‘The Lockdown Killed My Father’: Farmer Suicides Add to India’s Virus Misery

Farm bankruptcies and debts have been the source of misery in India for decades. But experts say the suffering has reached new levels in the pandemic.

Photographs and Text by Karan Deep Singh

SIRSIWALA, India — Randhir Singh was already deeply in debt when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Looking out at his paltry cotton field by the side of a railway track, he walked in circles, hopeless. In early May, he killed himself by lying on the same track.

“This is what we feared,” said Rashpal Singh, Mr. Singh’s 22-year-old son, choking back tears in his family home in Sirsiwala, a small village in the northern Indian state of Punjab. “The lockdown killed my father.”

Months ago, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Mr. Singh’s livelihood came crashing down. His one-acre farm had barely produced enough cotton to cover the cost of growing it, and the lockdown even robbed him of his side job as a bus driver.

India now leads the world in new daily reported coronavirus cases and has the second-highest number of cases globally, surpassing Brazil on Monday. In Punjab, where cases have surged, lockdowns have been imposed all over again. The measures, economists say, are forcing millions of households into poverty and contributing to a long-running tragedy: farmer suicides.

Farm bankruptcies and debts like the one that tormented Mr. Singh have been the source of misery in the country for decades, but experts say the suffering has reached new levels in the pandemic.

“This crisis is the making of this government,” said Vikas Rawal, a professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the capital. Mr. Rawal, who has spent the last 25 years studying agrarian distress in India, said that he believes thousands of people who live and work on farms have most likely killed themselves in the last few months.

After India’s lockdown was extended for the third time, Mr. Singh became convinced he would never pull himself out of debt with the economy shut down, his family said. “He kept saying, ‘It won’t open now,’” said Paramjeet Kaur, his widow, wiping away tears. “Now, what will happen to us? Who will feed us?”

India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In 2019, a total of 10,281 farmers and farm laborers died by suicide across the country, according to statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau. Taking one’s own life is still a crime in India, and experts have said for years that the actual numbers are far higher because most people fear the stigma of reporting.

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