(RNS) — In 2021, a year marked by global struggle, isolation and challenges, one bit of hopeful news shone through. In November, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi repealed three farm bills that were at the center of a massive, monthslong Indian farmers protest, which many have described as the largest protest in human history.
Sikh farmers in the northern state of Punjab initiated the protests, but it became a pan-Indian movement with support all around the globe. Their triumph was a victory for these essential workers and the most vulnerable among us, and it was also a much-needed example of the possibilities of collective resistance to achieve a measure of justice.
While many who empathize with the plight of Indian farmers are still celebrating, we also recognize that there is much more work to be done: The farmers’ resistance to the new legislation was not born from a few farm bills but from decades of mounting injustices.
Long before the farm bills were introduced, scholars, journalists and officials the world over had identified the rash of suicides among India’s farmers as a national epidemic. We know that one Indian farmer dies by suicide every 30 minutes. Analysts have rightly pointed to factors such as minimum support prices, accelerating environmental degradation and rising agricultural debt.
We are concerned, however, that other contributing factors are being overlooked. It’s critical that we take the time and care to understand the compounded problems that Indian farmers face and that we go beyond what’s apparent at the surface.
There is no way to provide a comprehensive list of the problems underlying India’s farm policies, nor is this an attempt to propose all the solutions. Rather, we’re aiming to call attention to what we’ve seen on the ground in Punjab in visits over the past decade, and what we have learned in our conversations with local nongovernmental organizations such as the Baba Nanak Educational Society, as well as farmers and families affected by farmer suicide.
The Green Revolution’s ability to turn Punjab’s farms into the breadbasket for millions was rooted in the exorbitant use of pesticides and fertilizers: The more that genetically modified crops were pumped with the chemicals, the more they produced. Just as the chemicals permeated the crops, they soaked through the ground and into drinking water.
Studies on blood pesticide levels have found harrowing results, showing that internationally banned pesticides appear at high levels and continue to poison farmers. Rates of cancer, infertility and neurological disorders skyrocketed. The trains that led straight from the poisoned fields to hospitals were notoriously dubbed “cancer trains.”
In our travels we have met family after family who were directly affected. We sat by their sides, holding cups of tea brewed from a village’s toxin-laced water. They told us that they knew the water was filled with chemicals and was killing them, but explained that they had no choice: What water would they drink otherwise?
Many of the families we met, if not all, cannot afford female children. It comes down to a simple financial calculation: In India, girls and women carry nowhere near the financial value of boys and men. Traditionally, when girls mature and get married, they go to live with their husband’s family, leaving their biological parents’ household bereft of their earning potential. Add to this the bride’s dowry, paid to the groom’s family upon marriage. Even though dowry has been outlawed since 1961, research shows that dowry was given in about 95% of marriages in India between 1960 and 2008 and that the amount given is typically equivalent to several years of income.
These economics have led to a well-documented epidemic of female feticide and infanticide. India now has extremely skewed gender ratios and an excess of at least 37 million males, which scientists anticipate will lead to worsening mental health issues, human trafficking and prostitution, and increased sexual assault.
While these issues are partly cultural, high levels of agricultural debt compound financial worries around female children, often worsening an already dire situation. Addressing issues faced by Indian farmers will require a close understanding of the aftershocks of agricultural policies on gender and family dynamics.
Many families that we met along our journey talked about substance abuse, often in the form of cocktails that contain horse tranquilizers, opium and homemade alcohol. Many resort to these substances as an escape from the stresses of economic devastation and being trapped in agricultural debt, or because they still suffer from the government’s violent counterinsurgency campaign in the 1980s and 1990s, which left countless people with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
There is a dearth of rigorous studies on the prevalence of substance abuse in the Indian agricultural sector, but many families mention a pair of recent studies matching their day-to-day experience that showed that nearly 70% of Punjabi youth were addicted to alcohol or drugs.
Conclusive studies, meanwhile, have demonstrated the link between substance abuse and suicide. It’s critical that scholars and government officials examine this relationship in the context of Indian farmers.
It’s also critical that we support practical efforts to ameliorate the farmers’ plight. Our work often brings us to a school in Maqboolpura, the Village of Widows, run by Master Ajit Singh. In this overlooked and undervalued village, he sees hope in the children who are left behind by their drug-addicted parents. Singh provides them a rigorous education and community in which to grow.
The Indian farmers’ victory gave us hope — for a more fair, just and equitable society where everyday laborers who put food on our tables have an equal voice and a society where peaceful protest leads to meaningful change. But we can’t just talk about agricultural debt, environmental degradation or government policy. True justice for Indian farmers will only come when we’ve addressed issues of health, gender dynamics and substance abuse.
(Gunisha Kaur, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine, is director of the Human Rights Impact Lab and co-medical director of the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights. Simran Jeet Singh, a columnist for Religion News Service, is executive director of the Religion & Society Program at the Aspen Institute.The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)