This Psychologist & Her All-Women Counsellors Team Are Preventing Farmer Suicides In Telangana

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As we near the International Women’s Day 2019, we gear up to celebrate women in all walks of life. At such a juncture, Efforts For Good aims to highlight some incredible women achievers, who are uplifting marginalised communities and the lesser privileged gender, away from all the limelight.

In our third article of the series, we bring your attention to a harsh, undeniable reality of India – farmer suicides. The urban privileged section of the population might not feel any direct implication of the same, but the truth is that it wreaks havoc in the lives of our cultivators and their families.

Amid the prevailing anguish, depression and helplessness, a Telangana psychologist and her team are instilling hope in these distressed souls and saving their precious lives. In a conversation with Efforts For Good, psychology expert Shruti Naik shares her experience of working with the Kisan Mitra rural distress helpline, which aims to prevent farmer suicides. Presently active in Vikarabad, Adilabad and Mancherial districts of Telangana, the organisation has saved many lives with their active intervention and consistent support system.

No mental health issues, but high rate of suicides – why?

Shruti shares that the iron-willed and resilient farmers resort to suicide when they find themselves overwhelmed with the economic or social crises in their lives. “For most of them, the financial crisis at times becomes too much to handle. Neck-deep in debts or battling a crop failure, they choose to end their lives as they see no way out. We have seen so many people reaching for a bottle of pesticide to commit suicide,” she shares.

For most farmers, the financial problems arise because of moneylenders, who give them loans at interests as high as 25% or 30%, sometimes even 50%. Many small-scale farmers are unable to avail farm loans offered by banks and cooperatives due to smaller landholdings, so they approach these unscrupulous moneylenders who pressurise them for repayment, driving them to take their own lives.

For some, the finances plummet due to extravagance at daughters’ weddings, well beyond their affordable limits. At times, crop failure due to drought or the changing climate takes a heavy toll on them.

As an experienced psychologist, Shruti feels that the distress pattern differs a lot between the urban people in white collar jobs and the grassroots level farmers. “Most of the farmers do not have any persistent mental health issues or depression which evokes suicidal tendency in them. 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,” reveals Shruti.

How Kisan Mitra helps farmers in distress

This is where the success of Kisan Mitra lies. There are probably countless helplines and services available for farmers in India, as long as farming technicalities are concerned. But, there was no help for them when it came to emotional support in times of extreme distress. That is why Kisan Mitra Helpline was set up.

The helpline was launched on the occasion of Dr.B.R. Ambedkar Jayanti, on April 14, 2017, by Centre for Sustainable Agriculture with the support from the district administration.

Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and Kisan Mitra’s team launched an awareness campaign which included flyers, posters, events such as suicide prevention week etc., while the agriculture department took up the initiative of wall writings in every mandal office to create and raise awareness among farmers and their family members. In addition to this, the field coordinators also visited many villages personally to interact with the community and distribute pamphlets and flyers about Kisan Mitra.

Shruti Naik leads a team of women counsellors who attend the distress calls. They have a network of field coordinators which includes a significant number of village women. Some of them come from low-income farmer families, so as first responders to a crisis, they are able to relate better to the farmer seeking help. “We are also empowering women farmers and reach out to them on a wide range of issues,” she informs.

Saving lives and dissolving woes

The team visits farmers in hospitals who attempted suicide and collates their personal details to follow up on his condition later. Thanks to their intervention, not only have several suicides been prevented, many issues of the farmers have been solved immediately with help from the government authorities. Shruti and her team also respond instantly in case they get the news of a farmer who is showing signs of severe distress.

“We once received a call from an Adilabad farmer who was devastated to see his field completely inundated due to sudden floods. A few of his neighbours confirmed that he was very upset and was sitting in the field with a bottle of herbicide. Upon their insistence, he called us and broke down while talking. We kept him engaged in the call while our field coordinator Rani rushed to the spot and the man could be saved,” she shares. They also helped him meet the collector, who settled a land dispute issue that was bothering him as well.

Shruti shares the incident of Mallappa, who was on the verge of suicide after the expense for his younger daughter’s treatment left him almost bankrupt, while a huge amount of loan had to be paid off. He was also not getting the official proprietary rights of a plot that rightfully belonged to him. Thanks to Kisan Mitra’s assistance, Mallappa is happier now, with his problems also been promptly resolved.

About Kisan Mitra Helpline

Mr Harsha, the state coordinator from Kisan Mitra’s core team says “Understanding rural distress and issues and attempting to solve them one issue at a time, as well as making wider policy corrections has shaped what Kisan Mitra is today.”

“Govt Order 194 of the State Government in 2004 stipulated that there should be a farmer distress helpline in every collectorate. We simply took the mandatory requirement of the helpline and tried to make it more comprehensive,” explains Divya Devarajan, former district collector of Vikarabad.

Later when Divya was transferred to Adilabad, she advocated for the launch of the service there as well. The service was launched in Adilabad in February 2018 and sometime later in Mancherial.

Recently, Kisan Mitra has also started advocating the importance of organic farming methods among conventional farmers and many are adopting the practice with success.

Efforts For Good take

Though the government keeps churning out hordes of beneficial schemes for the farmers, most of those are failing to abate the menace of farmer suicides throughout India. At such trying times, an emergency response helpline like Kisan Mitra is the need of the hour. Individuals like Shruti, who give up the allure of a profitable career in the city just to stand beside the people of the soil, are true heroes.

“It is not me alone. Our whole counselling team consists of women and we also have a dynamic field staff of which a few are women. Most of our counsellors and the field staff come from humble rural backgrounds who work with an extreme amount of dedication and empathy towards farmers’ issues,” shares Shruti.

Efforts For Good hopes the work of Kisan Mitra is replicated pan India and save thousands of our farmers every year.

Also Read: She Builds Biogas Plants In Bihar Villages To Provide Electricity, Fuel And Better Crop To Marginalised Farmers

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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