India’s Climate Change Widows

7 mins

Rising temperatures and its adverse effects on India’s agricultural sector may be why the country has seen as many as 60,000 cases of farmers’ suicide in the past 30 years. Charnamrit Sachdeva talks to the women left behind

Malkit Kaur looks out onto the fields surrounding her home and often weeps. They stole her husband, her best friend, and no amount of compensation can rectify that.

Her husband committed suicide last year after his farming crops failed due to lack of water or rainfall. He worried about the loss of profits and the lack of income for the family. In the end he hanged himself.

‘We used to eat nice food,’ she said. ‘My husband gave us a lavish lifestyle according to our status. But now, we live hand to mouth. We think before having a third meal. My sons are working and trying to earn enough so that they can marry off their sister who is still in a shock after losing her father. Our family is changed forever.’

There’s been a huge rise in farming suicide in India over the past 30 years. While on average 15,400 farmers committed suicide every year in India between  1995 – 2003, the number has grown to 16,000 deaths every year between 2004 and 2012. And this year, in Maharashtra, in northern India, there were 852 farmer suicides reported after a drought-stricken first four months of the year.

But what has led so many young men to take their lives and abandon their wives and families? Studies suggest climate change could be a fundamental cause.

Malkit Kaur pictured at her home in Kotdharmu village in Punjab, India. Image: Cover Asia Press / Faisal Magray

A study by the University of Berkeley published in July, explaining the extreme sensitivity of the Indian agricultural industry and the spikes in temperature, stated that an increase of only one degree in an average day during the growing season could relate to 67 suicide cases, and an increase of 5C in temperature a day would cause 335 deaths. It further stated that a total of approximately 60,000 deaths in the last three decades could be attributed to warming temperatures in the country.

‘We used to eat nice food. My husband gave us a lavish life-style according to our status. But now, we live hand to mouth. We think before having a third meal. Our family is changed forever’

Malkit Kaur, 40, and her husband Charan Singh, 48, from Mansa district, in Punjab, northern India, had an acre of land on lease and a debt of Rs1.5 lakh (AED8,570) to the landowner.

However, due to lack of water and rainfall in his region, his cotton crops were damaged and irreparable.

‘He was stressed for a few months,’ Malkit said. ‘But I never imagined it would result in this. He often feared harassment from the landowner and worried about our status and future.’

But Malkit, who used to be fun-loving and always busy with neighbourhood friends, never imagined he would commit suicide in April, last year.

struggling crops in India

Crops have struggled to grow with increased temperatures and less rainfall. Image: iStock

She said: ‘It was just another sunny morning. My husband asked for some tea but there was no milk in the house. Our children were working the fields so I went out to get milk without realising what it could mean to leave my husband alone.

‘When I returned home he was hanging from the ceiling. I screamed in shock and collapsed. My neighbours then came running in. That was the most devastating day of my life. I could never imagine it.’

But with Charan gone, Malkit and her three children – two sons, Gursevak Singh, 24, and Gurpreet Singh, 22 – and daughter Sandeep Kaur, 20, were left in a worst state. Her sons were forced to become the key earners of the house by working as daily labourers, earning just Rs400 (AED23) a day.

‘They never worked while their father was alive. They led a happy life, but now life is much harder,’ Malkit added. ‘Life has changed drastically since his death. It’s only my daughter and me at home all day. My sons are out all day, either working or hunting for work. His death has forced us all apart. I miss him every day, especially when I see my children struggling. It is so sad. I wish he was alive today and we could fight the battle together.’

Thankfully, Charan’s landowner wrote off the debt after Charan’s death, but Malkit is still waiting for financial help from the government.

farmer suicide India

Malkit Kaur’s husband Charan Singh committed suicide after lack of rainfall in the region damaged his crops. Image: Cover Asia Press / Faisal Magray

In 2015, the failure of the cotton crop triggered a wave of suicides in different states of Punjab. The agricultural ministry stated that 449 farmers committed suicide in Punjab in 2015.

‘His death has forced us all apart. I miss him every day, especially when I see my children struggling. It is so sad. I wish he was alive today and we could fight the battle together’

National Crime Records Bureau of India reported 5,650 farmers committed suicide in 2014.

Farmer Narinder Pal Singh, 48, jumped in front of a train on August 8 this year, because he could not pay his Rs2.5 lakh (AED14,000) debt. His wife, Jasbeer Kaur, 42, and five children are now facing the repercussions.

Jasbeer said: ‘The money lenders often harass us for payments. They come to our home and threaten us. I have no idea what to tell them. They know my husband killed himself because of them. I wonder if they are waiting for me and my kids to do the same. I have lost my husband because of debt. I have no money left now. I have no idea how to clear these debts. I believe my husband thought that the money lenders would spare us after his death but he was wrong – we are still being harassed. I feel so lonely without him. The sheer feeling of living my life without him makes me shiver. I am still in shock.’

Narinder’s debt grew due to his failing crops because of the hot weather. In order to pay his landowner, he took loans from others.

India farmer suicide

Jasbeer Kaur, 42, holding the photograph of her husband Narinder Pal Singh. Image: Cover Asia Press / Faisal Magray

‘He used to be very stressed,’ Jasbeer added. ‘He often told me he could be killed because of what he owed in debts. And now, everyday someone comes and asks for money. I don’t even know if they are genuine, or if my husband did, in fact, take a loan from them. Some might be trying to take advantage of the situation.’

Jasbeer and her family are currently dependent on Narinder’s brother, Jaswant Singh, 58, who lives nearby. However, they fear it might not last forever.

‘We are being helped by my brother in law, even for our meals, but we do not want to be a burden on him. Even he is being harassed by money lenders,’ Jasbeer said.

More than 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995. The five main agricultural states include Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh who recorded the maximum deaths.

India is an agrarian country where 70 per cent of its population depends directly or indirectly on agriculture. A shocking 11 per cent of suicides in India are farmers.

Jasbeer Kaur, 42, pictured walking outside her residence in Ramditewala village in the Mansa district of Punjab, India. Image: Cover Asia Press / Faisal Magray

In March and April this year, Mansa, Bathinda and Barnala district in Punjab recorded the maximum number of deaths. But it’s the families left behind that suffer. Only 74 cases have received compensation from the government. While 314 cases were refused compensation, 142 cases are still pending with the government.

Malkit hopes her two sons find work outside of farming. She knows the risks of working in such a vulnerable industry. ‘In rural India we are bound to farming, but we cannot rely on it,’ she said. ‘We have to find something else, and I believe things will only get worse.’

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