Arshad Shaikh looks at the latest NCRB data on suicides and finds that suicide rates in India are at the highest ever recorded levels. What is even more troubling is that some of the highest suicide rates were found among students and the self-employed. The number of suicides by farmers and farm labourers is also worrying. It is important to try and decipher the reasons behind these suicides. Some reasons are personal and can be attributed to the individual’s inability to cope with the stress and strain induced by straitened circumstances. However, society along with government policies too plays a huge role in this disturbing phenomenon. Everybody needs to extend a helping hand to reverse this tragic trend of people ending their lives preferring death over a life of pain and misery.
A calendar year has 5,25,600 minutes. According to the latest data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 1,64,033 people committed suicide in India in 2021. That makes it one suicide every 3 minutes and 12 seconds. The number of suicides in 2020 and 2019 was 1,53,052 and around 1,30,000 respectively. The 2021 figure shows an increase of 7.2% from 2020.
The NCRB, which falls under the Ministry of Home Affairs, released the Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India (ADSI) and Crime in India (CII) reports for 2021 that shed light on the number of people taking their own lives in our country. Data shows the economically weaker sections of society (whose annual income is less than Rs 1 lakh) make up nearly two-thirds of all suicides.
Categorising suicides according to the profession of the person, we find that suicide rates were highest among self-employed (entrepreneurs), students, farmers, and agricultural labourers. The largest share of suicides was found among the daily wage earners. They make up nearly a fourth of all suicides in 2021.
Looking at the number of suicides across geographies, Maharashtra was on top followed by Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, and Karnataka. Surprisingly, Uttar Pradesh with the highest population (17% of India) has a comparatively low suicide rate. In terms of deaths per 100,000 (one lakh), the pan-India 2021 number of 12 shows an increase of 6.1% over the previous year (2020) and is the highest level ever recorded.
Measured by deaths per one lakh population, Andaman and Nicobar Islands saw the highest rate of suicide (39.7), followed by Sikkim (39.2), Puducherry (31.8), Telangana (26.9), and Kerala (26.9).
ADSI data also shows that more than 17,000 farmers committed suicide between 2018 and 2020. Six hundred farmers took their own lives in Maharashtra this year between January and August. According to a CNN report, more than 30 farmers commit suicide every day.
The number of students committing suicide in India is also alarming. According to NCRB, one student takes his/her life every hour. Every day around 28 students commit suicide in our country as we celebrate 75 years of our Independence from colonial rule.
There are many reasons behind a person preferring death to life. The most common are depression, traumatic stress, substance abuse and impulsivity, fear of loss (due to academic failure, financial problems, job loss, possibility of being jailed, and loss of social status). However, these reasons are confined to the individual. In most cases, the one who commits suicide reaches this condition because of society and even government policies that lead to such a dire situation.
Let us take the case of students first. The foremost-cited reason is exam-related stress. The culture of publicising exam results, hero-worshipping exam toppers and linking the exam marks of a student to his/her potential success or failure in life – all contribute to the overwhelming pressure on students to achieve peak performance irrespective of their aptitude or capacity. If they cannot get good marks for their parents or family, they are assumed irresponsible and accused of lowering the family’s prestige. All this and more force students to end their lives because they think they are worthless and a blot on their parents.
The city of Kota in Rajasthan is famous for offering coaching/tuitions for various competitive exams in India. However, besides the tag of being the “coaching capital” of India, Kota has now acquired the infamous title of being the “suicide city” of India. The other reasons for students committing suicide are their anguish for not being able to afford the course of their choice, anxiety built over anticipating not being “job-worthy” and being forced to take up jobs that they consider to be “below their dignity”.
IS THE ECONOMY TO BLAME?
Despite agriculture and its allied industries, employing more than half the population of India, its contribution to the GDP is only to the tune of 20%. According to NSO data, the average monthly income per agricultural household (2018-19) was `10,218. This translates to `277 a day income of farm households.
Typical factors contributing to our agrarian crisis is the absence of a remunerative and timely system of procurement of farm produce/ minimum support price (MSP), nonexistence of any interest-free credit, reducing land holding and lack of basic education and health facilities in rural India where most of our farmers reside.
Adding to the woes of farmers is the fact that almost two-thirds of all cultivated land is dependent on monsoons. It is not surprising then that India has one of the highest numbers of farmers committing suicide.
A similar kind of problem confronts our labourers. Despite accounting for 94% of all workers, the unorganised sector contributes only about a half of India’s GDP. According to ILO (International Labour Organisation) data, the “the average wage in India was about 247 rupees (INR) per day, and the average wage of casual workers was an estimated INR 143 per day.”
Post demonetisation and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the plight of daily wagers multiplied manifold in the absence of a “dole” (benefit paid by the state to the unemployed) as practised in many Western countries.
Growing incidence of suicides by daily wagers is an outcome of the state not providing any social security net. In 2021, 100 daily wagers died by suicide every day. Is the state not complicit in this tragedy?
THE THEOLOGICAL PRISM
Committing suicide is considered a crime in most countries. However, there is a trend to decriminalise it in some Western nations. In India, attempted suicide carries a very light sentence of a year under Section 309, which also has Section 119 that states, “any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to be suffering from mental illness at the time of attempting suicide and shall not be liable to punishment under the said section.”
For example, Islam views suicide as a sin and a crime. As life is a gift or a trust bestowed on man by God, the real owner of life is God and not man. Hence, man cannot take his own life as he deems fit. God alone has the divine right of taking life. This concept needs to be ingrained in the minds of those who might contemplate suicide. It will definitely save many precious lives.
Aristotle wisely said: “To run away from trouble is a form of cowardice and, while it is true that the suicide braves death, he does it not for some noble object but to escape some ill.”