt, mostly to buy pesticides, fertilisers and seeds – in a state where the average monthly income for an agricultural household is roughly £250.
When, in April 2015, Sukjeet found her husband dead, it was a terrible shock, but it wasn’t a surprise. ‘Once, he had jumped from the terrace. Before, I saw him cutting his wrist and another time he was caught by my mother-in-law ingesting a bottle of pesticide. I made him drink lemon and salt. He vomited and he was saved,’ she says, sitting in the shade on her patio, from where there is no longer any sign of the buffalo they used to own.
Sukjeet knew her husband needed help. She sold the family gold and a buffalo, and took on more debt in order to have him admitted into a mental health clinic in Barnala, about an hour’s drive from their village. After a month, in November 2014, he was sent back home with some drugs to take. ‘For around two months, he seemed to be better, but then the stress hit again,’ Sukjeet says.
Since then, Sukjeet has also been taking medication for ‘stress’, as she puts it. Without any male family members in the house, all of the responsibilities now sit on her shoulders: the land, the house, the children’s education – and the debt that is still to be paid. It’s a lot to take. But, thankfully, in 2016, she found a lifeline, discovering new courage and inspiration from other women who are facing the same ordeal.
Although tragic, what happened to Sukjeet is hardly exceptional in Punjab. Since her husband died, the situation at large has become even worse. Although Punjab isn’t the state with the highest suicide rate in India (10.4 per 10,000 population, just slightly above the national average), with an average of seven suicides a day in 2019, it has reported the second highest surge in comparison with 2018 (37.5 per cent).
‘As long as you are inside your home, you think that you are the only one,’ says Sukjeet. ‘It is only when you step outside and start speaking out that you realise how many we are.’
One of the people who has worked the hardest to create a space for women to speak out lives just a few blocks away from Sukjeet. Veerpal Kaur is a thin, short woman in her early 40s who often covers her braided hair with a white dupatta, the traditional scarf worn by most women in rural Punjab. But her reserved look is misleading. Veerpal has an impassioned and assertive way of speaking, always as if there’s no time to waste. She rarely accepts ‘no’ for an answer and she hardly ever sits still, always finding something to do, be it cooking for a neighbour, volunteering in the local nursery, visiting a woman who recently lost her husband or attending a protest.
Talking to Veerpal for longer than 30 minutes is a challenge – women peek into her house looking for her and her phone is constantly ringing. As she walks around in Ralla, along dusty roads where cow dung dries in the sun, she casually points at this or that house, telling us that someone died by suicide there. She remembers the year, the name and how it happened.
‘When the patwari (a local government official) first came here in around 2010, instead of taking the matter seriously, he laughed at me and sarcastically said, “Oh, what is wrong with you? It seems all the suicides are happening in this village”,’ Veerpal recalls. But the door-to-door survey by Punjab Agriculture University proved the patwari wrong, collecting proof of 16,606 agriculture-related suicides between 2000 and 2018 in Punjab – most of them in around 2,000 villages of the six districts of the Punjab cotton belt.
Despite this evidence, the government still seems to be reluctant to recognise the scale of the problem – perhaps unwilling to deal with the issue as a political problem and to grant the victims’ families compensation based on the fact that the suicides are a direct consequence of the ongoing agricultural disaster. In a village of 6,000 people, Veerpal personally knows around 250 families affected by at least one suicide, but only 20 of them are
on the official government list and barely six or seven have received compensation.
Veerpal didn’t need the government’s or the university’s assessment to truly understand the suicide crisis. ‘I lost my father to suicide in 1995, after he had lost the land to debt,’ she says. ‘At 16, I got married and my husband died by suicide four years later. Back then, my daughter, Diljot, was two and a half, and my son, Abhishek, was one. My husband was also crushed by debts after his own father died by suicide years earlier, after he had lost the entire cotton harvest to a pest.’
Alone, in debt and with two kids, Veerpal was sent back to the village in which she grew up. In Ralla today she’s now known as ‘a daughter of the village’ but her return hadn’t been a warm homecoming – instead she faced humiliation and hardship. However, she didn’t give up, prepared to do any job she could to provide her children with an education. She also started learning more about the suicide issue and what she and other women could do to get recognition and compensation.
In 2017, Veerpal met Kiranjit Kaur, a young woman from Katra Kalan (also in Mansa district) who lost her father to suicide, and together they set up the Kisan Mazdoor Khudkushi Peedit Parivar Committee, an organisation to support families of suicide victims. At first, 3,000 families joined, Veerpal says. Five years later, membership has swelled to 16,560. They meet once a month in large open-air venues in Mansa, Patiala or Barnala. Sometimes, they meet at gurdwaras (Sikh temples) to organise protests and to discuss what can be done to support the survivors.
In 2019, the committee decided that Verpal should run for national election. She would contest as an independent candidate to become a member of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament. For months, she travelled around the region of Bathinda in a hired auto rickshaw armed with a loudspeaker and two large posters with her picture and the campaign symbol, an earthen pot used in rural areas to drink water from.
Veerpal was always realistic about her chances. ‘I had no idea how elections work and I knew I had no chance of winning,’ she says. In the end, she didn’t win, but she still considers her campaign a huge success. ‘Media started coming and we got known. Earlier, nobody at the district office would listen to me. Now they do not dare to kick me out.’
For Veerpal, getting known also means that more and more women approach her. But when asked whether she ever feels overwhelmed, her answer is a plain ‘no’. ‘All these women had so many doors shut in their faces,’ she says. ‘I am not able to solve all of their problems, but I’ll always be there to at least listen to them.’
This is especially true given a new and concerning trend that has emerged in the wake of the pandemic. While a few years ago it was mostly small land-owners who would pile up debt and die by suicide, the same now appears to be happening to a growing number of farm labourers. And for their families, the consequences are even more devastating.
‘I have heard of suicides before, but I never thought it could happen to us,’ says Karamjit Kaur, 40. She’s carrying a plastic bag that contains a small sheaf of papers: she just came back from the district office in Mansa, where she tried, again, to meet an official to file her husband’s death certificate. They were married for 24 years, when, in July 2021, he died by suicide. ‘He went out to buy some medicines for me. But when he came back, he was weird. He lay down on the bed next to me, I made him some tea, while my son brought him water, but he could not drink. He told us to go away, and it was too late when we understood he had taken some poison.’
Gurtej Singh had been a day labourer, working in the fields in Ralla and doing construction work in the city of Mansa when there was no farm work. The family was barely able to make a living. He had recently taken a loan from the bank and another from unofficial money lenders to start a small business as a vegetable seller and to do some repairs on the house. But when the pandemic hit, the financial situation spiralled and the family piled up more than six lakh rupees of debt.
‘I did what I could to partially pay the debt to the money lenders from the village, but I told the bank they have no choice but to wait until my kids start working,’ says Karamjit, who now cleans the stables of her neighbours in Ralla for 500 rupees per month – barely enough to put food on the table. As a result of the family’s dire economic situation, her daughter, who is 17, and her son, 15, have dropped out of school. Only the youngest, who is turning 11, is continuing his education, but Karamjit is worried that soon she won’t be able to pay his exam fees. Unlike smallholders, the family doesn’t own any land, nor any animals. Karamjit’s only hope is to get compensation to support her children’s education, but that might never happen.
‘Labourers’ families often rely on the man as the sole breadwinner. With no land to sell, the man’s suicide quickly translates into the economic collapse of the family. And we are facing more and more situations like this,’ says Ranjit Singh, 53. Ranjit has been a leader of the labour union Punjab Kisan since 2006. Between 2013 and 2019, he was also the sarpanch (the head of the local government) of Tamkot, a small village just next to Ralla. He facilitated Punjab Agriculture University’s survey.
Since then, Ranjit has collected piles of papers, listing hundreds of names and addresses from nearby villages, along with the amount of the debt that led to the suicide. ‘These are the cases we are fighting for as a union, those who were deemed ineligible for compensation by authorities,’ he says. Almost 500 of the names on Ranjit’s papers are labourers and their cases are the trickiest. ‘If they borrowed money from informal money lenders, the authorities would argue that the debt can’t be proved. Or if, at the time of suicide, they were working, let’s say as construction workers, since after a crop failure they could not find any job in agriculture, authorities would say that their suicide has nothing to do with the agricultural crisis.’
For Ranjit, this is a personal battle. As he puts it, activism saved his life. ‘In 1998, I lost an entire harvest,’ he says. ‘I was so affected I also considered suicide. If I had not been involved in the union I might have ended up killing myself.’
And now activism is opening doors for women, too. In 2020 and 2021, the agricultural crisis and the government’s push for new farm laws led to large-scale farmers’ protests that blocked the capital, New Delhi, sometimes for days. Women were at the forefront of these protests, standing side by side with men.
Veerpal and the women from the district also joined local and national protests. They also have their own form of protest – one that is daily and hyper-local, often focused on countering harassment. ‘A few years ago,’ Veerpal says, ‘a woman from the village who had just lost her husband went to the district office to file some papers. The official refused to do his duty unless she would sleep with him. It is so unfair how we are treated –
you lost your spouse, you are mourning and this is what you have to face.’ The woman came back to Ralla and told Veerpal what had happened. The next day, they went back in a group and confronted the man – it was a success. Although he denied what he did, the papers were eventually filed.
‘We are learning to stand up for ourselves and that is inspiring. If you are afraid, you die,’ Veerpal says, using a Punjabi expression.
For Veerpal, Sukjeet, Karamjit and many other women, the next goal is to ensure an education for the upcoming generation of women, people such as Veerpal’s daughter, Diljot, who is studying to become a lawyer and to defend labourers’ rights.