Suicide figures in India present a confusing, paradoxical picture of the country.
Recent statistics indicate trends that challenge common perceptions about different regions of the country. More importantly, they expose the deep vulnerabilities that threaten India’s future, mocking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s slogan for “acche din [good days].”
Closest to Bangladesh, Sikkim is a highly complex zone that paradoxically includes some of the most disturbed and peaceful areas in India. It is common knowledge that Sikkim is the best administered and the most economically stable state in the region.
Effective governance, with its emphasis on promoting tourism and welfare schemes, has helped in maintaining an ambience of harmony and social stability in Sikkim.
Sikkim, which lies close to Bhutan, remains the prime tourist attraction in the northeast.
However, a study of suicide figures from recent years exposes how deceptive such appearances can be.
It is surprising how Sikkim enjoys the dubious honour of surpassing more problem-ridden Indian states when it comes to suicides. In 2012, this little arcadia of peace accounted for 291 suicides per 100,000 people in India. In contrast, the politically volatile and most densely packed state in India, West Bengal, has ranked 9th among 28 states in this regard.
In 2013, it was Puducherry’s turn to make it to the top of the list – with 293 deaths per 100,000 people – but Sikkim still remained at number two with 291 deaths per 100,000. In 2014, Sikkim topped the list with 244 suicides.
Sixty-seven victims were jobless, which indicates a weakness of the State’s economy – this detail does not make it to the glossy tourism brochures.
For some reason, the latest statistics about suicides in India are not available from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) sources. In broad terms, according to official sources, 7,696 people took their own lives in 2011; in 2012, the figure dropped to 6,654; in 2013, it was 8,423; for 2014, it was 8,068; and in 2015, it was 8,934.
However, if the number of people who tried to kill themselves unsuccessfully is included, it is feared that the suicide-related figures would have been much higher.
Observers point out that these are unusually high figures that reflect the grim underside of living in India.
Disturbingly, most suicides occur among the 15 to 29 age group – which includes educated job seekers.
If Sikkim is the worst in terms of the suicide-to-population ratio, highly developed Maharashtra comes first in recording the highest fatalities in sheer numbers. In Maharashtra, altogether 1,230 people killed themselves in 2015 – most of them were also job seekers.
Economist Shounak Mukherjee said: “This must come as a shock to most Indians. The flourishing Western region – where Mumbai is located along with its major ports and the mighty Gujarat state – is India’s hub of economic development.
“Billions of rupees are being invested here in massive projects. Daily, thousands of people from other states migrate to these parts in search of work. If people still commit suicide, it can only mean that the economic situation in other parts of India must be very grim indeed.”
Maharashtra was followed by Tamil Nadu (955 suicides), West Bengal (676 suicides) Madhya Pradesh (625 suicides) and Chhattisgarh (625 suicides) the same year. Lack of jobs is the main reason for almost 30% of the suicides recorded. Then there are other reasons like depression, frustration, and strains and stresses within families.
The majority of jobless victims come from specific castes and communities, poorer families and in terms of education, with a background in arts and humanities, according to NCRB sources. Over 70% of the affected families reported earnings below Rs100,000 annually, putting them well below the poverty line. However, many families with annual incomes between Rs100,000 and Rs500,000 also suffered.
These facts, says one observer, explain why India trails behind countries like Sri Lanka or Bangladesh in certain sectors of human resource development index (HDI).
According to World Health Organization (WHO) sources, India spends only 0.06% of its annual budget on mental health issues. In Bangladesh, the figure is 0.44%, while other countries in Asia spend up to 4%. Furthermore, it is officially admitted that in the sphere of mental counselling, India falls woefully behind other countries with an estimated shortage of a staggering 87%.
A Kolkata-based commentator said: “Instead of claiming India as Asia’s success story, Prime Minister Modi should address these pressing issues in his highly publicized ‘Mann ki baat ’[radio program hosted by Modi in which he addresses the people of the nation on All India Radio, DD National and DD News]. These are life and death issues.”
Sikkim has set up a crisis centre specifically to address the problem of increasing suicides and counsel common people. In this case, Sikkim is well ahead of other states. But clearly there is hard work ahead of them, if they wish to check the rising curve of suicides.
The broad national figure of suicides is 106 per 100,000 in India. West Bengal is not doing well either. Its average is considerably over the national figure, at 155 deaths.
Not to press a political point, it needs stressing that during the rule of the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-run government – headed by Mamata Banerje in West Bengal since 2011 – there was a sharp deterioration in this regard.
Even when there were fewer suicides in India as a whole in 2013 and 2014, West Bengal was the exception – here, the ratio had gone up by 10 points in the two years. In contrast, economically stronger Gujarat under Modi as chief minister, accounted for the smallest rise during the same period. In these two years, there were also lower figures reported from Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, among major states.
Clearly the TMC has some explaining to do. What should worry TMC leaders is that to leave the jobless alone, of which the highest proportion is found in West Bengal – where 27% of the victims were either unemployed or self-employed. This is not an endorsement of the TMC chief minister’s claim that she has provided “something or other economically to most of the 10-miliion population of the state.” Her tall claims about empowering the poor, too, ring hollow.
An article recently published in a Bengali daily in the north of west Bengal effectively sums up the depressing situation of suicides prevailing in the state. It says: “Bengalis today are a dispirited people. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has plenty of reasons to feel concerned. A people without resources – Bengalis are well behind Gujaratis, Marathis or Kannadigas.
“They [Bengalis] are seeking a way out of their miseries through suicides. Because of lack of investments, there is no increase in employment – nor is there much prospect to start self-sufficient economic ventures on a firm footing for most people.”
Further comments, in this regard, are unnecessary. But the question remains, is the chief minister listening to cry of the people?
This article was first published on banglatribune.com