Stories

Harvest of Tragedy: India’s Farmer Suicides

My family and I recently moved into a rental home while we waited for our old house in another state to sell. It is a fine little rental, but it has its challenges. When we moved in, the shed was dilapidated; the flowerbeds were mostly weeds; and the yard? Well, the grass looked a little more like straw than turf. It was far from the complete, polished home we had left behind.

But I had hope for this new place. In my passion to make this new – albeit temporary – house my home, I immediately asked the owner if I could tackle some of the more glaring issues. He was thrilled I would ask, and he even promised to reimburse me for any money I put toward the shed.

My husband and I have moved three times with our children – each new place a ‘fixer-upper’ in varying degrees. My middle son, Arthur, has the most honest perspective on our home ownership: “Mom,” he observed as we trekked to the store to buy wood, paint, flowers, and a new mower, “Are we the family that moves in, fixes everything up, then moves along to another mess?”

After I chuckled under my breath, I told him that we were, indeed, that family. And even though I knew he just didn’t want to do the work, I took this opportunity to tell him about hope, stewardship, and empowerment. I told him about making each place a home – about making a space better than it was when we found it. I also told him that the man who owned the home appreciated our care of his property. I assured him that these were all essential elements in growing a community that would please God. But as I spoke, I secretly knew that we lived in a system which allowed us this luxury and afforded my children this lesson.

Our labors were rewarded, and our landlord was fair. The same cannot be said for all parts of this world.

Soon after my discussion with Arthur, I started hearing about a phenomenon that is happening among a group of renters far from us: the low-caste farmers of India. These impoverished men and women do not claim a home or land of their own. Instead, they borrow money for seed and pay rent on land that they cultivate – often at interest rates as high as 25%.

It is a system designed to leave the workers frustrated, disenfranchised, and hopeless.

Farmers in India face high suicide rates
After just one season of hard labor, many of these farmers are unable to provide themselves with proper electricity, food, or even clean water. With no sense of progress, no reward for stewardship, and no support from their community or government, these impoverished farmers lose hope and take their own lives – leaving their failed labor behind permanently.

If a farmer is able to make land payments, he is often hard-pressed to pay the loans he owes for purchasing seed. Or – on the off-chance a farmer does scrape together funds for both land and seed – he then faces the chance that the weather will batter his crops. Given India’s extreme weather fluctuations, one flood, hail storm, or drought could wipe out a farmer’s entire harvest in an instant.

After just one season of hard labor, many of these farmers are unable to provide themselves with proper electricity, food, or even clean water. If they have family, the situation becomes even more dire. With no sense of progress, no reward for stewardship, and no support from their community or government, these impoverished farmers lose hope and take their own lives – leaving their failed labor behind permanently. And leaving those they love with even deeper loss.

These tragedies happen over and over among the poorest of the poor in India and the frequency is gaining international attention.

One such tragedy occurred in the central state of Maharashtra, where the farmer father of a 21-year-old woman killed himself just days after her engagement. Although he labored in the fields his entire life, he was barely able to afford food – let alone the now-illegal dowry that so many families still pay in India for the “honor” to be wed. Because of this family’s financial struggles, she could not even afford a wedding sari.

Another case of farmer suicide is now being held in the Indian court regarding the sentencing of two engineers in Akola. These two men are being charged with abetting a young farmer’s suicide because they manipulated the land fees of their tenant. By inflating the cost of basic necessities like electricity or water, the men made it nearly impossible for the young farmer to pay rent on the land he worked. Without hope of ever paying off his debts or making even a small profit, the young man drank poison – a final step in ridding himself of the endless cycle of poverty.

And in April, a young farmer at a rally hoped to make a public statement by tying a piece of cloth to a tree branch and then wrapping the other end around his neck. After he shouted his protests regarding the plight of farmers, he hanged himself from the branch of the tree – a shocking image of the strangulation that is happening among those who work the land. Although there is some controversy as to whether this was an accidental fall or suicide, the original intent was clear: the plight of farmers in India is driving many individuals to desperate measures.

In 2013 alone, there were 11,772 farmer suicides reported in India, but this number is most likely lower than the actual lives lost because of the great shame associated with the topic. With one suicide occurring every 45 minutes, it is plain to see that the desperate calls for hope, empowerment, and care are too frequently going unanswered. In a country as large as India, 8.7% of all deaths being attributed to suicide is a staggering amount – and the rates continue to increase.

In the face of such a complex, heartbreaking issue, the hope of Mission India is to shine a light on the plight of farmers in India. As people of faith, prayer, and action, Christ leads us to take the mess, help in the ways we can, and move forward. And one such model for us can be seen through The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20: 1-16. In this parable, Jesus shows what a good landowner does for his workers. He invited all people to work for a fair wage – those who came early and those who came late. They all received the same goodness the owner had to offer – regardless of gender, age, or even caste. And when the harvest was gathered, each person received an equal portion.

Through Mission India’s partners, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is being lived out every day. Through God’s grace, evangelists are spreading the Gospel of hope, love, and salvation through Adult Literacy Classes, Church Planter Training, and Children’s Bible Clubs. In a land that cries for hope, men, women and children are understanding the truth of salvation and sharing in the abundance of communities that love, uplift, and help one another.

Through prayer, donations, service, and faith we all play a part in Christ’s abundance – offering justice to the oppressed; food to the hungry; and hope to all people. And – just as Arthur learned – together, we can take something that needs repair, tending, growing, and nurturing and watch it grow into a rich, fruitful harvest for God.

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