By Mary Kaye Schilling
A few months after Radha Krishnan took his life, his wife, Rani, was holding her husband’s skull in her sun-beaten hands—the most powerful evidence she could find of a growing disaster back home. She had joined 1,000 farmers in traveling thousands of miles to New Delhi to demand a drought relief package for the farmers of Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state.
Krishnan’s public suicide was a last, hopeless protest. In February 2017, after his crops had failed for the third year in a row and with no chance of repaying his loans, he sat on the street outside the local bank and drank from a bottle of pesticide. He died a few hours later, leaving his wife and four children.An estimated 59,300 farmers in India have taken their lives in similarly overt ways since 1980. Italian photographer
Federico Borella believes the number could be much higher. “There is a great deal of shame associated with suicide in India, and I suspect many don’t report it,” he says. Shame is also associated with failure, particularly among men. In 2011, a study of farmer self-harm in the state of Andhra Pradesh found that even failing at suicide brought ridicule; unable to bear the “disgrace,” they would try again.
In May, Borella was invited to Tamil Nadu by the South Indian Farmers Association, the group that had organized the demonstration in New Delhi. Borella was introduced to four families in the Tiruchirappalli area, each of whom had lost the head of their household to self-harm. Two of the men hanged themselves in their fields. Another, like Krishnan, drank poison.
Similar stories are told across India. The cycle of drought, debt and suicide is spreading like a plague.
Agriculture is still a major source of income, accounting for 14 percent of India’s gross domestic product. Tamil Nadu, a leading producer of bananas, mangoes, rice, turmeric, sugarcane and coffee, among other crops, is dependent on the monsoons that recharge the local water sources: the southwest monsoon, from June to September, and the northeast, from October to December.
Beginning in 2014, the rains stopped coming. The state is now facing its worst drought in 140 years. The government has promised aid, but little has come. In many cases, farmers are forced to sell their products to companies far below market value. When farmers do lose their crops, minimal compensation is offered.
The correlation between suicide rates and rising temperatures was long suspected but never uncovered in large-scale data until research released in July 2017. Tamma Carleton—then a Ph.D. candidate in agriculture and resource economics at University of California, Berkeley—made the connection in a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Suicide is a stark indicator of human hardship, yet the causes of these deaths remain understudied, particularly in developing countries,” Carleton wrote. In India, where one-fifth of the world’s suicides occur, according to Carleton, “the climate, particularly temperature, has a strong influence over a growing suicide epidemic.”
Using nationally comprehensive panel data over 47 years, Carleton showed a link between suicide and higher temperatures that occurred only during India’s agricultural growing season, when heat lowers crop yields. A temperature increase of a single degree Celsius in one day, she found, corresponded to about 67 suicides, on average.
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