India has a farmer suicide epidemic — and farmers are protesting new laws they fear will make things worse

  • Indian farmers are protesting three laws that they fear will threaten their livelihoods and cost lives.
  • The laws deregulate the buying and selling of agricultural goods, leading farmers to fear they will be exploited by corporations.
  • India has some of the highest farmer suicide rates in the world, and experts fear the crisis could worsen if the laws are not repealed.
  • India's government is in talks with farmers who continue to block road and rail routes across the country.
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Across India, farmers are demanding an end to new laws they say are not just threatening their livelihoods, but costing lives.

Protests that erupted in the state of Punjab have spread throughout the country as farmers demand a complete rollback of the three laws that were passed in September. Collectively, the laws deregulate the buying and selling of agricultural goods, leaving farmers exposed to the uncertainties of an open market and potential exploitation by corporations.

Meanwhile, record numbers of farmers in India are committing suicide, and experts fear the farming laws could drive even more people to the brink.

"The new laws that they have passed, we call them death warrants of farmers and laborers," farmer Kewal Singh of Punjab said.

Agriculture sustains over 40% of the population in India. And as COVID-19 ravaged the country this year, it's farmers who have kept India's rural economy afloat. 

But the majority of farms are small, family-run operations, often at the mercy of loan sharks.

"This is the kind of farming community which is incredibly vulnerable to all kinds of uncertainties," said Vikram Patel, a professor at Harvard University's TH Chan School of Public Health. "Many of these farmers don't have any surety the banks demand in order to give them loans, so they borrow money from loan sharks, who are of course pretty ruthless. And if you pump your money back, well, they can be pretty dangerous to you or your family."

India has some of the highest farmer suicide rates in the world, with more than 10,000 deaths each year, and numbers expected to have reached a record high in 2020. In Punjab, three to four farmer suicides are reported in the local news every single day.

Nasseemo Kaur's son, 48-year-old Karamjeet Singh was among the deaths by suicide. He left behind a wife, son, and daughter.

"He worked as a laborer, but he could hardly earn anything," Kaur said. "He sold his land and crops. After this deed was done he thought that his life had no meaning, and he drank some pesticide."

"We were collapsing under the weight of debt. We often used to cry, he used to say, 'What will we do? How will I marry my children? How will we sustain ourselves?'"

Without her son to provide an income, another grieving parent, Naseemo Singh, is struggling to scratch a living.

"Now we all will have to work. This house has women. I am the old mother-in-law. I have a daughter-in-law and a daughter. We all will have to find some work for our sustenance," she said.

She's now joined other grieving parents on the protest front lines to fight against laws they believe will only lead to more tragedy.

"I will not stop protesting for what is right," she said. "Without protest nothing is possible. Any rights that we aspire to attain will only come through protest."

The new laws don't just affect the landowners and the land workers, but also the middle men who used to buy the produce at fixed prices.

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If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.

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