On April 23, 2016, Kiranjit Kaur’s father Gurnam Singh, 48, a farmer living in Katra Kalan village in Mansa district in Punjab hanged himself by a tree as he was unable to pay the debt of Rs 8 lakh. Kaur was just 23. After struggling emotionally and financially for two years, she formed the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee to help the families of farmers and farm labourers cope with suicide, grim reality in Punjab and the rest of the country. Today, 6,000 people are a part of the outfit. The members include families of farmers and farm labourers in Punjab who could not cope with the pressure and chose to take the extreme step. The committee members not just provide moral and emotional support to widows and mothers; they also fight for the government compensation that the victim families are supposed to get and ensure that children from such families do not drop out of schools and colleges. As September is observed as suicide prevention awareness month, reading and sharing such stories is the need of the hour
One telephonic conversation with Kiranjit Kaur, 25, is enough to understand how hectic her life is. During our 28-minute-long conversation, Kaur had to hang up twice as she was getting other important calls. Every time she would diligently message me to call her back and politely apologize. In between she also had a quick conversation with her mother to discuss dinner plans and instructed her brother to quickly collect clothes from the clothesline as it had started raining.
The conversation started with small talk and exchanging pleasantries, but once she started talking about farmer suicides, the sufferings of widows and other family members, the lack of proper compensation, and the absence of suicide prevention and rehabilitation strategies, the passion in the voice of activist Kaur was unmissable. Kaur’s story is a perfect example of how sometimes adverse situations are capable of making us stronger.
“My father was my friend. He was my everything. There were no signs. So, that day (April 23, 2016) when a neighbour came and informed us that he had hung himself by a tree, it was beyond shocking. Yes, we were struggling at that point in time, but we could have never imagined that he would end his life,” said Kaur, the only time during the entire conversation when her voice choked with emotions. She added: “It was later that we came to know that he had to pay back a debt of Rs 8 lakh, including a loan taken from a government-owned bank and other lenders. Our real struggle began when we came to terms with the fact that he was no more, and we still had to pay the debt.”
Her father, Gurnam Singh, owned a three-acre family land and he had leased an eight-acre land for additional income. They would grow cotton and wheat. In 2015, a terrible pest attack damaged the entire cotton crop after which Singh’s debt kept mounting. He, like many farmers in the country, could not cope with the pressure and chose to put an end to his miseries by ending his life.
“Our lives changed after his death. I had to drop out of college and my brother had to drop out of school (Kaur has one elder sister and a younger brother). My mother had no idea about any paperwork or bank work, so we had to figure that out. After a while, relatives stopped coming by as they feared they would have to bail us out financially. The lenders, however, never stopped knocking at our doors. I asked my brother to take up farming and I took up stitching work. I would work from morning until midnight and earned Rs 200-250 per day. I sank into depression. I would not talk to anyone. I would not step out much. It would have continued this way had I not met that elderly lady at the market that day,” said Kaur.
Kaur met an 80-year-old lady at the market who was buying sugar worth Rs 5. Kaur got curious and asked her how long it would last. “She told me that’s all she could afford. Her son, a farmer, had died by suicide after which her daughter-in-law abandoned the family and their two children, a daughter, three, and a son who was 1.5-years old. The 80-year-old grandmother was looking after the grandchildren. She took me to her house which was nearly collapsing. It made me realize that her condition was worse than mine and that’s when I decided to do something for such families,” said Kaur.
Soon Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee came into existence.
“The problem was far more serious and multifaceted”
The initial days were unstructured. Kaur would simply visit farmer families who had lost a loved one to suicide. She would listen to their problems for hours. That was crucial. Kaur noticed a typical pattern. The widows were not even aware that they could get a compensation, the children would drop out of schools and colleges, the families would not get any help from the government or relatives, and no one would listen to the victim families. The last problem was a serious one, so Kaur decided to give them a platform. All the victim families would gather at one place from time to time to share their problems and together they would find ways to deal with them.
“When I started paying door-to-door visits and listening to their issues, I realized the problem was far more serious and multi-faceted than what I had imagined it to be. We realized that the authorities were too busy and a bit indifferent to take up individual cases. So, we would go and meet the local MPs and MLAs in groups. We reversed the roles. We made sure that at such meetings widows and families got an opportunity to do the talking and the elected representative listened to their problems. We would then ask them for solutions. This boosted the confidence of victim families,” said Kaur.
Gradually, as more and more victim families started joining the outfit, they started visiting villages in districts of Punjab where farmer suicides were more rampant. They would tell farmer families that suicides were not a solution and offered to help victim families. There were two things that needed immediate attention. The first one was to ensure children from such families got adopted (their education sponsored) so that they didn’t have to drop out of schools and colleges. The committee reached out to the press, got many stories published that highlighted the plight of such families and children after which many influential families came forward to support the education of such children. Kaur herself is a beneficiary and is presently pursuing a correspondence course in journalism from Punjab University.
The second agenda was to help widows and families get compensation from the government. In 2015, the Punjab government had raised compensation for families of debt-ridden farmers, who committed suicide, from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh. But the families didn’t know how to go about claiming that compensation. The committee members help them with the paperwork.
Just after two years of its inception, the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee was a success story. Today it is a 6,000-member strong outfit. They work in seven districts of Punjab — Mansa, Sangrur, Bhatinda, Barnala, Patiyala, Moga and Faridkot — and the cotton belt of Malwa where farmer suicides are more rampant. They are also working closely with similar outfits in other states. So far, they have taken up compensation cases of 16,606 victim families in Punjab out of which nearly 6,000 families have got full compensation. Also, thanks to their direct intervention, nearly 300 children have been adopted and their education is being funded.
To change the system, join the system
During the 2019 Punjab assembly elections, two widows from the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee decided to take the plunge. The members felt that in order to make their voices heard, it would be better to try and be a part of the system. Hearts of hearts they knew that they did not have a chance, but it was important to make an attempt. “All sorts of things were done to discourage us. We were not given our choice of election symbol. They tried to bribe our candidates and pressurized them to withdraw from the nomination process. We persisted and the media continued to highlight our stories. That was important. We wanted to show them that ordinary men and women can put up a fight too. The most touching part was the donation that we got from the victim families. Some gave Rs 5, some Rs 100, some Rs 500. That’s how we collected Rs 84,000 and that’s how much we spent on the election campaigning. The other parties must have spent in crores. We would move around in autos while campaigning and when we got media traction because of that, the other candidates started copying us. It was quite funny,” said Kaur.
These days many members of the Kisan Mazdoor Peedat Parivar Committee are camping at the state border or are in Delhi as part of the farmers protests. The 2020–2021 farmers’ protest is an ongoing protest against three farm acts which were passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020. A stalemate between the central government and the farmers has been seen for the past few months. Farmers, farmer unions and their representatives have demanded that the laws be repealed. Kaur was at the farmers protest too. “It is a good platform where we can put our points across,” said Kaur. Yet another important call cut short our conversation … thankfully at a point where the telephonic interview was nearing an end.
(Disclaimer: The feature image is a collage of images that accompanied new reports featuring Kiranjit Kaur published in [clockwise] The Times of India, CBC and AlJazeera)
Read Mumbai-based Psychiatrist Shyam Mithiya’s interview where he talks about suicide prevention. You can find the other stories that we did as part of our series on mental health here. If you need to get in touch with mental professionals, dial these verified helpline numbers. NIMHANS: 080-46110007, AASRA: 9820466726, Talk to me: 9372909321/9820235880, iCALL: 9152987824