'I am a farmer about to commit suicide. Can you help me? My Aadhaar number is...'

Psychologists are now intervening to help distressed farmers

By Ishan Kukreti
Published: Wednesday 03 April 2019
Illustration: Sanjit

Immediately after the floods in Telangana on August 15-16, 2018, Shruti Naik, a psychologist working with the Kisan Mitra helpline got a distress call. On the other end of the phone was a distraught farmer Shivanna. A small cotton farmer, the flood had inundated his farm and his crop, the fear of an uncertain future was too much for Shivanna, who was ready to drink a pesticide. “Luckily, his neighbours saw him before he could drink the poison and forced him to call us,” Naik says. Quickly responding to the situation, Naik kept talking to Shivanna while a Kisan Mitra field coordinator was immediately dispatched to intervene.

"We were able to intervene on time. We got the local agriculture officer to meet him and then we took Shivanna to meet the District Collector too. The collector helped him in recovering the money of a piece of land he had sold and also provided him funds to get an auto-rickshaw. He’s been keeping well since,” Naik says. In the absence of proactive measures, initiatives like Kisan Mitra have come up to provide succor to the struggling farmers of the country.

The government has maintained a stoic silence on farmer suicide cases. Data on farmer suicide on National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has not been updated since 2015. The NCRB data shows that in 2015, as many as 8,007 farmers and 4,595 agricultural labourers committed suicide. The NCRB data is supposed to be updated every year and its non-availability means that farmer suicides from 2016 and 2017 and the major agitations by farmers that followed across the country in these two years have so far found no place in published government data.

A few people and organisations are working on the ground to see how they can intervene at that tipping point of distress when a farmer is about to end his life.

Scattered speaks

Psychological help is a new and scattered effort though many states are witnessing distress suicides by farmers. Society for Rural and Urban Joint Activities (SRUJAN), a grassroot level non-profit, is working with the farmers in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra 2005 onwards on farm distress related issues. The approach of the organisation has been to create dependable community-based support system, to go along with providing psycho-logical counselling.

“The idea is to not let the farmer in distress feel that he is alone. We organise meetings with farmers and sensitise them about mental health issues like depression,” says Yogini Dolke of SRUJAN.

She says while community support is important, psychological intervention is needed for severe cases. “When we started in 2005, we had our own psychologist who used to come once a week for counselling, but we decided to depend on the government psychologist when the Prerna Scheme was launched in 2015,” she says. The Prerna Scheme is a helpline started by the Maharashtra government to monitor the mental health aspect of farm distress related suicides. Farmers in distress can call the helpline and get psychological counselling. “The scheme worked fine for a year or two after the launch, but now it doesn’t. There has not been a single visit by a psychologist from the Prerna Scheme in the Jari block of Yavatmal since March 2018,” Dolke says.

While the Maharashtra government officials refused to comment, Dolke says that the problem is that there aren’t enough psychologists working with the scheme. “The scheme is functioning in several districts but they just have one psychologist and a team of eight to nine people who aren’t trained psychologists. There are many vacant positions,” she says.

In 2005, the Maharashtra government carried out a study on the farm distress suicide and the role of psychology in abetting it. P B Behere, who was then with the Department of Psychology, Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Wardha was one of the researchers who conducted the study. “We found that even among the suicide survivors, many said that they were contemplating suicide again,” he says. Behere says that the solution would be to create a National Suicide Prevention Policy.

“UK has it, under which they have banned highly concentrated pesticides and restricted access to guns. This has led to a reduction in suicides. We could also follow the example of China where they give small and marginal farmers interest free or low interest loans. Sri Lanka has also adopted a great policy of using agriculture loans only for agriculture. So the farmers cannot use the loan money for, say, marriage,” he says.

The situation is not different in Telengana, where Kisan Mitra was launched and is active. The state is second only to Maharashtra when it comes to the number of farmer suicides. There, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) has maintained suicide data based on media reports and information from volunteers, and the trend is on the rise.

Story within

The fact is that the setting of this informal health infrastructure is proving once again that suicides are on the rise. “Our data clearly shows that the suicides are increasing,” says G V Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of CSA, and adds, “The problem is that the government is not ready to accept the problem, as it would show that their policies have failed.” Kisan Mitra since April 2017 has helped some 4,000 distressed farmers. The toll free helpline—1800 120 3244—takes complaints, grievances, as well as questions from the farmers and provides solutions.

According to him, around 60 per cent of all calls are related to land in some way or the other. The government schemes, be it for credit or insurance, are linked to the land. “If you don’t have the land registered in your name, then you won’t get these services, even if you are the one tilling the land. It’s the same with loan waiver,” Ramanjaneyulu says.

Kisan Mitra is working with the administration in Adilabad, Vikarabad and Mancherial districts. “In these three districts the administration is supportive as we are working with them, but for the rest of the districts, we forward the complaints. It’s up to the district administration to take action,” he says. In fact, in the karif season of 2018 when the cotton market prices crashed, the intervention of Kisan Mitra led to district-wise procurement of cotton at the minimum support price.

Ramanjaneyulu says that communication is the key while dealing with distressed farmers. “There is no one to talk to the farmers and that is the main reason that distress rises to a lethal level. First you have to build trust that we are here for you. The approach is cultivate trust, talk about the problems and then bring in regulatory interventions to solve those problems.”

Even though states have set up helplines focusing on the mental health aspect of suicides of farmers, experts in the field and studies have found that in curbing suicide, more than psychology, government policy to elevate the agrarian distress is an effective approach.

A study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2017 found that, “There is evidence from studies in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and other states in India that the role of socio-economic stress in farmer suicide may be greater than the role of mental disorders. Studies have not discovered conclusive evidence of psychiatric morbidity behind farmer suicides; rather these studies and other statistical data point toward severe socio-economic adversity as the primary trigger.”

The Department of Psychiatry, Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Sewagram, conducted a study on farmers who committed suicide from January 2005 to March 2006 in Wardha district, Maharashtra. The study found that suicides cannot be viewed only as a mental health problem.

“The various factors which play a crucial role are: chronic indebtedness and inability to pay interest accumulated over the years; economic decline leading to complications and family disputes, depression and alcoholism; compensation following suicide (death) helps family to repay debt; grain drain and the rising costs of agricultural inputs and falling prices of agricultural produce,” a study titled “Farmers’ suicide in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra state: A myth or reality?” found.

The problem of agrarian distress and farmer suicides needs a comprehensive understanding rather than a cosmetic change. The farmers who are regularly marching either to Mumbai or Delhi are the ones who are sending the warning signals of distress. They want to live and we should not be pushing them to become another statistical entry in the death register.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated April 1-15, 2019)

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