“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 past few months.
India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In 2019, 10,281 farmers and farm laborers died by killing themselves across the country, according to statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau. Taking one’s own life is a crime in India, and experts have said for years that the actual numbers are far higher.
Few of the recent examples among farmers have been reported in the Indian news media, according to Mr. Rawal. “It’s hard to say exactly how many because there was massive underreporting of deaths, and even the media could not reach the hinterland because of the lockdown,” he said.
Over the past five years, farmer suicides in Punjab increased by more than 12 times, according to government data. Three to four farm deaths are reported in the local news almost every day.
The state’s lush green fields mask decades of crippling debt and abuse of land. In the 1960s, the government introduced the high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat that eventually made India self-sufficient in grains. But over the years, groundwater dropped to critical levels.
Farmers, struggling to save their crops, dug their bore wells even deeper. And to fend off increasing pest attacks, they loaded their fields with chemicals. The skyrocketing agricultural costs forced many farmers to take on more debt, and crop failures over the years eventually destroyed generations of rural families.
Randhir Singh, a deeply indebted cotton farmer in Punjab, killed himself in May.
“This is what we feared,” said his son, Rashpal Singh, 22, in his family home in the village of Sirsiwala. “The lockdown killed my father.”