"I don't go to the room where he hung himself, when I do my heart starts palpitating as if it will explode. I keep that door shut because I saw his body hanging," said Sarita as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Sarita is a 21-year-old widow of a migrant labourer and a single mother of a two-year-old boy.
Sarita's husband Ajay hanged himself to death in July 2020. His name is just another name in a list of 408 other farmers and migrant labourers who died by suicide in only three districts of Uttar Pradesh's most impoverished region, Bundelkhand — Banda, Mahoba and Chitrakoot, in the last year and a half.
Ajay Kumar was a 24-year-old daily wage labourer who worked in an aluminium plant in Vadodara, Gujarat. During the countrywide COVID-19 induced lockdown in March 2020, he walked 15 days to reach his village in Banda, Uttar Pradesh in May 2020.
After he returned, Ajay frantically searched for a job as the debt on his family grew. A month later, Ajay gave up and hanged himself in his own house. Leaving behind a wife, a two-year-old son and a family of six.
"This bamboo that you see, this is where he hung himself," said Sarita as she pointed towards the ceiling, "I don't enter this room anymore."
Why Did Farmers & Migrant labourers Kill Themselves?
Why were hundreds of these farmers and migrant labourers like Ajay compelled to take their own lives? There are three primary reasons that were common between the stories of suicides that we came across on the ground-- Unemployment, landlessness & huge losses in farming, and no work and payments under MNREGA.
All of this led to huge debts, making everyday sustenance a challenge and even putting together two square meals a day became a struggle.
"If there were no lockdown because of COVID he wouldn't have done this to himself. If he had gotten some work he would still have been around us. Here, with us," said Sarita.
"After he came back to the village, he started looking for work but found nothing. He was in a lot of tension. He also had to repay the loans my in-laws had to take during the lockdown. He also took loans from his friends. He would go in search of work every day and come back empty-handed. This was his primary worry," recalls Sarita.
"There was no work, he would leave in the morning and come back disheartened."
Number of Suicides in 2020 was Higher than 2019
"'A labourer's corpse found hanging.' This is from Tenduari village," said Raja Bhaiyya, a regional activist who works with the Vidhya Dham Samiti in Banda, Bundelkhand, as he read aloud headlines from a file which has hundreds of newspaper clippings collected over the last one and a half year.
'Young migrant labourer died by suicide.'
'Farmer under debt hanged himself to death.'
'Migrant labourer's corpse found hanging'
"This is the file where we have documented these deaths through newspaper reports," said Raja Bhaiya
"All the labourers who migrated back to the village during the lockdown kept asking for work but got nothing. When the situation worsened for their families, they took debt. Most of these were landless and had no source of income. Many failed to receive any loans. Because of these reasons, all these labourers took their lives," said Raja Bhaiyya.
"8,761 people committed suicide due to unemployment, bankruptcy or indebtedness in the year 2020," said Nityanand Rai, Minister of State of Home Affairs in the Rajya Sabha.
The number of suicides in 2020 was 24% higher than in 2019.
25,251 people lost their lives because of financial crises between 2018 and 2020 according to the home ministry.
"Ajay hanged himself because of financial distress. He walked home in the lockdown, there was no work here. One day he came back in the evening and hanged himself," said Sanjay, Ajay's neighbour.
Others like Ajay who Died by Suicide Also Have Similar Stories
"Someday there was work, some days there wasn't. This is why he was stressed," said fifteen-year-old Rakhi, "when I opened the door, I saw my brother hanging."
Rakhi's brother, twenty-year-old Pyare Lal died by suicide in June 2020.
He was a farmer who also taught tuition classes and when that stopped during the lockdown, he started selling samosas.
Pyare has left behind a family of 3 with two sisters who were entirely dependent on him.
Financial Strain-- The Common Link
Rajju Prasad was a 23-year-old labourer who worked in Surat, Gujarat. He died by suicide 15 days after he reached his home in Banda in March 2020.
"When he came back he found no work here, he made some money there but he had to walk back. Then he stayed here for 15 days, he would say to me 'Mother, there is nothing, what will we eat. If the government doesn't give any work, we will die of hunger,'" recalls sixty-year-old Jalkesha, Rajju's mother.
"My brother worried about where will he get money from. He could not go back to Gujarat because of the lockdown. His boss had told him 'I will not give you a rupee, go back to your village'. Did he find any work in the village? No. He had to sit idle here, so he kept thinking and then took his life," said Kamlesh, 18, Rajju's brother who is also a daily wage labourer.
Even after Kamlesh's brother met his tragic fate, situation continues to be the same for this family, "There is no money for hospital treatment, I don't even have a rupee. We don't even have anything to eat," said Kamlesh, "I have no money, tell me what do I do. There is no work. If these troubles continue I will also do what my brother did."
There are no employment opportunities in these villages. No Work is available under MNREGA. And earnings through agriculture are dismal.
"In our village 95% of people are migrant labourers, almost everyone. When migrant workers came back during the lockdown, they were given no work. Nothing under MNREGA. Even when work was available for two-three days under MNREGA, they filled up fake job cards to withdraw money and labourers were given only Rs 500 each, but most got no work at all," said Usha Nishad a social worker and a daily wage labourer.
While these stories and numbers are unsettling. These are only the reported deaths. The actual number of deaths might be much higher.
"These are the deaths where a post-mortem was done and reports were published in the newspapers," said Raja Bhaiyya, "several suicide deaths are never reported due to a fear of a police case and bodies are secretly cremated. We do not have this data and the real numbers must be higher."
None of the families that we spoke with, received any monetary compensation or support from the government. These families continue being pushed further into debt and poverty
"I feel angry at him for having done this. He should've told something to me or the family, we would have found some solution," said Sarita.
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