The Hidden Victims of India's Suicide Belt

Farmers are killing themselves over debt in Punjab state -- and leaving wives, daughters, and other women behind.  

BAKHORA, India — A blue and white wooden sign marks the "stitching room" in the gurudwara, a Sikh congregation center, in the small village of Bakhora. The walls of the room are lined with hand-drawn posters illustrating steps to making a "ladies kameez," or tunic. Samples of colorful bags, belts, and toys are scattered all around. A quiet hum fills the room as some 20 women huddle over sewing machines, at work on long and short stitches -- "neat, 'til perfect," explains the instructor.

Preeti, one of the chattiest students, holds a sniffling child under her shawl as she sews.

"Why not come here? One would just be gossiping at home otherwise, sitting, doing nothing," Preeti explains. And here, she laughs, "we all get to gossip together."

Four years ago, Preeti was brought to Bakhora, in India's Punjab state, to marry her cousin after her father committed suicide in a nearby village. One of Punjab's many destitute farmers, her father took his own life -- ingesting the same pesticides he used on his fields -- because he could no longer pay back his debts. A few months later, her mother died, "of heartbreak" says Preeti. She was orphaned along with her four sisters.

After her marriage, Preeti came to work at the sewing center, a vocational site established to support the women who are being left behind by the disquieting rate of suicide in India's agrarian heartland.

Since 1995, according to data compiled by India's National Crime Records Bureau, more than 290,000 farmers have killed themselves in India. Yet other studies of suicide, which remains criminalized and highly stigmatized in India, suggest that the official figures may even underreport the problem. According to a 2011 report by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University School of Law, one Indian farmer commits suicides every 30 minutes. (By contrast, a 2012 report in the medical journal Lancet questioned whether the rates of suicide among farmers are actually higher than the national average.) 

One way or the other, there is little doubt that India's farmers are in trouble. Stagnant prices for produce, a lack of crop insurance and loan-forgiveness policies, and an unregulated lending market have left many farmers in insurmountable debt, fueling the disturbing suicide trend.

The problem is particularly acute in Punjab. The epicenter of India's agriculture bounty, Punjab reportedly has the highest rate of farmer suicide among the country's states. Baba Nanak Education Society, an NGO working in the region that helped found the Bakhora sewing center, reports that at least 44 families in Bakhora alone have experienced a debt-related suicide.

While suicide victims are overwhelmingly men, the surviving women are particularly vulnerable to problems after their husbands, fathers, or other male family members are gone. Female heads of households traditionally have little earning power or independence. In some cases, families have dealt with multiple suicides, and the dependents, unable to cope with the resulting economic burden, also resort to the ultimate step of desperation. Widows routinely face disinheritance and dislocation, or abuse at the hands of their in-laws, while children -- especially girls -- are affected by abrupt removal from schools, nutritional deficits, and at times even bonded labor.

Noting these dangers, NGOs have stepped up their efforts to provide relief for women in Punjab. This includes the stitching center, which provides both training and employment. And the message of such efforts is clear: In what has become known as Punjab's suicide belt, men may be the ones taking their lives in an instant, but women are increasingly at risk of suffering over the long term.


In the 1960s, the "Green Revolution" came to Punjab. With droughts threatening food security in India, the government implemented a series of agricultural reforms -- primarily importing high-yield seed varieties -- aimed at ensuring that an independent India could feed itself. The efforts were hastened, in part, by the United States, which tied food aid to certain agrarian sector reorganization. Though a relatively dry state, Punjab was the site for these efforts because it was equipped with a network of colonial-era canal networks and a predominantly agrarian population.

Yet by 1970s, even as yields increased for larger landowners, small farmers were not sharing in the bounty. Unable to afford the expensive inputs required in the new agrarian economy, many farmers found their holdings becoming less profitable: They went into debt simply to buy seeds and provide irrigation for the season. Meanwhile, revenue from grain sales remained stagnant even as input costs increased. Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) of grains -- the pre-season price guarantee for farmers, set by the federal government -- were not adjusted for inflation. Thus, the farmers who provided food security to the nation began facing insecurity within their own homes. 

Frustration among food growers resulted in mass farmer protests through the 1980s and 1990s, and they continue today. But desperation also turned inward: Farmers resorted to killing themselves. 

NGOs in the region began noting farmer suicides in the late 1980s. A 1990 report by the NGO Movement Against State Repression (MASR) listed nine suicides in a single village in the state. By 1998, NGO appeals to the president of India and the government of Punjab listed 93 suicides in the region's south.

When the warning bells elicited little response, NGOs continued documenting suicides, hoping stark statistics would eventually provoke action. Between 1998 and 2008, Baba Nanak Education Society documented 1,774 suicides in just one of Punjab's 20 districts; in all, the NGO estimates that there were as many 50,000 suicides across Punjab in those 10 years. Farmer unions place the figure close to 90,000 between 1990 and 2006.

The Punjab government finally acknowledged the crisis in 2001 and announced the allocation of compensation to family members. Yet like many promises that are made during election cycles, and ignored once politicians are in office, the actual disbursement was delayed for another decade. Meanwhile, little else has ever been done to curtail the crisis.

Compensation, certainly, is critical. But addressing the roots of the problem requires wholesale policy changes. Lawmakers in Delhi must increase MSPs in tandem with inflation, for instance, and all levels of government must work to implement loan-forgiveness programs and regulations for credit systems.

This March, during election campaigning and under pressure from farmers' unions to pay long-overdue compensation to suicide-affected families, Punjabi authorities agreed to reassess the scale of crisis. But 27 years after the first debt-induced suicide was brought to the state's attention, the government's sole move was simply to commission yet another survey.


The agrarian debt that has fueled farmer suicide has also had a broad ripple effect in communities, affecting both men and women. Meena's family is one of them.

Meena, whose name has been changed for her protection, is from a village near Bakhora. In the winter of 2011, Meena's husband parked his motorcycle outside their daughters' primary school to pick them up after classes. He drove away with the three girls, telling them they were going to buy new clothes. Careening through some fields, he abruptly stopped at a fast-flowing point in a nearby canal.

Then, one by one, the father tossed his girls into the water.

A shopkeeper, Meena's husband had suffered serious losses as the farming community in his village came on desperate times. He was dismayed, Meena says, at the birth of each daughter -- viewed as burdens on the family. He left his only son -- the lone potential caregiver, in his father's eyes -- at home with his wife on the day he tried to kill the girls.

The girls lived, their shivering bodies pulled from the canal by local farmers who heard their shrieks. Their father was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

With her husband detained in the local police station, Meena was left on her own. "He is our only source of support," she says. She doesn't condone his crime, but she is also resigned to his prejudice. "What are we to do with three daughters?"

While family violence is pervasive across the country, there is also a noted correlation between socioeconomic upheaval and violence inflicted on women. In tough economic times, women and young girls are at high risk for becoming the repositories of everyday frustrations felt by men. The perceived burden of an unmarried daughter -- who offers little in the way of earning potential and whose wedding dowry is customarily paid by her family -- continues to inform the treatment meted out to young girls.

Meena's husband returned home six months after he was arrested. (He was never convicted of a crime.) Today, three years later, it is now Meena who bears the brunt of his desperation: She has bruises on her arms, a small gash on cheek, and a recovering bloody nose.

"Don't worry," she says, struggling to make eye contact, "he doesn't hurt the girls now."


In Bakhora's stitching center, the women work quietly, fastening two small bells to each stretch of embroidery. They are making key chains to sell in craft stores in the cities nearby.

The stitching center, a collaboration between Building Bridges India and Baba Nanak Education Society, is one of five vocational projects the two NGOs set up to respond to the particularly precarious place of many women in the suicide belt. The products created are just one measure of the program's success; for the women, a teacher tells me, the center is something of a safe house.

"Certain days, someone just wants to sit for a while. Not being able to work. You know, life happens... that is okay," she says.

Yet the center's efforts only go so far. It can instill women with marketable skills, which are valuable, and it can provide a sense of community. But those are no substitute for compensation, crop insurance, interest rate caps, and loan-forgiveness -- among other things that are desperately needed to stem the suicide crisis and its effects.

Preeti's husband, a small farmer, is deeply in debt. The stitching center provides her some additional income, but with three children at home, it is not enough to pull her family out of poverty.   

"This last one isn't a girl, but I have two at home," explains Preeti rocking her son. "Something needs to change, especially for their sake."



Bibi and the Lost Boys

Can Netanyahu find Israel's three kidnapped teenagers without destroying his own government and tearing the West Bank apart?

TEL AVIV, Israel — For the past two weeks, the top story in Israel hasn't been the jihadist gains in Iraq or the World Cup. Rather, Israelis have been gripped by the saga of three Israeli teenagers who were abducted near a West Bank settlement on June 12 and have not been heard from since.

Israel has a unique weakness for abduction scenarios. Sadly, the names of victims of suicide bombing attacks and drive-by shootings in the West Bank are quickly forgotten. Not so for kidnappings: Hostages become heroes here, their photographs printed on T-shirts and their fate discussed in around-the-clock news broadcasts. This attitude may be a relic of an older era, when many Israelis saw themselves as members of a society in constant struggle, still fighting for its survival.

It may also represent a national addiction to high-stakes, emotional drama -- complete with the required TV camera close-up of a hostage's mother wiping the tears off her face. Hostages are treated in Israel almost as cultural icons, collective sons for a public that has long been divided on almost every other issue, from how to resolve the Palestinian conflict to the separation of religion and state.

This attention spells bad news for one Israeli in particular: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Not only does his government face growing demands from right-wing politicians to act tough against terror, he risks provoking a crisis with the Palestinian Authority (PA) that could jeopardize the security cooperation painstakingly built up since the Second Intifada. 

With every day that passes, the hope of returning the boys safely diminishes -- and Netanyahu finds himself in an ever-tighter corner. On Tuesday, June 24, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, said that the military was still working on the assumption that the boys were alive, "but with the passage of time, fears grow."

The huge manhunt has been hindered by poor police oversight. The policemen who handled the emergency call from one of the boys failed to alert their commanders promptly, and the kidnappers were able to travel freely across the West Bank for almost 10 hours.

The kidnapping has sparked a crisis between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas. In addition to the search for the teenagers, Israel declared a new campaign against Hamas and arrested more than 300 of its members in the West Bank. While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has condemned the incident, the Netanyahu government claims that this is not enough and has demanded that Fatah disband the national unity government it established with Hamas in May.

Since the end of the Second Intifada, around 2005, Israelis have grown to expect a success rate of almost 95 percent in stopping terrorist attacks before they occur. Most terror suspects in the West Bank are either arrested before they manage to do anything, or immediately thereafter. A major reason for this success has been the very close cooperation between Israel and Palestinian security officials -- a relationship both sides prefer to keep as low-profile as possible. But the failure to locate the kidnapped boys has led to growing public anger, which intensifies the political pressure on Netanyahu to take harsher steps against Hamas and even against the PA.

Benjamin Netanyahu has always billed himself as just the man to confront attacks like this one. He became a public figure in Israeli life on July 4, 1976, when his older brother Yoni, the commander of the IDF's top commando unit, was killed while leading the operation to release more than 100 Israeli hostages of an Air France plane that was hijacked and flown to the Entebbe airport in Uganda. The Israeli commandos flew over 2,500 miles to complete the mission, which is still considered one of the most successful rescue operations in history.

Benjamin, himself a former officer at the same unit, entered politics as an expert on fighting the sort of terrorists who claimed his brother's life. He published books and made speeches demanding a more coordinated international campaign against terror groups. For many years, part of his appeal to the Israeli right has been his family's legacy and his tough rhetoric against terrorism.

But once Netanyahu was elected prime minister for the first time, in 1996, his principles clashed with reality -- he shook hands with his longtime foe, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, three months into his term. And in 2009, after Netanyahu made his political comeback, his new counterterror approach again managed to antagonize his former allies on the right.

His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, left him with an unsolved problem: Gilad Shalit, the soldier who had been abducted by Hamas in Gaza three years earlier. In October 2011, facing huge pressure from the Israeli public and the media, Netanyahu gave in: In an unprecedented deal, he agreed to release 1,027 prisoners, among them dozens of Hamas operatives who were charged with murdering more than 600 Israelis.

Netanyahu knew the recidivism statistics showing that more than 60 percent of former prisoners returned to terrorist activity. But he was also acutely aware of public opinion polls, which showed that Israeli voters were quickly losing their patience with him after a long summer of huge demonstrations demanding social and economic justice. Netanyahu's political instincts won out.

While the Shalit deal was supported by the majority of Israelis at the time, it has come back to haunt Netanyahu. Immediately after the recent abduction of the teenagers, the premier was embarrassed when a Palestinian released as part of the deal was charged in the murder of an Israeli police officer. It was the first such case of its kind, and a prime example for Netanyahu's hard-line rivals of why the compromise for Shalit was a mistake.

The Israeli right's trust that Netanyahu was the man to deal with another hostage crisis was therefore already at its nadir before the current kidnapping. Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing religious party Jewish Home, forced Netanyahu to pass a law through the government that would forbid amnesty for terrorists sentenced for murder -- a condition that would make prisoner swaps extremely difficult. The fact that the families of all three current hostages are identified with Bennett's political camp only intensifies the pressure on the government.

Netanyahu appears determined this time around not to duplicate the problems that the Shalit deal posed for him. After the boys were kidnapped, Netanyahu anounced a far-reaching campaign against Hamas: 58 of the prisoners affiliated with the militant Islamist group who had been released in the Shalit deal were arrested again, and the IDF raided dozens of offices connected to the organization's political and financial wings. The army recommended stopping the raids on most Palestinian towns by the middle of the week, warning that more incursions could lead to unnecessary Palestinian casualties. It suggested that the operation should focus again on its original goal -- finding the teenagers and their kidnappers. Netanyahu accepted his generals' advice.

Contrary to his image abroad, Netanyahu tends to be rather cautious when applying military force. But since chances for a safe release of the hostages now seem slight, the Israeli prime minister finds himself with his back up against a wall. Discovery of the boys' bodies would spark a new wave of public anger on the right and among settlers, while no breakthrough in the operation would increase political demands for even tougher action.

Under such pressure, Netanyahu might even feel the need to consider a renewal of targeted assassinations against Hamas militants in Gaza. The crisis is far from over -- for Netanyahu, trapped between images of Enttebe and the Shalit deal, there is still no end in sight.

David Buimovith/Pool/Getty Images