Mansa, Punjab, India – With a scarf around her head and a bottle of cold water in her backpack, Kiranjit Kaur goes door to door as the sun beats down on Kotra Kalan village, calling on women to join an upcoming meeting about farmer suicides.
Two years ago she set up the Kisan Mazdoor Khudkushi Peedit Parivar Committee, an organisation to support families of suicide victims, bringing together widows and relatives of impoverished farmers who – struggling with crippling debt – killed themselves in Punjab, the breadbasket of India.
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After one door opens, Kiranjit gently hugs the woman behind it and asks about her health.
Kulwinder Kaur lost her husband Naiv Singh to suicide last year. At 33, left with his loan to pay off and four children to raise alone, she sold off their land and started working on a construction site.
Kiranjit listens to her sympathetically and volunteers to accompany her to the district office – the state gives 300,000 rupees (approximately $4,350) to survivor families but Kulwinder’s application is still pending.
When families meet Kiranjit for the first time they are surprised to find a young woman, tall and assured, at their door offering to help.
“When I started this work, people would make fun of me,” she told Al Jazeera. “They would say you can’t change anything or solve the problems of people.”
A 23-year-old postgraduate student of political science, she has become the unlikely face of resistance against farmer suicide in Punjab.
“I’ve seen Kiranjit grow in confidence, from a girl in a village to someone who raises the issue in public platforms and in front of high-level officials and ministers,” said Hamir Singh, a journalist who has extensively covered farmer suicide. “Families are willing to open up to her as they see her as one of their own.”
According to government data, there are more than 16,000 farmer suicides a year in India – many believe the number to be higher.
One morning in April 2016, Kiranjit’s father, 48-year-old Gurnam Singh, a cotton farmer, hanged himself. He had two children.
There had been no signs, she said.
After breakfast that day, he had left to the farm. Soon after, a neighbour arrived with the harrowing news.
“My father was my best friend. We couldn’t accept what had happened. It took a year to come out of the shock.“
Later, they discovered that his crop had failed as a result of a whitefly outbreak and he had taken a loan of 800,000 rupees ($11,200) that he was unable to repay.
The family was plunged into depression. Kiranjit began stitching to supplement their income.
“I couldn’t leave home for almost a year. More than family and friends, I found support from people who like me had lost their family to suicide,” she said.
She had read about farmer suicides in local newspapers but had not realised the extent of the crisis, until it struck her family.
There is a high dependence on agriculture in this region. We have been seeing two to three suicides a day.
After speaking to journalists, professors and activists from Punjab, she launched the support organisation, with which more than 4,500 families are now affiliated.
Punjab was once a symbol of India’s agricultural success.
The state led the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which was supported by scientists from the United States, increasing India’s food production.
Farmers moved away from traditional methods and crops such as maize, millet and pulses, favouring high-yield wheat and rice. But the dependence on fertilisers and pesticides, and the depletion of the water table, eventually trapped them in debt.
Farmers had earned more during the Green Revolution and enjoyed improved lifestyles.
“However, by the nineties, land productivity had been exploited and there was an increase in the cost of agricultural inputs; their income was squeezed and they stated taking loans,” said Balwinder Singh Sidhu, agriculture commissioner in the state government.
Suicide rates in Punjab are now soaring.
Data by the government’s National Crime Records Bureau shows a 118-percent rise in farmer suicides in Punjab between 2015 and 2016, the highest for any state.
In 2017, the average salary for a Punjabi farmer was about 16,000 rupees ($225) a month, according to a government survey.
At least 39 percent of employed people in the state work in agriculture.
Researchers from Punjab Agricultural University and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research have been analysing the stress faced by farmers in an ongoing study.
“We need to create subsidiary occupations, reduce their financial stress, take some part of the population out of agriculture,” said Sarabjeet Singh, the project’s principal investigator.
The university is promoting a social campaign in villages through community volunteers – Karoge gal, milega hal, or “if you talk to others, you will find a solution”.
Social networks can help people with mental health issues, but they are collapsing in rural India with the increase in urbanisation and migration.
This is evident in Punjab; Singh said they need to be strengthened.
Kiranjit’s organisation is trying to mobilise women and their families and is active in the distressed districts of Malwa, a region in southern Punjab, most affected by farmer suicide.
“There is a high dependence on agriculture in this region. We have been seeing two to three suicides a day for long, but it has been repressed by the state, which wants to portray the success of Punjab,” said Sukhdarshan Singh Natt, leader of Punjab Kisan Union, a farmers’ union.
Even if we can't do much to ease the trouble of the families we listen to them. Nobody has done that before.
Kiranjit works with a band of young volunteers drawn from families affected by suicide.
“We are all victims. We can make a difference together,” said Jaspreet Singh, 29, a volunteer. His brother committed suicide after he found himself unable to repay a loan he took on to start a dairy farm.
The group has a wide mandate, from recording information on the families, their sources of income, the status of land ownership and amount of debt, to helping them access government schemes such as widows’ and children’s pensions and scholarships for education.
“These women have been invisible, we bring them out of their homes to demand their rights in public,” said Kiranjit.
In May, the group fielded Veerpal Kaur as a candidate for the general election.
She had lost her father, father-in-law and husband to suicide.
“My life was the same as my mother’s, but I can’t let my children suffer in the same way. It has to change,” Veerpal said.
As for Kiranjit’s future, while she spends most of her time in activism, she also plans to do a PhD on farmer suicide.
Every time she hears another story of a family who has lost a father, brother or son, she relives her own tragedy.
“Even if we can’t do much to ease the trouble of the families we listen to them,” she said. “Nobody has done that before.”