“India has become the suicide capital of the world,” says Daya Sandhu, a counselling psychology professor at the University of Louisville in the U.S.
As a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Scholar at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, India, Sandhu spent five months in India last year researching suicide trends in the country.
“While I was in India from January to June 2010, I was troubled to read headline news almost on a daily basis about students, farmers, and housewives hanging themselves, jumping before trains, taking poison, and committing self-immolation,” says Sandhu.
Beyond the walls of an abandoned factory here, Arun Bag now contends with the tragic memories of his father who killed himself after their farmland was seized to build a plant for the ‘world’s cheapest car’.
“Since his childhood he had only known the field, the plough and the harvest. When the land was acquired forcibly by the government for the Tata Motors car plant he became jobless,” says Arun Bag, remembering his father Haradhan Bag of Singur, an hour’s drive from Kolkata, the capital of eastern state West Bengal.
“He had slipped into depression. One day he took his life consuming insecticides,” Arun said.
Haradhan Bag, who committed suicide at the age of 76 in March 2007, is one of the thousands of Indian farmers who have taken their lives, unable to cope with economic plight, failed crops, farm debts and displacement.
In India, one farmer committed suicide every 32 minutes between 1997 and 2005, according to P. Sainath, a writer on Indian poverty who calculated the statistic from National Crime Records Bureau figures.
Farmers and students are most at risk.
According to the latest statistics of India’s National Crime Records Bureau, 127,151 people in India committed suicide in 2009. This indicates an increase of 1.7 percent over the previous year’s figures.
Suicide is a great social leveller in India, Asia’s third largest and one the world’s fastest growing economies with a projected GDP growth of 8.6 percent from 2010-11.
Displaced farmers like Haradhan Bag of Singur are battling the problem along with debt-ridden farmers of the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra. But middle- class urban families and students at India’s prestigious academic institutions are battling the problem as well.
In the bustling metropolis of Kolkata, barely 40 kilometres away from Haradhan Bag’s village, the media focus is now on the suicide of a 13-year- old student in one of the city’s elite schools.
Rouvanjit Rawla, an eighth standard student of La Martiniere for Boys, hanged himself at home in February last year after he was caned by a teacher at the school.
“I am now fighting for justice and to see that corporal punishment is done away with,” says Ajay Rawla, the father of the boy who is waging a legal battle against the school authorities.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has recently ruled that Rouvanjit was driven to suicide by the school which practises corporal punishment.
Sandhu says that though the media highlights the issue, the Indian government turns a blind eye to the problem at all levels – local, state, and national.
“There is no awareness about depression in India,” says Sandhu.
Interviewing a large number of students in India, Sandhu found academic pressure, parental expectations, marriage tension and relationships to be the primary causes of suicide among young people.
“I was stunned that all the students I interviewed mentioned that at least 70 percent of them have a prem rog (love sickness) and they live loveless lives,” Sandhu said. “They do not feel anchored anywhere. There seems to be no genuine parental love, but only conditional love. They are also strictly prohibited to engage in romantic love, as there is no dating system.”
There are very few counselling centres in India, given the number of suicide cases, according to Sandhu.
Lifeline Foundation in Kolkata is the only counselling centre of its kind in a city of 15 million people. It is also the only one in the West Bengal state of 80 million people.
“The parental pressure to excel in academics or jobs is a driver of suicide while it can combine with factors like substance abuse and relationship and family problems,” says Jayashree Shome, deputy director of Lifeline Foundation.
The centre offers a hotline and face-to-face support for people who are distressed or suicidal, but not many are aware of its existence.
“People who feel suicidal don’t want answers or solutions. They want a safe place to express their fears and anxieties, to be themselves,” she says. “We need to understand things from their perspective, not ours.”
According to Sandhu, the India Mental Health Act of 1987 is limited only to the treatment and care of mentally ill persons who suffer specifically from diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
“The India Mental Health Act of 1987 is clearly good only at laying down guidelines for establishment and maintenance of psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes… It is limited in scope and services that precludes persons who suffer from numerous other mental health problems such as suicide ideations, alcoholism and substance abuse problems, family, and community violence, anxiety and stress disorders,” he says.
Sandhu says there is an urgent need to ramp up mental health counselling in India.
“Most likely with economical help from the government, I would hope that the farmers’ suicide problems can be taken care of very soon,” he says.