On a cold day in December 2017, the members of gurdwara committee and panchayat in Punjab’s Bhutal Kalan village were in a huddle. On the agenda was downsizing the weddings that were driving debt-burdened farmers of this Sangrur village to commit suicide.
“There are four to five cases of farmer suicide a year in our village. In most cases, farmers mortgage their land for weddings,” says Krishan Singh, a farmer who belongs to the family of the sarpanch.
The meeting decided on “sade viah te sade bhog (simple weddings and simple funeral ceremony)”. All families were to reduce the number of wedding functions, guests and DJ parties. Consumption of alcohol and non-vegetarian food, too, had to be scaled down.
“At funerals for the elderly, people would serve a feast of gulab jammun, mithai and kheer to a thousand people. Now we only allow dal roti to be served and that, too, to the closest family,” says Singh. Those who fail to follow these austerity rules are fined by the panchayat.
Big fat weddings, a signature of Punjab, are as much about conspicuous consumption, as they are about self-esteem, pride and standing in the community. But they are extracting a toll, as Punjab, once the cradle of India’s Green Revolution, fights agrarian distress and farmer suicides. A study by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) has established a direct link between farmer suicides and extravagant weddings in Punjab.
Like most villages in the area, Bhutal Kalan appears to be prosperous, though the farmers talk about their struggle with inadequate water, falling productivity, and low returns on the produce. A sprawling “wedding palace” came up on the outskirts of the village a few years ago. These mammoth wedding venues, which can include a big hall, lawns and rooms for guests, are spread all over Punjab.
Ajaib Singh, who grows wheat and paddy, remembers the time when weddings were simple. “When I got married, everyone sat on the floor and ate together. The idea was to save money.”
For his daughter’s wedding, held days after the austerity order, he saved money by not having a DJ and alcohol. He kept the lighting and decorations simple and reduced the number of baraatis. Even then, he ended up spending more than Rs 10 lakh, his savings of 10 years.
In the nearby Nangal village, 27-year-old Lakhbeer Singh is a seen as a revolutionary of sorts. At his wedding last year, there were less than 40 guests. The ceremony was solemnised at the gurudwara and not a wedding hall. The groom’s family did not accept dowry or gifts from the bride. “It was not easy to do this but I did not want our families to be in debt after hosting an extravagant wedding,” he says. His decision encouraged his friends to cut down on festivities at their weddings.
Lakhbeer’s decision was influenced by a talk delivered by a member of the Samaj Sudhar Welfare Committee, a non-government organisation working to save farmers from debt by promoting simplicity during weddings and other social events.
Hari Singh, an arthiya (commission agent and moneylender) from Sangrur, launched the Samaj committee four years ago. He found that farmers would borrow huge sums of money from him for their children’s weddings. Unable to pay off the debt, some would committee suicide. To create awareness, he launched the NGO.
Elders of the community fan out across villages, advising families against dowry and wedding extravagance. If they convince one family, it gets easy to get others on board. To get the message across, those opting for austerity are honoured by the Samaj committee, which is active in more than a 100 villages in the districts of Sangrur, Mansa, Patiala, and Ludhiana.
These districts are a part of the Malwa belt, the cotton-growing region of Punjab that has seen the most farmer suicides. More than 16,000 farmers killed themselves between 2000 and 2015, says a study by three universities in Punjab. Eighty-seven per cent of the suicides were because of debt and 76% were by small farmers, with landholdings of less than five acres, say the findings released in January 2018.
“We counsel them that it’s for their own good not to waste money and they can give that money to their children. We thought people would not want to hear our message, but we’ve been surprised by the support we found in the community,” says Hari Singh. The ICAR study that surveyed 1,000 farming families in Punjab found that debt was accrued for various reasons such as for tractors, constructing a house but the foremost was always a wedding. This was a cultural difference not found in other states. The three-year study has been commissioned in Punjab, Telangana and Maharashtra, the states with the most farmer suicides.
“When we started our research two years ago, we found no literature to support this theory. But on the field, every other farmer would talk about how they were under debt after spending on weddings,” says Sarabjeet Singh, principal investigator of the project and a professor at Ludhiana’s Punjab Agricultural University (PAU).
The aim of the study is to analyse farmer suicide beyond the economics of agriculture and to look at the social and psychological aspects of the issue.
In 2017, PAU launched a campaign for modest weddings to check debts and farmer suicide. The message was beamed at kisan melas (farmer fairs) and painted on village walls, on buses and trucks. A book on the subject is being distributed in colleges across the state. In the late 1980s, when militancy was at its peak in Punjab, there was an enforced wedding code. Only five to 11 baraatis were allowed. “That was by force. This time, we hope more people will start doing it on their own. The movement has begun and we will see change,” says Sarabjeet Singh.
(Sunaina Kumar is a Delhi-based independent journalist. This reporting was supported by a grant from the Bosch Foundation for the Indo-German Media Network)
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