The suicide epidemic that spells trouble for Modi as Indian election nears close

On a cold night in late February, 45-year-old farmer Karamjit Singh told his wife and three children that he would spend the night in the outhouse on their small farm. Instead of sleeping, he drank half a can of pesticide and was found dead the next morning.  

“He owed around £13,000 to various people and didn’t have a hope in hell of paying it back in this lifetime,” said a close relative, Gurmej Singh.

According to government statistics 36, 320 farmers killed themselves between 2014 and 2016, a rate of 33 suicides per day. The long-standing epidemic – a mix of rising costs, declining prices and climate change – has propelled agrarian issues to the forefront of India’s gargantuan general election, where voting closes on Sunday. 

While most like Mr Singh quietly drank pesticide or threw themselves into deep-water wells, some set themselves on fire in village squares in a desperate bid to draw attention to their plight.

Analysts and activists claim the failure to publish statistics on farmer suicides for the past two years  is a ‘political manouevre’ by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led administration, which swept to power in 2014 partly by promising an agricultural revolution.

Then, the BJP had promised debt-wavers, increased government prices for harvest produce and new infrastructure to store crops to the 600 million Indians dependent on agriculture –  a sizeable proportion of the 900-million eligible voters.

Little has materialised, however. Analysts claim that the BJP’s free-market policies have introduced opportunistic middle-men into the sector, further eating into farmers’ profit margins. 

Meanwhile the warming climate and decades of unplanned exploitation of groundwater resources have turned vast portions of central and western India into a dust bowl, triggering further suicides. An increase in rainfall of just 1cm a year led to a 7 per cent decline in the suicide rate, according to a 2017 study by the University of California, Berkeley. 

In seeking re-election Mr Modi has asked farmers to give the BJP until 2022 to double their incomes, a promise that is included in his party’s 2019 election manifesto.

But many Punjabi and other farmers remain skeptical.

“These suicides and the simmering discontent in rural areas, where 70 per cent of 1.3 billion Indians live, could well erode support for Modi’s BJP in the elections” said Seema Mustafa of the Centre for Policy Analysis in New Delhi.

Seeking to capitalise on the BJP weak-spot, the main Opposition Congress Party has promised it will waive all farmer loans if elected to federal power, but economists doubt this is fiscally plausible.

“All political parties treat farmers like beggars who can be thrown some crumbs like income support…and the promise of loan waivers just before elections in the hope of securing votes” said Ajmer Singh Rajewal who heads one of Punjab’s larger farmer unions.

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Political party manifestos, he fumed, should be legal documents for which politicians should be held to account for non-delivery. 

Moreover tens of millions of stray cows have added to farmers’ woes across India as they are forced, at great expense, to protect their crops from the marauding animals.

Protecting cows, which the majority Hindu community consider sacred, remains one of the BJP’s principal political strategies, but it has created a fierce backlash among farmers.

In Mr Modi’s western home state of Gujarat, for instance, cow slaughter is punishable with imprisonment of up to 14 years.

Conversely, fodder prices have escalated by nearly a third over the past year but –  in keeping with the BJP’s fiat -all farmers were legally bound to keep their cattle even after they had stopped producing milk, further draining their skimpy budgets. 

This has led to many such animals being abandoned and in desperation they infest freshly sown fields and consume millions of hectares of crop.  

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