"And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained.”
I happened to be reading John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath while working on this story.
In the farmlands of southern India, mist hangs over fields of rice paddy and cotton. Dusty roads bump between farmers’ small plots of land. With a glance you can tell if a farmer is doing well. Usually the cotton is scarce and the corn is brown.
I was drawn to this story because these fields remind me of home…the farmlands of Indiana where I grew up playing with stray kittens in my grandfather’s creaky farmhouse. In Indiana life is determined by unforeseeable nature. Farmers rarely have an easy life. And there is a degree of earnestness…an earnestness that I found in India as well.
Suicide among India’s farmers is something I’ve heard about for some time now. In 2013 over 17,000 farmers committed suicide in India, which is probably a low estimate. Many go unreported by the government.
As a photojournalist, trying to get people interested in this story has been close to impossible. It’s India, people tend to say. People die. Even in India, the reaction is a shrug of the shoulders. Why aren’t people amazed by this high number? All over the world I have covered death. No where has it seemed so unimportant.
Farmers face many huge problems in India. Water insecurity due to climate change, expensive genetically modified seeds and unregulated money lending have all played a part in making agriculture synonymous with failure and little self-worth. And there are larger, global reasons why farmers disappearing from a country that has the second largest population in the world is a problem.
But it leaves the question, why suicide? It haunts me. I’ve met the wives of the husbands who have swallowed pesticide and talked to men who were unsuccessful in their attempts, white spots covering their skin, faces swollen. They talk of suicide as a fact, a thing that happened. Not something to feel. Not a disease. Not an emotion. My family has felt the weight of depression. But, from a completely different society, I don’t know how to translate these high numbers.
Are these suicides simply a reaction to extreme poverty? What is different about desperation here than in war zones I’ve covered? Or, could this be a type of protest? Does it hit a level of honor that is different to people of the Hindu faith? Is there something I can’t see? And, most of all, why is no one paying attention?