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Monday, July 28, 2008

Article in The Telegraph on Debt Suicides

The Telegraph, Calcutta
Debt deaths stalk cities too
Debt doesn’t drive just poor farmers to commit suicide — financial woes are fast becoming a major cause of suicide in urban India as well, Varuna Verma notes
Illustration: Suman choudhury, Imaging: M Iqbal Shaikh

Inspector Umesh Shet still recalls the horror on 14-year-old Shivamshu’s face as he watched his father, mother and sister being wheeled into Mangalore’s Wenlock Hospital on stretchers. “The boy was sobbing. He kept saying that he had betrayed his father,” recalls Shet, an official at the Mangalore North police station. Shivamshu’s father, Vijay Singh, had asked his son to swallow cyanide and kill himself.

A Bangalore-based scientist, Singh had run into a loss of Rs 47 lakh when a client in Delhi purchased medical equipment from him and did not pay up. “In his statement to the police, Shivamshu revealed that his father’s creditors had been harassing the family for the last six months,” says Shet.

Feeling cornered, Singh brought his family to Mangalore last month, purchased cyanide and chloroform and checked into a hotel. That evening, he told his family it was time to end it all. Singh, his wife Sumati and daughter Shruti gulped the cyanide and went to bed.

“Shivamshu, however, found the poison’s odour oppressive and opted out of the suicide pact,” says Shet. He spent the night watching his mother and sister writhe in pain and finally informed the hotel receptionist. Singh was declared dead on arrival at Wenlock Hospital. The other two have recovered.

Debt doesn’t drive just poor farmers to take their lives in India. Suicide prevention centres are finding that financial woes are fast becoming a major cause of suicide in urban India as well. An on-going study conducted by the Prerana Charitable Trust, a Mumbai-based non governmental organisation (NGO), has found that economic troubles are the second most common cause of suicide in the city. The study claims that while 21.2 per cent of people killed themselves because of illness last year, 8.9 per cent did so for money reasons and 5.7 per cent owing to relationship problems.

Amresh Shrivastava, executive director, Prerana, says debt suicides are a symptom of a developing society. “Social security is poor in developing countries. So a culture of mortgage, debt, borrowing and unemployment becomes a major reason for suicide,” says Shrivastava. Suicide statistics in the US and Canada show that financial problems are the eighth most common cause of suicide.

Tanushree Bose — a resident of Calcutta’s Swarnika apartments — thought gory family suicides happened only in the movies, till her “very normal, respectable and quiet” neighbours, Dipankar and Shubra Samaddar, were found hanging from ceiling fans one morning last month. Their 11-year-old son, Rohan, was lying dead on the bed, his mouth covered with froth and blood.

The police found that Dipankar had suffered huge losses in his construction business and had run up debts of over Rs 70 lakh.

It is not only businessmen who find themselves in impossible debt traps and enter into suicide pacts with their families. In February this year, Veerendra Kumar, deputy general manager, Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited (BHEL), Bangalore, and his wife, Usha, committed suicide because they couldn’t repay a loan of Rs 50 lakh. They left home one night, telling their daughter that they were going socialising. The next morning, the police found the couple dead on the rear seat of their car.

In urban India, debt suicides are usually a family affair. On the other hand, when farmers commit suicide, they do it alone. “An indebted farmer’s suicide results in government intervention. His loan is often waived. This is one factor that makes him take his life,” explains Rajasekharan Nair, secretary, Thrani, a Thiruvananthapuram-based suicide counselling centre.

These rules don’t apply to urban citizens. A debt-ridden businessman, for instance, knows his family will have to bear the burden of his unpaid loan. “To save his family from harassment, he takes everybody’s lives,” adds Nair.

A bank officer from Calicut, Venkat Mathew, had approached Thrani, complaining of severe depression. Mathew had taken a loan of Rs 8 lakh to start a business, which flopped. To repay the loan, he did some manipulation of the bank’s deposits, got caught and was suspended. “When the moneylenders started demanding money, Mathew and his wife felt cornered and went into depression,” says Nair. Two months ago, despite counselling, the couple killed their two children and then consumed poison themselves.

Aasra, a Mumbai-based suicide prevention NGO, claims to have recorded a 30 per cent increase in 10 years in the number of people who call because they are in a monetary mess and are contemplating suicide. Most of these people are young, ambitious, high spending and impatient to get rich, says Johnson Thomas, director, Aasra. “As the avenues for spending increase, most young Indians have started living beyond their means. This leads to debt, depression and suicide,” says Thomas.

Ajay Malhotra, spokesperson, Sumaitri, a Delhi-based suicide helpline, says that 15 per cent of the total suicide calls that Sumaitri receives are related to money troubles. Five years ago, such calls numbered less than 10 per cent.

It’s also about keeping up with the Chopras. “People want to keep up with their friends and neighbours. There is peer pressure to own what others do. And if they don’t have the money, then a conflict arises, which leads to stress and despair,” says Farokh Jijina, president, Befrienders India, part of a world-wide organisation for the lonely and suicidal.

Debt suicides are finding their way into small towns as well. A Jamshedpur-based NGO, Jeevan, tabulated the total suicides in the town from January to June this year. It found that economic problems were the third most common cause of suicide. Twenty per cent of suicide calls that Jeevan receives are related to financial troubles. “The reasons range from unemployment, inability to repay debts and frustration because of low salaries,” says Mahaveer Ram, director, Jeevan.

With 9,500 suicides last year, Kerala has the highest suicide rate in the country. “Debt is a very big problem in Kerala,” says Rajesh Pillai, director, Maithri, a Kochi-based suicide prevention centre. Travel through the state and you see palatial houses dotting the countryside. “People spend heavily on building houses, buying jewellery and in marriages,” says Pillai.

But what they spend is often borrowed money. Thirty-five per cent of the suicide calls that Maithri receives arise out of debt issues. “Debt is the second most common cause of suicide in the state,” says Pillai.

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