Yavatmal, Maharashtra - He was too young to die. But Ayya Baheru Atram, 28, was sure he could not get out of debts in this life. So, the Kolam tribal farmer in the remote Dubhati village, in south Yavatmal's Zari Jamni block, hung himself from a tree along his farm on February 8, leaving a shattered Suman, his wife, and two young kids – Sunanda and Charandas, to face the Sahukars.

A few miles from this village, two sisters are yet to come to terms with the suicide of their father, Ganpat Naitam, in Shibla. Pranita, among the two, is remorseful to say the least. It was the worries of her marriage that did her father in. Ganpat had run out of patience, and money. Cotton prices did not give any breather. He ended his life in September, last, when he saw no chance to fish himself out of the muddle. He consumed poison – that is pesticide. But before closing his eyes, he told Pranita of his debts.

At 53 per 100,000, the suicide mortality rate (SMR) for male farmers in Maharashtra is nearly four times the national average for all males.

Series by Jaideep Hardikar

Both, Atram and Naitam, figure in the logbook maintained by the sub-district hospital at Pandharkawda of the post-mortem cases. Poison and hanging – the two modes leave behind all other causes for death going by the post-mortem logbook here. Also, it shows, a dramatic rise in the number of poisoning and hanging cases. So much so, that poison cases have become synonymous with farmers' suicides across Yavatmal.

"An overwhelming number of poison cases that come for post-mortem are farmers," reveals Dr Rajesh Dhatrak, in-charge of sub-district hospital. Look at the trend: Suicides by consuming poison contribute to over two-thirds of the total autopsies performed here. Elsewhere too, the trend is similar. "These cases increase in the period of October-January," notes Dr Dhatrak. In those months in 2003-04, this hospital saw 23 cases of poisoning. It went up to 39 last year, and 48 this year, that is 2005-06.

Adds Dr S D Dhale, a health official in Ghatanji: Suicide's instant source is available in the market easily. "Pesticide could be bought from any Krishi Kendra. But for medicine, they've to walk miles before they could get it," he says.

In September last, the state government issued instructions to the post-mortem centers to run round the clock, even in the nights. They do now.

Meanwhile a new study stirs up the issue with fresh data. The Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research, Mumbai, which looked at the agrarian distress in Yavatmal, Washim and Wardha districts, has a devastating finding on the state's suicide mortality rate or SMR. A team of researchers also studied the larger trends of suicides in Maharashtra.

"The SMR (suicides per 100,000 population) for male farmers," it says, "trebled from 17 in 1995 to 53 in 2004." That was the period when farm suicides grew appallingly. In contrast, adds the report, for overall males in the state, it stabilized at a level of 20 or 21 after 2001. Concurrently, the SMR for women actually fell after 1999.

New research

The Indira Gandhi Institute for Development Research's report on suicides is available online. Pages 31 to 45 refer to mortality rates among farmers.