Their hope proved to be short-lived. Since then, nine farmers have killed themselves in Banda district alone, the worst hit in a cluster of seven district that form the ravaged Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. The other six districts are Hamirpur, Jhansi, Lalitpur, Mahoba, Chitrakoot and Jalaun. Banda district hospital has reported around 330 cases of suicide between January and May this year.
Locals here say most of the suicides are by indebted farmers, their world darkened by the burden. The actual number, however, is difficult to tell. Official figures confirm 519 suicides in the seven districts in the first five months of this year. This figure includes all suicides.
But even if one were to go by the official figures, there has been an alarming rise in the rate of suicides in the last five months. In the 12 months of 2009, there were 568 suicides in the seven districts against 519 in just the first five months of this year. In 2010, 583 suicides were recorded. Between 2001 and 2005, there were 1,275 cases of suicide (the period includes 2002 and 2004, two harsh drought years).
Obviously, some additional factor, other than the normal depressive factors, has been responsible for the sudden spurt in suicides. There is good reason to believe that the killer factor this year has been rural indebtedness. The total amount of current outstanding rural bank debts in Bundelkhand is Rs 4,370.32 crore. This is 21% more than 2010 when the total bank debts stood at Rs 3,613.22 cr.
The region is among the most backward in the country, marked by high poverty. The soil is rocky and of low fertility, having suffered erosion of topsoil and denuded of green cover. There are no significant irrigation schemes and cultivation is largely rain dependent, though rainfall itself is scanty.
Bhupat Arak, a 40-year-old farmer of Badokhar Khurd hanged himself on May 27. Officials say he killed himself after a fight with his wife. But he was supporting a family of nine: wife, mother and six children, four of them girls who have to be married off. He had six bighas of land, but the crop was a washout this year. And he owed UP Allahabad Gramin Bank Rs 1.5 lakh.
In Hamirpur’s Garha village, 18-year-old Manorama Singh ended her life so that her 78-year-old grandfather, Prahlad, would not have to take yet another loan for her marriage. Ending her life, she thought, would put an end to the family’s problems. It hasn’t. Singh owes SBI’s Ichauli Bank over Rs 3 lakh.
In four of the worst affected districts, Banda, Hamirpur, Lalitpur and Jhansi, farmers owe banks about Rs 2,750 crore. And income has been patchy. Since 2002, three years have been declared drought-affected: in 2002, 2004 and 2009. This year, too, the crop has been bad.
Over the last few years, things have progressively gone from bad to worse for farmers in Bundelkhand. The emergency medical officer at Banda’s district hospital, Dr Vineet Sachan, said,”The district hospital treats at least three suicide or attempted suicide cases every day. We are able to save about 60% cases that are brought to us in time. We have observed a year-on-year increment of 20% in suicide cases over the past few years. Since January 2011, we’ve had over 550 cases.”
And it’s not just the farmers who appear to have hit the dead end. Their helplessness has a cascading effect on their families. Eighteen-year-old Sunita from Garha tried to end her life by consuming a local-made hair dye when she overheard her parents discussing how they were unable to pull in enough money for her marriage. Saved in the nick of time, she is back to face the harsh realities of life, not sure whether to thank the doctor who saved her.
It is increasingly becoming clear that small doses of help will not salvage the Bundelkhand situation. Chief minister Mayawati has asked the Centre for a Rs 80,000-crore package for the region, which hasn’t yet materialized. This is despite Rahul Gandhi visiting the region frequently, and highlighting the plight of the people.
Some claim Rahul has been making empty promises. Take the case of 17-year-old Suman, a resident of Banda’s Madhopur village. When Rahul Gandhi visited Suman’s village in 2010, he apparently promised her financial assistance of Rs 20,000 towards her marriage. Rita Bahuguna Joshi, accompanying Gandhi gave her Rs 1,000 in cash. And Banda MLA Vivek Singh asked people from Suman’s village to inform him when her marriage is fixed.
On May 11 this year, Suman got married. An invite was sent to Singh, but the MLA did not respond, the family claims. The promise of Rs 20,000 remained just that — a promise.
Authorities do not deny that conditions are bleak, but they are at pains to deny that the suicides are linked to high debt. Banda district magistrate A K Dwivedi said, “We’ve been in the line of fire for the spate of suicide deaths in the district. Deaths have occurred, but we’ve examined each case carefully and not a single person has died because of hunger or debt. Although farmers who died were poverty stricken and had also taken loans, their
reasons for committing suicide were personal.”
Investigating officer at Banda’s Paprainda Police Assistance Centre, Brij Kishore Sachan, said, “Farmers in Bundelkhand are very smart. They understand that governments can be milked if a starvation death is reported. As a result, they attempt to project every death as a result of starvation
In Sachan’s area, Shyam Singh, a debt-ridden farmer beat his young daughter, shot his wife and then killed himself. Sachan said, “Singh’s wife used to work in the fields. He suspected her of infidelity and in a fit of rage killed her. If the relatives had not intervened, he would have killed the daughter and set the house on fire, too.”
Not everyone is buying this argument, though. Banda-based farmer activist, Pushpendra Kumar, said, “It’s politically sensitive when cases of suicide are suddenly highlighted. (But) if governments don’t intervene with measures that actually help the farmers, things will get worse. We are not asking for loan waivers. We’re asking for sustainable development; we’re seeking solutions to our problems.”