Seasons of Trouble

The Maharashtra government’s efforts to provide mental-health care amid rising farmer suicides

19 April 2020

NILESH DHANPAL’S CROPS failed with depressing regularity for three years. Across his eight acres of land in the village of Belimandali in Amravati district, cotton, tur—pigeon pea—and oranges, three popular crops that farmers in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region depend on for their income, either rotted or yielded harvests of poor quality. One evening in December 2017, Dhanpal told his wife, Shubhangi, to save dinner for him, as he had to go out to check on some equipment. Shortly afterwards, an acquaintance of the family found him unconscious in a nearby toolshed, having swallowed a bottle of pesticide.

Despite efforts to make him vomit the poison and rush him to the closest hospital, Dhanpal, then 49 years old, passed away that night. His death was one among the 3,701 suicides of farmers and agricultural labourers in Maharashtra that year. He had a loan of Rs 7.5 lakh from two government banks, that his brothers had to subsequently pay off.

In the days leading up to his death, there were signs his family only knows how to read in hindsight. “He had started staying away from people, stopped talking much,” his elder brother, Narendra, told me. “He was extremely worried about his children’s future.” Narendra, a 58-year-old agricultural officer, lives with his wife, Meena, in the district headquarters of Amravati, 53 kilometers away from the village.

“He would tell me he didn’t know how he could go on like this,” Meena told me when I met her in Belmandali, in November last year. “He said he wanted to die. I kept telling him it would be okay, but being so far, I didn’t realise how serious things were.” 

Regret is corrosive, and Vidarbha is dotted with it. That is precisely what Maharashtra’s efforts to check mental illnesses and suicidal tendencies are trying to prevent. Yet, Dhanpal fell through the cracks in the system at a time when this district of Vidarbha was more equipped than ever to help farmers suffering with ailing mental health. Since 2015, Amravati has been one of 14 districts with a dedicated state scheme focussed on lowering farmer suicides. The Prerna Prakalp programme was started to catch farmers while they thought about suicide and help them before they took the final drastic step. The state also built its programme on the back of one of India’s pioneering experiments in community mental-health care, which took place in Vidarbha’s Amravati and Wardha districts. 

Aradhna Wal is a Delhi-based journalist.

Keywords: Maharashtra mental health Farmer Suicides farmer suicides in India agriculture