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2

Suicide is a taboo subject for conversation. Particularly what makes a person want to commit suicide or what to say in the face of their pain.

“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”
― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Suicide is a subject almost everyone has thought of at some point or the other. Almost everyone has wondered what it would be like to end our own life or how it could be done without confronting the great fear - pain, suffocation or other discomforts. Yet suicide remains a taboo subject. The feelings behind suicide. What makes someone commit suicide. We can talk statistics or prevention or helplines, but in the face of actual pain that drives a person to suicide, we have no skills. There is a difference between contemplating suicide and planning to commit suicide. An important one. The first is a fairly common and natural response to unbearable negative emotions. The other is an irreversible action.

I admit I have often considered suicide. I have written about suicide before too. From a perspective of statistics, from a perspective of understanding widespread distress needing political answers, from a perspective of empathy when I read about suicide, from a perspective of failing to support and grieving when someone I know commits suicide and I have also considered suicide as an option to end my own life when I was very sad. Yet, whenever I have tweeted about the subject, I have immediately got responses that amount to stopstopstopstopstopstopstopstopSTOP! It is so immediate that it would be hilarious if the subject were not grave. I have got helpline numbers as replies, I have got advice to not let dark thoughts enter my mind.

Hello! I write and tweet and comment and contemplate issues of human rights abuse. How in the world can one do that without having any dark thoughts? If I were planning to commit suicide, why would I be tweeting instead of finding myself a rope? I understand that it can sometimes be a cry for help by a distraught person, but if the rest of the words are perfectly normal, where is the harm in reading to find out what is being said?

Because here is the thing. Even if a person were tweeting about suicide publicly as a last ditch call for attention and help, the last thing they'd need is to be told to shut up or a sea of platitudes. What they would be needing is an empathetic listener who cares.

What exactly is this fear of talking about suicides?

“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

I admit I have spent a great deal of time contemplating committing suicide over the years. As in killing myself. I have been in unhappy relationships involving heartbreak, I've been in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic, I've been a broke single mother of a disabled child. Despair and depression are no strangers. And yet I am here, typing this post.

I have actually found thinking about suicide in great detail helpful. Instead of fearing the pain of death (and thus possibly taking a rash step "while I have the courage" maybe after a glass or two of vodka), I've gone and researched methods of suicide. What would cause the least pain? What are the consequences of failure? What is the best method so that it causes least pain and least risk of failing and living with permanent damage? And anyone who knows me knows that when I say research, I mean obsessive information finding till I am convinced I know the subject in and out without actual experience. Enough to make a very well considered decision. On and off, when I'm in utter despair, I've gone and rechecked all the information. And yet here I am, typing all this.

Is this a guarantee I will never commit suicide? No. But it pretty much guarantees that I have given it thorough thought and not found it a better tradeoff for now. It guarantees that if I do it, it will not be a thoughtless impulse, but a decision I take about my life after considering all options I have.

So how has contemplating suicide helped me?

By giving me an option. By giving me an exit from the pain. By giving me the concrete information that if all this gets unbearable, I still have the option to exit. In the process, a miracle happens. I am no longer cornered by my despair. I always have the cheat route out. And because I know that, I am never out of options. I lose the fear of making attempts to change my circumstances that could fail.  Just allowing myself to spend time thinking about ending myself is a catharsis. If no one else, at least I am acknowledging how bad things are. I am listening to myself. It helps me feel heard. It gives me a vocabulary for describing my situation when asking for help. No, I don't mean "I am suicidal, help me or else." I mean "This, this and this is the reason for my despair. I am not able to see functional ways out. I need help." - because hello, I've gone through all the reasons in my contemplation and have them now sorted out in my head.

And sometimes, in a very cynical way, the contemplations have saved me. If I don't care whether I live or die, why not try this one last thing or the other? If I hit a dead end, I can always die.

“Killing myself was a matter of such indifference to me that I felt like waiting for a moment when it would make some difference.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

Here is an example how. When I was younger, my emotions were more volatile. Taking what I felt seriously and giving it serious thought helped me see things more clearly and invariably, I ended up thinking that if there was any hope, I could use it and if there wasn't, well, I could always die. But the well thought out option being there and not at any threat of being taken off the table gave me the confidence to know I could opt for it any time and there was no need to do it right now. I could afford to wait and see. I am truly grateful no one immediately tried to stop me at such times, or I'd have been tempted to use the opportunity before someone blocked it from me.

Now I am older. I have a young disabled child. Whoever knows me knows that I'd chew my arm off before I allowed anything to harm him. Well, losing a mom would definitely harm him. So suicide is totally not an option any more. At least while he is alive. He needs me. Period. Again, if I hadn't thought this through, I could have been at risk of giving up without considering the impact.

In some of my more selfish and melodramatic ways, I've even thought "What will be, will be" If I am not there, someone or the other will care for my son, though I can't imagine who, right now. But then, in such a melodramatic moment, the desire is also to leave a lasting mark on the world when I die. And oops, it is not "orphaned kid in moment of despair". I'd like to be remembered for something better, thank you very much.

Whatever it is. Others may have their own reasoning. Still others may come to a well considered decision that suicide is actually a good choice for them, When my father was dying of Parkinson's, he had the option of looking forward to an indeterminate bed ridden existence with little control over his body, being bored out of his wits and too exhausted to do anything about it but to wait to die. He begged me to kill him almost every week. It is illegal and I have two more dependents, or I would definitely have arranged for him to be freed as per his will if it were legal. Others do it out of poverty. Starvation. When the alternative is to live in debt and watch your family suffer with no hope of ever providing for them in sight, it can be a brutal life to look forward to, and death may simply be a matter of running out of the ability to fight.

“Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank -- but that's not the same thing.”
― Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer and other stories

Whatever it is, however it plays out, a suicide is not about dying or exiting the world, it is about escaping unbearable torment. A person who feels unheard and uncared for, is unlikely to respond to a panicked flood of platitudes that s/he has heard a hundred times that drowns their voice all over again, even in the contemplation of death.

How agonized we are by how people die. How untroubled we are by how they live. ~ P. Sainath

My suggestion is that we all examine what this fear is that stops us from listening on hearing that word. Because the lives of many around us could depend on how we respond to their pain. If someone has made a well considered decision to die, there isn't much we can do about it, but if someone is screaming into a void of despair, perhaps us offering a listening ear will give them the space to be heard, and in the process get a clearer view of their situation.

What do you think?

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Business Standard has written a piece challenging the data on farmer suicides from Uttar Pradesh titled "As farmers commit suicide, Uttar Pradesh hides their deaths". It is a pretty good piece and necessary. In the interests of accuracy of information, I am pointing out a correction in the statistics attributed to P. Sainath in the article.

Over 20 years—between 1991 and 2011—more than 1.5 million farmers, distressed by crop failure and death, committed suicide across India, according to P. Sainath, journalist and Magsasay Award winner, who analysed National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data. The NCRB reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs, collecting data every year from states.

The article linked to from the Hindu site is indeed by P. Sainath, but provides no data that will offer the number of suicides as 1.5 million.

To the best of my knowledge, the number of farmer suicides, as per NCRB data and quoted by P. Sainath is "nearly 296,438 farmers between 1995 and 2013 (both years included)". This, being five times less than 1.5 million, deserved a clarification, though it does not detract from the point the article makes about fudged farmer suicide data in Uttar Pradesh in any way. For more information, you may read "Maharashtra crosses 60,000 farm suicides".

Disclosure: I (Vidyut) publish P. Sainath's blog.

The Election Commission has issued notice to Ashok Chavan for fudging poll expenses and asking him why he should not be disqualified (a pointless question, me thinks - what possible answer could be there?).

"The commission is of the considered view that respondent (Ashok Chavan) cannot validly claim ignorance about the publication of the above-mentioned 25 advertisements in which his name, the name of his constituency and also his photograph prominently appeared."

If you remember, this was the case broken in The Hindu by Sainath and others in 2009 that put "paid news" on our attention maps (leading to further delicious scandals, but little action).

A quick reminder of the creative accounting involved:

 

Ashok Chavan (of Adarsh Scam fame) submitted election expenses to the Eletion Commission of India stated that he spent less than 7 lakh on his total election campaign, inluding Rs. 5,379 on newspaper advertisements (for 6 ads in one minor daily) and Rs.6,000 on cable television ads. Burst out laughing, didja? The Hindu stated that it had collected 47 full page color advertisements in newspapers (including at least one full front page and major dailies ) like Lokmat (which is among the 10 largest newspapers in India and top in Maharashtra -NRS 2006). Essentially, Chavan submitted acounts that would give him a full color page in a newspaper for less than Rs. 200.

It opened a whole new can of worms that culminated in the Supreme Court drawing the line and issuing a deadline in the peak of the Election frenzy.

P. Sainath and others in The Hindu had covered painstakingly over a series of 21 exposes dogging every development in the case and collecting full page after full page of color advertisements in investigations, with this notice to Ashok Chavan.

It is unclear what reply the Election Commission now expects, but no surprises are anticipated and we may finally see a precedent that sets they way for further action in controlling this open secret of media-political corruption.

Absurdly, Ashok Chavan seems to have lost his sanity, as he seems to see himself being found guilty a vindication of the Congress stand - whatever that means, since the Congress had actually tried to disempower the Election Commission to protect him - and failed. For what it is worth, this is what he reportedly said:

"Our stand on the paid news issue has been confirmed by the Election Commission. Even the High court and Supreme court had taken a similar stand when our opponents had filed a petition. The courts had rejected their petition. Now this (EC) order is also very clear. There is no question of paid news,"

Or perhaps he means that he has been found guilty of fudging his bills for paid advertisements and not news. One never knows what fig leaf a politician will grab.

This comes at a particularly sentimental moment, as P. Sainath, the senior journalist who broke the case ends his career at The Hindu with a sense of closure on one of the major long investigations he did there.

Disclosure: I manage P. Sainath's blog with his writing in a technical and administrative capacity.

4

The report tabled by the all party Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture in the Parliament on 9th August 2012 titled "Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops - Prospects and Effects" is unanimous and superb and I recommend that you read it. This post is about the Parliamentary Standing Committee's visit to Vidarbha - famous for cotton farming and farmer suicides and valiant efforts of the oh-so-caring Maharashtra Government to deny them voice. Maharashtra government still tried to take credit for the visit they did everything to prevent. Brazen.

The all party Parliamentary Standing Committee for Agriculture scheduled a visit to the villages Maregaon and Bhambraja (Mosanto's model village as per Times of India) on the insistence of Kishore Tiwari and others of the Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti. Plans were in place; details and timings had been discussed, but Maharashtra is the unbeaten farmer suicide champ for five years running. That kind of "success" doesn't come from letting farmers get attention! On the day of the visit, the Government of Maharashtra conspired to (no other word for this) con the Committee into a token visit with "progressive farmers", described as "bigger farmers with irrigated lands" and "input dealers and traders" (sold things needed for farming - seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc).

The Committee was at the Circuit House near Panderkauda - a small cotton trading town about five kilometers from Maregaon when farmer activists who would have none of the sham were able to get word across to the Committee through rural reporter P. Sainath, who was expecting them in Maregaon, who in turn was able to get through to Basudeb Acharia on phone. Minister Basudeb Acharia was superb. He stood up and declared that he would go to the affected villages on the original plan - alone if need be - and told everyone to join him there.

Attempts to dissuade failed, they discovered that time was short to go to both villages, as a meeting at 4:30pm was rescheduled to start at 2:30pm and they wouldn't be able to go the 170km to Bhambraja and return on time.  Dr. Sudhir Kumar Goel, principal secretary for agriculture in Maharashtra was in charge of the visit and stage managing this farce. They decided to go to Maregao, which was 5km from there. The Maharashtra MLAs did not go, but the entire Parliamentary Committee did. Every single one of them. [I have drawn my own conclusions here.]

Some two thousand people crowded to meet them in spite of a police cordon under the auspices of Maharashtra government to prevent more people from more villages coming in. The state sold a dream of prosperity to these people and continued to promote it in the face of devastation it wreaked. Sharad Pawar had toured the region promoting genetically modified cotton. Government agencies and colleges like Dr. Panjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth in Akola and Central Institute of Cotton Research (CICR) had promoted GM seed crop. While traditional crops resulted in seeds for future sowing, a culture of profit had been built along with the Green Revolution of recommending new purchases of seeds every year. Newer varieties would be designed to not be viable if farmers tried to sow seeds from the crop. Terminator technology to protect patents.

It was a conspiracy and a monopoly. Pre-Bt hybrid seeds sold for around Rs. 300-350 per packet of 450g. Bt at its worst (before the AP govt initiated legal action against Mahyco-Monsanto) sold at Rs. 1650-1800 per packet of 450 grams (which would mean around Rs. 3500-400 per kg. Pre-Bt hybrids would this have been around Rs. 700 per kg. Additional needs in fertilizers and "micro-nutrients" drove cultivation costs up. The government scale of finance went from Rs.5.000/- to Rs.25,000/- per acre.

GM cotton needs a lot of water, and is less tolerant of shortage. During the same duration, mismanagement and scams brought irrigated land down from 8% to 6%. The difference between the success stories  being peddled and the devastation is irrigation. Irrigated land performs fine in Vidarbha too. However, with 90% of the land under dryland farming: No rain = No cotton. Die, farmer, die. 65 years post independence, we haven't figured out irrigation, but we are planning a mission to Mars.

When the crop succeeded, the main chunk of the harvest was to repay loans. When the crops failed... a far greater investment than before was lost. Taking the cash out of cash crops. There has been a rise in illnesses in the village since 2005, devastating finances further. Chicken gunia, leukemia and renal failure count among serious ones. GM crops may not be the cause, but timings matched and it needed urgent investigation.

This was the sea of desperation waiting for the Parliamentary Committee. And boy, did they listen! Faced with the outpouring of stories, the Committee, one and all, were magnificent and opened their hearts and ears and listened with patience and attention. Many of them from farming backgrounds themselves, they were able to understand what the farmers were going through as well as were not taken in by the Maharashtra Government's efforts to mislead them. To quote Sainath, "They asked the right questions, listened to the right people and behaved like true leaders and parlimentarians". And for once, "behaving like a true parliamentarian" was not an insult. 

Let us get this straight. MPs of *All parties* together at same place, listening to the the aam janata? It happened in such an elegant and caring way that it had gratitude ringing in the words describing it. Who would have thunk it? I am still shaking my head in disbelief.

New farmers slipped past the police cordon and disrupted the meeting. They had discovered that the Committee had canceled the plan of visiting Bhambraja, their village. They refused to let the meeting continue till the committee agreed to visit them. As the leader of the Committee, Basudeb Acharia again rose to the occasion. Pointing out that all the members need not be present for the miraculously preponed meeting, he proposed that a few MPs go to Bhambraja while the others continue to the meeting and both groups fill each other in on what was missed. Congress National Spokesperson Satyavrat Chaturvedi led a small group of four MPs to Bhambraja.

Here died the myth of the model village. 14 widows of farmers who committed suicide met the MPs where farmer suicides were denied. "Prosperity", "production" and other fairy tales were laid to rest and relentless debunking happened. The report stands testament of how much was spoken and heard. Two MPs from BJP and JD(U) with strong farming ties, touched the villagers with their empathy, though Kishore Tiwari forgot names. The extend of apathy towards farmers lay exposed. One revelation I found bizarre and infuriating was motors for irrigating fields given as part of relief measures to reduce their distress. Had they received them? Yes, and the motors were rotting in their homes for five years, without electricity connections being allocated. #Facepalm doesn't begin to cover things like this.

A third of the village had left their fields fallow. The soil was barren. The villagers had no idea of the Times of India story. A few prosperous villagers had been taken to a large, lush green irrigated farm belonging to a distributor in Beed and their photographs had been clicked there as visuals of their prosperity. Their incomes from other sources - were passed off as prosperity from BtCotton. Money lenders were not being chased out of villages but Monsanto representatives. Feeble attempts at euphemizing losses by Monsanto representatives were shredded by villagers.

In the end, the MPs verified what they had understood. They asked the villagers to confirm that they had been heard right. And, with minor corrections and additions, they had. They had heard, and they had noted and that is the reason why you should take time to read this report.

The villagers had wanted a ban on Bt Cotton. 12 varities of Bt cotton from Mahyco seeds were banned by the government of Maharashtra  -  as Mahyco's licence to sell them was withdrawn. This was not done, though on the basis of ani-Bt action, but on the grounds of serious irregularities Mahyco has been charged with by the government. Other rabbits from that hat are in normal business and a new rabbit called Krishidaan from the same hat is trying to take over the seed market with maybe a helpful nudge from this token ban, unless, of course, Mahyco "cleans up" their act. Not to be ruled out. "Miracles" are a dime a dozen here. The Maharashtra government takes its lead position on farmer suicides seriously.

I value about this visit the robust and life affirming view of our parliamentarians. That too, politicians from *all* political parties AND working with each other, unanimous in the interest of the aam aadmi. Politicians with roots in the soil, who understand the concerns of the farmer. This report with its no nonsense attitude and research oriented approach, as well as these stories of leaders with a heart give me hope that we may make something useful out of ourselves yet.

Standing ovation to Minister Basudeb Acharia and the ALL PARTY Parliamentary Standing Committee for their magnificent report "Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops - Prospects and Effects" [please read] and listening with such caring! Bravo!