The prevalence of farmer suicides in India has long served as a grim example of India’s worsening agrarian crisis. The rapid increase in input prices, global price shocks, and per capita household expenditure combined with a sharp decline in credit availability, rural wages, and agricultural investment has crushed farmers’ lives.
In 2019, India recorded a total of 1,39,123 suicides, of which 7.4% were persons engaged in the farming sector. Bankruptcy or indebtedness (38.7%) and farming (19.5%) related issues accounted for about 60% of all suicides recorded in the farming sector. However, these figures are an underestimation of the actual number of farmer suicides. This is both a result of underreported cases due to social stigma and the change in the NCRB data collection process, which now classifies agricultural labourers and farmers as separate categories.
Maharashtra, one of the richest states in India, accounted for 13.6% of the total suicides in 2019, the highest in the country. Regions in central and eastern Maharashtra, including the Marathwada and Vidarbha, witnessed numerous suicide upsurges over the years. The highest number of suicides occurred among cash crop growers, specifically cotton farmers. These deaths have been attributed to the increase in the cost of cultivation, due to the need for integrated pest management (IPM) for the cotton crop, rising seed and fertilizer prices. On average, for every rupee paid, farmers earn about 20 to 45 paise for most commodities.
With falling incomes and rising expenditures, the indebtedness has worsened. A study in the Yavatmal District in Maharashtra found that 55% of the surveyed farmers suffered from anxiety and 24.7% suffered from insomnia. Poor mental health is a crucial reason behind farmer suicides, which constructs the second tragedy of altruistic suicides among farmers’ children.
Altruistic suicide is when a person sacrifices their life to save or benefit someone else’s. In India, particularly in Maharashtra’s agrarian-crisis impacted regions, news reports indicate a worsening mental health crisis. This has increased altruistic suicides among children.
Child mental health amid high farmer-suicide rates
Studies show that household income affects child mental health. Children from poorer households exhibit a higher degree of depression and anti-social behaviour. In Maharashtra’s cotton-growing belt, families who lost the primary earning member suffer acute distress due to loss of income and a high debt burden. The traumatic experience of losing a household member, the family’s unpaid debt liability, and sudden new responsibilities to sustain the family severely impact children’s mental health.
After losing their parents, often the father, children find it challenging to return to their normal selves. Several news reports find that children stop communicating, eat less, sleep unusually more, and battle with visual or auditory memories of the event. They lose any motivation to return to school, lose focus, and often complain of headaches and fevers. Some also develop post-traumatic stress disorder. These mental health challenges often go unattended, and the children do not receive the care they need.
Despite their declining mental well-being, children are forced to step into their parents’ shoes. Anecdotal evidence finds that older male children of the family find themselves shouldering several responsibilities such as repaying unpaid debt, funding the education of younger siblings, and facilitating the marriage of younger sisters. Usually, the only way to achieve this is to drop out of school, work in the fields to earn money, and aid the other elder family members, typically mothers. Meanwhile, mothers tend to the agricultural duties, which the father used to perform, to sustain the family. Baccha kisans or child farmers are now common in Marathwada and Vidarbha regions.
Like their brothers, young girls of the family also leave their education to assist with household chores and earn additional income. However, they are often viewed as a social and financial burden that can only be elevated when they are married off. This outlook leads to rising cases of child marriage in villages which in turn worsens mental health stressors that young brides face.
In certain households, the pressure to marry daughters and its resulting financial burden is so immense that they instigate fathers to take their own lives in order to avoid the shame that unwed daughters, the inability to pay dowry, or lack of respectable wedding celebration, would bring to their families. In the last two years, these grave circumstances and feelings of helplessness have led to an increase in child suicides. This increase has been noted through the increase in news reports of these suicides.
Children from impoverished households are resorting to taking their own lives to save their parents from the same ill fate. In Maharashtra’s Aasra village, a 19-year-old girl mentioned in her final note that she wanted to ease her father’s burden of marrying off three daughters. The family did not have enough to eat, and the girl was anxious that her father would take his life, so instead, she took her own. Similarly, a 15-year-old boy from Dadham consumed weedicide and died following his family’s abject poverty.
Mental health awareness is negligible in rural areas. Therefore, children do not receive adequate care needed to cope with the trauma and stress in a healthy manner. Such distressing experiences have serious long-term implications on children’s physical and mental well-being.
Government policies and NGO mental health programmes
The government of Maharashtra launched the Prerna Prakalp Farmer Counselling Health Service Programme in 2015. Together with the existing District Mental Health Programme [DMHP], the Maharashtra government seeks to identify farmers with common signs of mental illnesses to diagnose and treat them early. While the Prerna Prakalp programme covers 14 out of 36 districts, the DMHP spans 34 districts.
However, inadequacies in implementation remain. News reports note medical staff shortages in few districts, medicine shortages, long distances to treatment centers, and ASHA workers who were so overburdened and underpaid that they couldn’t possibly track everyone’s mental health in the village.
The DMHP conducts school and college intervention programs under the National Mental Health Programme, to impart life skills education and psychological counseling services through trained teachers, hired counselors, and NGOs. Between April and August of 2019, 282 sessions were conducted for school children where 298 received counseling.
Certain NGOs have also undertaken successful mental health programs in Maharashtra. Sangath and Prakriti ran the Vidarbha Stress and Health Programme [VISHRAM] over 18 months between 2014 and 2015. A 2017 Lancet study shows that depression rates fell from 14.6% to 11.3% over the duration of the intervention, and the prevalence of suicidal thoughts went from 5.2% to 2.5%. However, the program does not specialize in child psychology.
Mental health care policies
Children’s poor mental health in crisis-prone regions such as Maharashtra must not be viewed in isolation. It is a consequence of several social, economic, and health-related factors which are central to the ongoing agrarian crisis. More recently, rural wage stagnation, sharp inflation, and the pandemic have worsened farmer distress.
Mental healthcare policies need to be interlinked with other programs that aim to improve farmer incomes, enhance access to food, offer easier formal credit, promote climate-change resilient agriculture, challenge gender norms, improve school enrollment, enhance academic performance, and so on. This will not only help in protecting children’s rights and eliminating farmer suicides but also in saving the generations to come from a looming mental health pandemic.