"We received a call from this distressed farmer who was facing legal problems about the succession of his land. He was prepared to take his life and had called us as the last resort."
The neighbours of an Adilabad farmer saw him sitting in his field with an expression of utter hopelessness. Sudden floods that season had destroyed his crop and the staggering debt on his shoulders had left him with no choice. The Telangana farmer could not see any light at the end of this dark tunnel and finding release by drinking a bottle of pesticide seemed like the only way out.
This was one of the many instances that Shruti N, a psychologist told The Better India (TBI).
“You see, it is the social conditioning that makes more men than women commit suicide. Traditionally, men are told that they should be able to take care of their problems than sharing them with anyone else. And so, even when the problems get too difficult to handle, they suppress their frustration, their sadness within themselves. Months and years of such suppression are bound to blast out in one way or the other,” she tells TBI.
Fortunately for the farmer, his neighbours counselled him and dialled 1800-120-3244, the Kisan Mitra helpline.
On the line was a counsellor trained to speak to those farmers who stand at the threshold of ending their lives.
And Shruti N heads the team of helpers who handle the distress calls.
Kisan Mitra, a not-for-profit organisation focuses on last mile delivery services for farmers. The NGO acts as a bridge between government and farmers to resolve issues and makes sure farmers get access to all their entitlements. The NGO also works with Telangana farmers to help them make the shift to sustainable farming. This transition might not only yield them higher profits but also reduce the cost of production substantially. Apart from securing a more financially stable future for the farmers, Kisan Mitra has another department that handles distress calls by farmers who are depressed. This is where Shruti and her all-female team of counsellors are trying to make a difference.
So what is troubling the Telangana farmers?
Four thousand farmers have committed suicide since the inception of Telangana. The state stands at a deplorable second position in the country in terms of farmer suicides.
“We must understand that it is not merely the never-ending debts and poor climatic conditions that drive the farmers to commit or attempt to commit suicide. These are reasons that develop over a long period. If you observe, a majority of men committing suicide as compared to women. Women talk. Men are encouraged to be only strong, not vulnerable. These norms need to change, but till then, we are here to talk to them and try to solve their problems,” Shruti says.
The psychologist shares another instance where a young farmer who, after months of trying to deal with his stress alone, finally opened up to his wife on the proviso that she does not divulge it to anyone else. He threatened her with suicide if she did.
Such is the perception of pride and shame in many rural parts of India that it is considered better to take your own life than talk about your problems.
Shruti further says that she is currently studying how malnutrition is partly the cause of depression in rural people. She also explained that the pesticides and fertilisers that the farmers spray, without proper gear, are nerve-numbing and long-term exposure to these poisons can also contribute to depression.
The helpline team:
Shruti, who is from Hyderabad, was working as a psychologist in a renowned hospital in her hometown when she realised that though mental health is a serious global issue, psychologists and psychiatrists are mainly available only in urban areas. The rural parts are excluded from the share.
She had already been volunteering with Kisan Mitra when she decided to shift her complete focus to Telangana’s villages.
Shruti’s team of counsellors are all women with two male coordinators assisting the team. Some of the team members come from the districts of Adilabad, Mancherial and Vikarabad in Telangana where Kisan Mitra is active. Volunteers from the NGO have travelled to these remote places since the formation of this helpline in April 2017.
Kisan Mitra handpicked women who showed a genuine interest in helping their neighbours, had an inclination toward social work and were well connected across various villages. The NGO coached these exceptional women and deployed them as on-field consultants and on-call counsellors. The on-fields consultants are women who belong to the aforementioned districts.
One of the most important supports of the Helpline is IAS officer Divya Devarajan, the District Collector of Adilabad.
Shruti tells of an incident where Devarajan helped a farmer who was in dire stress due to the problem of succession of land. As his deceased father’s name was misspelt in the legal documents, he was not able to transfer the ownership to himself. He called the helpline as a last resort.
“He was prepared to take his life and had called us as a last resort. Within one day, we were able to resolve his problem and transfer the ownership to his name. Of course, this was possible with the help of the IAS officer,” informs Shruti.
The work they undertake:
Talking and sharing solves many problems that farmers face but listening is not all that Kisan Mitra does. Speaking to EffortsForGood, Shruti said, “Most of the farmers do not have any persistent mental health issues or depression which may evoke suicidal tendencies. They are circumstantial sufferers. Life struggles corner them into a helpless situation. The thought of making his family and children suffer is too difficult for him at times.”
Kisan Mitra knows that one or two instances are just the surface. They know that for each farmer that comes to them for help, there might be about 15-20 others who are silently facing the same challenges. The Helpline is aiming to resolve issues at the village level.
In addition to counselling desperate farmers, the Helpline also speaks to farmers who are suicide survivors.
“We visit them in the hospitals and try to understand what drove them there. One of the examples I can cite is of an Adilabad farmer who reportedly committed suicide after an argument with his wife. Upon asking him about his decision, we found that the argument was about his wife’s refusal to work with him on their farm. She refused to work fearing the floods and asked her husband to stop working in the field too. Worried about how he will repay loans without working in the fields, he consumed poison,” she explains.
There could be many reasons that can drive a farmer to the edge of desperation. Zeroing in on these triggers and finding ways to help the victims cope with them is what Kisan Mitra is currently doing.
In the two years of its establishment, Kisan Mitra helpline has received over 8000 phone calls, and the team of counsellors have helped at least 4000 of them. Whether legal, agricultural or personal, the group leaves no stone unturned in assisting farmers in finding solutions. And it is inspiring women like Shruti, and her team who lend a hand to farmers find their way out of depression and isolation.
You can read in detail about Kisan Mitra and the work they are doing here.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)