One Village Tells the True Story of Panjab

Guest blogged bySatvinder Kaur Dhaliwal

Admin Note: After completing her undergraduate studies in Anthropology, the author traveled to Panjab to volunteer. She spent her time volunteering at Pingalwara and working with the Baba Nanak Education Society (BNES). Below is an article she wrote for BNES to raise awareness about their impactful work addressing farmer suicides.


farm.JPGVillage Barlan, District Sangrur, located near the Panjab-Haryana border, depicts the prosperous, joyful Panjab that many of us are eager to visit. Roads leading to the village are surrounded by what appearsto be flourishing farmland, stretching as far as one can see. Children have returned from school and are laughing and chasing each other through the streets of the village, the elderly have gathered to discuss recent happenings, and women can be seen carrying various necessities to their homes. This first glance overview of Balran disguises a harsh reality that a growing number of households in the village are facing suicide.

Suicide is an equal opportunity visitor in Balran and many other villages throughout Panjab. Increasing farming costs, the removal of farmers subsidies, and low rates for crops are putting Panjabs farmers in a never-ending cycle of debt accumulation. Each year, farmers in Panjab face increased agricultural costs and low returns for their crops. In order to cover these costs, farmers must take out loans, which they usually get from their local aarthiya or money-lender. The aarthiya often ends up being the same individual who will buy the farmer’s crop at the mandi or market, and then re-sell the crop on the public market. Sukhjinder Singh, a farmer, described the reason for debt accumulation as, Let’s say that I sell my crop for 11 rupees per kilogram. When I need to purchase the same crop for my home, I have to buy it for 14 rupees per kilogram. So how can we profit? Consequently, when a farmer’s costs are constantly exceeding his profits, he must cover his costs by taking out loans. Now, he has increased his debt by introducing extremely high interest rates, which are often decided by the aarthiya.

Unlike the west, the gendered demarcations of males and females in Panjab are much more stark, and it is common for women to be unaware of their family’s financial circumstances. Therefore, when the male becomes consumed in debt and can no longer bear humiliation from the taunting money-lenders, he begins to see only one way out suicide. His surviving family members are not only left devastated, but they must find a way to provide for themselves and pay off the debt on their family, of which they may never have been aware in the first place. Often times the surviving family members include a wife, children, and elderly parents.In winter 2011, I visited the families of various suicide victims in Balran. Some families had lost their loved one a few years ago, while some had only experienced the loss a few days ago. Although I only visited seven families, the Baba Nanak Education Society has documented 91 suicides and numerous missing individuals in Balran since 1998. Nonetheless, all family members were still grieving equally and struggling to pay off their debt.

Many of the families that I visited have fortunately been adopted by Baba Nanak Education Society, a non-profit organization that aims to support families of suicide victims on the condition that they keep their children in school which means that most of the children in these families were still receiving an education. In one case, three children were being cared for by their elderly and frail grandfather, Dalip Singh. Dalip Singhs son, and the father of these three children, Nazar Singh, was a laborer who committed suicide in 2008 due to increasing debt. Shortly afterward, Nazar Singhs wife died of an illness. Nazar Singh and his wife are survived by two sons and a daughter. Upon my visit, I entered a home that appeared to be under construction. At an age when most people hope to be relaxing and watching their grandchildren grow up, Dalip Singh was found working hard to rebuild his home. I happened to interrupt Dalip Singhs work, but he greeted me with well wishesand introduced me to his family members. Like many households in Balran, the hospitality was heart-warming, but the familys story was heart-breaking. Dalip Singh is a father of three sons. After losing Nazar Singh to suicide, the debt fell upon his remaining sons. Eventually he lost his second oldest son to suicide as well. Now, Nazar Singhs eldest son, Gurpreet Singh, has dropped out of school and taken upa mazdoori or manual labor work in the village to support his family and try to pay off his fathers debt. With no education and extremely limited opportunities available to him, Gurpreet is likely to remain in labor positions and in debt for the remainder of his life.

Another family that I visited was that of Parkash Singh, who committed suicide in 2004 and is survivedby his elderly mother, wife, two daughters, and a son. All three children are still in school, but their enthusiasm and motivation to pursue higher education is disappointingly lacking. Parkash Singhs eldest daughter, Rani Kaur, is currently in the 9th standard. When I asked her about what she would like to study in college, she paused for a moment, looked far into the distance and said that she only plans to complete her +2 studies and then occupy herself with housework. I thought perhaps Rani was not completely aware of the resources available to her, so I told her about the Jasmer Singh Jaijee Degree College, located in nearby Gurney Kalan. The college is a project initiated by BNES to provide children of suicide victims a chance to obtain higher education and access to opportunities. Although the college is not restricted to families of suicide victims, it provides free education to children from these families. Rani was, however, aware of the college and after some encouragement from myself, my uncle who had accompanied me, and a Balran resident, Rani said she would like to be a physician. Ranis younger sister, Karamjit, was a bit more assertive and told me that she will pursue a B. Ed. degree and a teaching career. However, Ranis and Karamjits mother had her own hesitations against higher education. Like many people in Balran, Sheela Kaur feels that educating her children will expose them to negative influences and possibly encourage them to develop bad habits, such as drug addictions. She said it would be in her childrens best interest to remain close to home. Although Rani and Karamjit would be transported by bus to JSJ Degree College from Balran, there is still the risk of exposure to a variety of individuals. Exacerbating the situation, is the idea that it is not necessary nor important to educate girls. Consequently, according to villagers, Balran only has two women who have been able to pursue higher education and obtain well-paying occupations.

Nonetheless, alternatives to agriculture, such as education and vocational training are an important resource that will allow young people, like Karamjit and Rani to find opportunities outside of farming and labor. Such alternatives will allow them to pay off their familys debt and, will give them a chance to build a prosperous future. Perhaps such negative ideas have been associated with education because the people of Balran never had access to education. Before JSJ Degree College was built in Gurney Kalan in 2004, there was no resource for higher education within 30 kilometers of Gurney Kalan. Today, BNES has adopted seven families from Balran and ensured that their children receive at least a high school education. However, the number of suicides in Balran is much higher than just seven individuals. Along with the 91 suicides that BNES has documented, a handful of individuals from Balran have been reported missing. According to Inderjit Singh Jaijee of BNES, it is likely that they too are suicide victims whose bodies have not been found. If each suicide victim left behind one child, 15 yearsfrom now, that will leave Panjab with close to 100 individuals without an education and very limitedchances for reducing the debt accumulated by his or her family. This may be a small number compared to India’s population, but 100 people in debt in one village is a devastating number and only a small representation of how many debt-burdened families are experiencing a lack of access to education and opportunities throughout our exhausted Panjab.


Admin note: The Baba Nanak Educational Society is a non-profitable, charitable organization located in Panjab, India. The primary objective of the Society is to offer co-education and vocational training to disadvantaged rural youth to enable them to get jobs or become self-employed and give jobs to others. For more information and to find out how you can support this organization, please visit the website.

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42 Responses to “One Village Tells the True Story of Panjab”

  1. kds says:

    There is 11% starvation rate in west Bengal and also high rate in Orissa.Yet those people are not committing suicide.Is it the same mighty Sikh race that use to stand against all odds? I am really sorry to say but by providing special assistance to families where suicides happened will increase the mentality of men that If I commit suicide then College will give education to my Children.The first step should have been discouraging More farmers not to commit suicide

    The main reason of suicide is a person who is owning land cannot deal with the fact that because of his debt his social and financial status is now going down so they take the easy route.

  2. Harinder says:

    Few (three ) points for discussion :–
    1) Suicide is a universal phenomenon :–A 2006 WHO states that nearly a million people take their own lives every year . Suicide rates are highest in Europe's Baltic states, where around 40 people per 100,000 die by suicide each year, second in line is in the Sub-Saharan Africa where 32 people per 100,000 die by suicide each year.
    Village Barlan incidence can be compared with world statistics if its population is known and over how many years 91 + people committed suicide. Also as per Sampling theory of statistics can we extrapolate the story of Barlan to whole of Punjab.….

  3. Harinder says:

    2) Copy cat suicide :– A copycat suicide is defined as an emulation of another suicide that the person attempting suicide knows about either from local knowledge or due to accounts or depictions of the original suicide on television and in other media. To prevent this type of suicide, it is customary in some countries for the media to discourage suicide reports except in special cases.
    3) Hate group : I hope this article does not intice hate against money lenders.
    Remedies I shall suggest at end of discussion.

  4. Blighty Singh says:

    I know what you guys mean when you talk about copycat suicides. My local train station…Southall….is known in England as Suicide Central as that one station, at the heart of Britains Sikh community, is responsibile for a massive 33% of rail suicides in the whole of England. Don’t get me wrong…..white and black people commit suicide too (actually….thinking about it…..I don’t think I have ever heard of a black person committing suicide) but when they do they tend to quietly cut their wrist or secretly overdose on painkillers. When we Sikhs do it……we make a big song and dance of it. No quiet suicide in the bath tub for us. No….for us its got to be in front of the 150 mph rush-hour 7:45 express from Paddington. We want the world to know about our ‘dukh’. Extreme dukh. Anyway, like it ot not, over the years there’s been alot of international media attention on this problem and the international media seem to see this suicide problem in the uk as a ‘sikh’ problem.

    Anyways, re; the article above : Sikh farmers bled to death by [**Comment Edited by Admin Singh. Please review out commenting policy**] moneylenders. Thats a problem a damn good kicking could solve quite easily

  5. kds says:

    <Anyways, re; the article above : Sikh farmers bled to death by blood sucking vampire hindu moneylenders. Thats a problem a damn good kicking could solve quite easily>

    More hindu Farmers are committing suicide in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh .No need to communalise this issue

  6. Blighty Singh says:

    [**Comment edited by Admin Singh. Please review our commenting policy below**]. Its moneylenders/ agents that took money from the families of the few hundred Sikh youths that met their end on the ship of death off the coast of Greece a few years ago. It is moneylenders that take took the money off all those hundreds of Sikh youths that have at the moment dumped in sub-saharan Africa to die etc etc. Its time to call a spade a spade. And as I said…its not a problem a damn good kicking can’t solve.

  7. kds says:

    Yes it is time to call a spade a spade that's why it is necessary to analyse the cause rather than just spreading blind hatred.

    Here are the figures from 97-2005 close to 90,000 farmers committed suicide all over India.Barely handful of them were sikhs .If you believe Hindu agents are doing it then you have to accept that they are also mass murdering Hindu farmers in much larger numbers

  8. M Sandhu says:

    I've been farming in the neighboring state of Haryana & for a while in Punjab as well… and the moneylenders in the grain markets are of both castes. Also, when marginal farmers borrow money and then DONT spend it on farm inputs is when the problems arise. Sadly, a lot of small farmers dont have or CANT have savings for events like marriages or sickness, they simply borrow and usually fall in the debt trap. No bankruptcy protection here. Or helpful neighbors… This is a problem that the government with its HUGE resources can easily help with… but it continues to be un-addressed ALL over India.

  9. Blighty Singh says:

    Which 'mandi' in which district M Sandhu ? I ask because I have farmed in doaba and every single money lender in the mandis of Nakodar, Talwan and Goraya are Hindu. As with the case of the money-lenders at the travel 'agents', there are 'sikh' front men, but the men in the background who actually provide the money and make the money are all Hindu. I suppose some people are very gullible and easily fooled by the front men. And can someone please tell KDS that if he loves to talk about 'India' so much perhaps he should visit an 'Indian' forum. I'm here because I love Punjab and I love Sikhs. That's what I'm here to talk about. Please share your statistics about India with someone that gives a flying **** KDS.

  10. Jasbeer Singh says:

    Don't know why people of Indian origin are not problem/issue centric. Blaming religions, castes, creeds can't bring a solution.
    People here are doing mistakes that Govt. of India & (other organisations , those who claims they are doing good for communities, but actually , are not) has done in the past and doing in the present. Large # of Sikhs are living outside India..But when it comes to support & provide help to their native villages, familes , friends or atleast their Parents – "they don't have heart". They leave them "Govt. bharosy ya Rab bharosy"..why dont we think at that time that they are our Sikh borthers and sisters and need our help when we know govt. is doing nothing..

    Every drop in the ocean counts…depends on whether we know counting or not..

  11. Harinder says:

    This is also something unique in human Psyche.

    Projecting individual problems to another group.

    1)Ask a Christian and he will attribute all his woes to Jews

    2)Ask a Hindu and he will attribute all his woes to Muslims.

    3)Ask a Muslim and he will attribute all his woes to Jews.

    I hope we SIKHS dont fall prey to this way of thinking.

    We are actually suppose to rise above these narrow divisions of Mankind.

  12. Satvinder says:

    The article was not meant to create or unveil Hindu/Sikh tensions. In my experience, aarthiyas have been both Hindus and Sikhs. The article was also not meant to blame the aarthiya. He is doing his job just as the farmers and laborers are doing theirs.
    In response to KDS's comment about assistance to families actually encouraging suicide, the assistance that these families receive from BNES is not so significant that they can decrease their debt. It is usually about 1000 rupees per month. While I visited the families, I asked how they spend the money and most said the money is just enough to cover school fees for their children. If there is a small amount left over, most reported using that money to purchase flour for their homes. The assistance offered by BNES also does not ensure that the child will receive a college education. The opportunity is available to them, but many may turn it down in order to take up labor jobs and begin earning money for their families, as did Nazar SIngh's son from the article.

    BNES has had discussions about discouraging suicides and decreasing farming related debt. However, the culture of the villages presents a stigma against discussions related to debt. Most men in Panjab do not talk about their debt or admit that they are in debt and seek assistance. Perhaps this is why poverty related suicides are unique to Panjab. So, my question to the readers is not who is to blame, but how can we begin to break through cultural norms and encourage farmers and laborers in Panjab to discuss issues of debt? They are hesitant because they do not want to be marked as an individual who is in debt and cannot successfully provide for his family. How do we move beyond this idea?

  13. Harinder says:

    I think we can take several steps to prevent Suicides :-

    1) Education : especailly in Science ,english,engineering,physics and Maths.

    2)Moving out of farming with Dignity of labour :- No work is high or low as long as it is honest.

    A) Level -1 work is of reparing and service providing:–


    a)In home:–1)Fridge repair 2)Mobile repair,3)Electrical points & appliance repair 4)computer hard and soft ware repair 5)car and scooter repair 6 ) television repair etc etc

    b)In hospital :– repair of Ultrasound ,X-ray ,autoanalyser etc

    c)In defence :—-repairs of different equipments.

    d)In factories :–repairs of different machineries.

    B) Level -11 Work is :—of manufacturing above equipments.

    C) Level -111 work is :–Inventions of new technologies like Quantum computers ,antigravity machines,multiverse lands etc .

    D) Level -IV Creating new realties with writing new theories like Newton ,Einstein,String ,M theories etc etc.

    For those still contemplating of Suicides ; here is one

    Never ,Never,Never Give up (Winston Churchill)

  14. Blighty Singh says:

    (message broken up in 3 parts ) Just out of interest Satwinder Kaur, seeing as it's your article and you actually spoke yo the farmers in question ; The farmer says he can just about afford his kids school fees. Didn't you ask him then why, when he clearly hasn't the money for it, he's paying for private education when he should have his kids enrolled in a free sarkari school ?
    Second point….If his kids are actually older college students…..what are they studying ? I'm willing to bet goos money that its something like Hotel Hospitality. Shouldn't they instead be studying a combination of Business / Agriculture…in order to learn how to make the most of the fantasticaly valuable resource he /she has in his / her fingertips : Land.

  15. Blighty Singh says:

    The sons and daughters of bhappe in the city don't do degrees in agriculture. They do it in the thing relevant to their family trade ; Business. The sons and daughters of the ramgharia in the towns don't do degrees in Agriculture. They do it in the things relevant to their family trade ; Engineering. That is why I completely and utterly disagree with the point Harinder has made in the post above this one. The very last thing in the world these farmers children should be studying is Science, Maths etc. In my village well over half the boys and girls have got degrees, double degrees, triple degrees, masters etc but not one single one of them has a job and not one single one of them will ever get a job. The jobs in the private sector are given through family connections to the bhappe and the public sector jobs are reserved through government quotas for the so called lower castes.

  16. Blighty Singh says:

    Next question I hoped you asked them : Are they growing rice ? I bet they are. On the one hand they're complaining of having to borrow money to dig deeper every 6 months for the water table while at the same time they're growing a crop that requires exactly 10 times the amount of water that traditional Punjab crops need. Now granted the soil in Sangrur is not as fertile as the soil in Jalandhar district, what with the Himalaya factor, but surely they can use their imagination and grow things like organic chillis or flowers etc and cut out the vampire blood sucking middle man ?
    Which brings me to my last point ? Did you ask them why a decade ago they kept, on average 20 cows wheareas now they only have 3 ? Each and every year muslim gujjars have come down from Kashmir and Himachal, settled permanently in rural Punjab and are making an absolute killing from the profitable dairy trade. I'm not kidding you… can as much in the dairy trade in Punjab as you can working in London or Toronto. But…..its hands on hard dirty work. And that is what people in Punjab don't wanna do no more.

  17. Blighty Singh says:

    "a)Govt of India (:–BHEL,ONGC,NTPC,COAL INDIA ,SBI etc):- There jobs are got by your political strength at centre."
    ^ No. Those jobs are got through govt quotas. The farmer's son and daughter, can do a degree, masters and a doctorate but he / she still hasn't got a chance in hell of a job because he / she is a jatt. The jobs are reserved for the son and daughter of the chamar / chura. (incidentaly….even to get that degree the farmer's son / daughter needs 70% to pass whereas the chamar's son / daughter only needs 35%… get the same qualification). Like I said……the future is in the land. That land is not only among the most fertile on god's earth it is among the most expensive. 10 times more expensive than expensive UK and 20 times more expensive than cheap north America. I could fly out Punjab tomorrow, diversify my family land, grow flowers and set up a contract with a European wholesaler or retailer to sell direct to. It's time for the Punjabi farmer to rid himself of the bloodsucking vampite bhappa and Hindu who are getting fat on the back of the farmer's resource ; land.

  18. Satvinder says:

    Blighty Singh, I have tried to address your question here:
    I met mostly with families of suicide victims, meaning that the father and/or husband of the family had committed suicide. I am not only talking about farmers being in debt, but all individuals who work in agriculture are dealing with debt. This includes farmers and laborers. The culture in Panjab is entirely different from our Western culture, despite the fact that we are from Panjab. We need to keep this difference in mind when addressing the social issues of Panjab. We may have ideas for improvement, such as selling to a foreign retailer. However, an agricultural worker in Panjab does not have access to the resources necessary to take such action.

    Many children of suicide victims do attend sarkari schools and sarkari schools in Panjab are not always free. Although, they are much cheaper than private schools. I met three children who had lost both of their parents and were now being raised by their grandparents. Their grandfathers only source of income comes from caring for someone's goats throughout the night. The children go to a Sarkari School and they do pay a fee for their education. The grandfather claims that the benefit of sending them to a Sarkari school is that they receive a free meal, which also happens to be their largest meal of the day. BNES is working with this family and the Sarpanch of the village to help the family receive some type of pension from the government. Should these three children to get an education related to their grandfather's occupation?

    I'm not sure what you're referring to as Hotel Hospitality, and I'm not aware that there is such a course of study in Panjab's colleges. Why should an individual not have a chance to pursue an education outside of his of her parents' field of occupation. If the land in Panjab is becoming exhausted, is it not beneficial and wise for at least one child in these families to pursue an education outside of agriculture?

    Yes, the farmers are growing rice and the reason why they say they choose to grow it is because they are likely to get the highest returns for it.

    Each farmer used to own many buffaloes, but they have had to sell those buffaloes in order to pay off their debt or to invest in agriculture. It's difficult to say that people in Panjab are not willing to do dirty work. The families that I visited either did not own buffaloes or owned one buffalo per home. For those that do own a buffalo, they do care for it on their own. Their first priority is to use the milk for their home, then sell the milk that is left over, if any.

    Lastly, suicide is not an issue of caste, and I hope we can look beyond that.

  19. Harinder says:

    As for Rascisim remarks which are freely being exchanged at this site .
    I guess a the moderator got to take note of it and delete inapporpriate comments.

    Also for those who are strong proponents of RASCISM” they must rememeber .

    1) Sikh philosophy is against Rascism as it regards all humans as one.

    2) The Rascist amongst us must also read on Wikepedia about “RASCISM” “NAZISM” and WW -11 to know the grave consequences of rascism

  20. Harinder says:

    How is worker in Infosys or Wipro or ISRO or BHEL or Coal India or BALCO or STERILITE or ONGC or DRL or CIPLA or Punjabi Cinema or Bolly wood getting fat on farmers land ?
    I dont understand.

    Indias economy statistics :–

    a) Service industry accounts for —-57.2% of the country's GDP
    b) Industrial and contribute ———-28.6% of the country's GDP
    c) Agricultural sectors :—————-14.6% of the country's GDP

    Grow up there is a big world thriving outside the farming world.
    India /Punjab/World is not synonymous with farming.
    Good Luck


  21. Blighty Singh says:

    'English', Harinder. Try and understand it. Especially useful when attempting to communicate with others on a public message board. Why are you telling me about 'India' ? What do I care about 'India' ? My nations border stops just outside Ambala. You might as well quote me statistics about Borneo. They have as much relevance to me as a Sikh as your Indian stats do. Why are you telling me about the service industry in India when the topic is about who is making the money from the crops the Punjabi farmer grows….coz it sure as hell ain't the Punjabi farmer ? Why are you telling me about who is doing well out of the I.T industry in India when the topic is about who is doing well out of the massive loans being secured on the Punjabi farmers land……coz it sure as hell ain't the Punjabi farmer ? I'm sorry Harinder, but aside from your obvious English language deficiencies I'm beginning to think there's something quite wrong with you.

  22. Harinder says:

    Blighty let me first affirm to you I want all Farmers of Punjab to grow , prosper and fullfil all there dreams.
    The Chief minster of Punjab is a farmer and I as sure he will lead all the farmers of Punjab to there destiny they seek.
    Even if the statistics of Suicide exists in literature of world; I dont want even a single suicide in Punjab.
    But remember one thing while farming plays an indispendable role in any society.
    Human civilization including Punjabis have out grown farming as the only way of earning livelihood.

  23. Gurprret says:

    enough discussions and arguments; is there anyone ready to help these people via BNES? i have posted the same in a previous article by lanharhall, will only take 20 bucks between 2 friends per month to support a family.

  24. Harinder says:

    I will tell you don't give free fish. Teach them the art to catch a fish. There is no shortage of Jobs in today's world. It is just that due to the big stiff nose of Punjabis they will not do 80 % jobs available to them. I was in Delhi and seen it change for good. Metro rail ,flyover ,malls and not a single one has the sweat of Punjabi in it. So much for "KIRAT" as our root philosophy of our lives.

  25. […] MSP (minimum support price) and its insufficiency have a role in the outcomes? YES! But as a previous writer had demonstrated, it is not that alone. Farmer suicide is not equally geographically distributed throughout […]

  26. Pashaura Dhillon says:

    It is a good post and Satwinder certainly had her ear to the ground to hear the story the village Balran tries to tell her resulting in a good discussion that ensued.
    . . . " alternatives to agriculture, such as education and vocational training are an important resource that will allow young people, like Karamjit and Rani to find opportunities outside of farming and labor." So True! Look at the history of our adopted country we so cherish the US of A. During its transforming from an agaraian society to industrial one, the government created a whole breed of public school system on a war footing which became the best in the world for preparing the budding generation for the change. When the WWar ended and thousands of young men and women came home knowing only how to shoot a person dead, the government introduced the famous GI Bill, handing them the key to prepare themselves for the new challenges. Failing Public school system is holding India and especially Punjab not only back but rendering them hopeless, hence suicides. . ."Sabh ton khatrnaak hunda hai supneaan da mer Jaanaa." ( Punjabi poet Paash)

  27. S Qureshi says:

    I heard from my father about the same problem in Jhelum, Pakistan before the partition. My father told me that Baniyas (I suppose Hindus) used to lend money to uneducated small land holders/ farmers in our village and after farmers could not pay back the lone, Baniyas took their land piece by piece. Baniyas in Kala (a village just outside Jhelum city) became very rich this way. Now we do not have Hindus and Sikhs living in Jhelum, farmers do not barrow money from mandi people and they don't lose land. There is no suicide problem either. Of course we have other problems now :)
    Friends, please don't make it Pak vs India thing here. I told you what I heard. If some one have roots in Kala/ Jhelum can verify this.