– Oliver D’Souza
Thirty-year-old Saurabh, a native of Bhojpur in Bihar, living in New Ashok Nagar in New Delhi, was a B Tech graduate who was looking for a job for months. On finding none after a lot of effort amid mounting financial pressure over sustaining himself, he jumped off the Mayur Vihar Flyover in East Delhi and killed himself. In a diary recovered from his residence, he had written that he was frustrated and depressed over not finding a job.
Likewise, 29-year-old, Prabhat Kumar, from Uttarakhand committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in Bhagwanpur village under Rudrapur police station. According to his father, Deewan Lal, a retired sub-inspector from Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), Prabhat had been depressed over being unable to secure a job despite several attempts. Kumar shot himself with his father’s revolver.
In both cases, the victims had no dependent families; therefore, it was their own personal plight and misery arising out of unemployment that led them to take their own lives.
This, however, is not always the case. When 41-year-old Poorna Singh of Kasganj, UP, was found hanging from a tree, at the time of his suicide, the man’s entire family had not eaten for five days. He was unable to bear the starvation and deprivation that his wife and three children were suffering.
“For the past five days, we haven’t eaten a thing. I am ill but there is no money to buy medicine or food,” his 9-year-old-daughter Gudiya later told reporters. Hence he took the fatal step.
Employment suicides sometimes also trigger other suicides/suicide attempts by those close to the victim, as in the case of Sawan, from Pherupur village near Dehradun. He was out of a job for many months. When he hanged himself, his female partner too attempted suicide by consuming poison.
For victims like forty-one-year-old Santosh Alkar of Andher East, Mumbai, a LIC agent who had been unemployed for years and was in a depressed state of mind, filicide and familicide were part of the eventualities. The family was being supported by his wife who worked as a laborer in Singapore. In his suicide note, Santosh, who was also a diabetic, apologized to his wife for not being able to fend for the family, causing her to work. Before he killed himself, he killed his 10-year-old son and 7-year old daughter because, as he said in his suicide note, “there would be no one to look after the children after his death.”
Sumit Kumar, a software engineer in Ghaziabad went further and killed his wife and three children. A native of Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, Kumar became depressed after losing his job in Bangalore five months earlier and was in debt. He served sedative-laced drinks to his wife Anshu Bala (32), elder son Prathimesh (5), daughter Akriti and younger son Arav (twins aged 4) and slit their throats. He posted a message about the killings on Whatsapp, also stating that he too would commit suicide soon. He was nabbed by the police before he could do it. It was later discovered that the frustration and depression that followed his job problems also led to drug use.
These are but a few incidents among thousands which illustrate part of the many possible scenarios of suicides due to unemployment in the country, along with their ripple effect. These suicides, like any other suicide, are devastating, affecting families, relatives and families of the victims alike in ways that are not fully comprehensible. Children are losing parents, wives are losing husbands and vice versa and the nation is losing precious human resources.
What’s alarming about unemployment suicides in India is that there has been no letup in the number of such suicides. On the contrary, there has been a massive increase between 2014-2018, accounting for 9.6% of all suicides occurring in the country in 2018. Unemployment is now the fifth major cause for suicides in India, up 2 places from 2014.
According to latest National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, in 2018, an average of 1.5 unemployed people committed suicide every hour in India. Out of a count of 1, 34,516 total number of suicides in the country due to various reasons, 12,936 unemployed persons committed suicide in 2018. The age range of victims includes even those below 18 years and above 60 years. Those below 18 years include 31 males and nine females, while 2,431 males and 310 females were above 60 years. The rest fall in between.
Of the total suicides by unemployed persons, males are 10,687 while females are 2,249. The highest number of suicides – 12.3 per cent – committed by unemployed persons were in Kerala (1,585 out of 12,936 suicides), 12.2 per cent in Tamil Nadu (1,579), 9.7 per cent in Maharashtra (1,260 suicides), 8.5 per cent in Karnataka (1,094 suicides) and 7 per cent in Uttar Pradesh (902 suicides).
In 2014, when the unemployment rate was 4.49%, there were 2207 suicides by the unemployed, around 2.76% of all suicides. Shockingly, by the end of 2015, there were 10,912 such suicides, accounting for 8.2% of all suicides in the country – a sharp increase of 5% in the sum total all suicides, which is also an increase of 500%. Since 2016, it has grown by 1.4%, averaging 2000 additional suicides each year or 5.5 per day, accounting for its present numbers.
Curiously, the NCRB data says that of the 12,936 suicides by the unemployed in 2018, unemployment is a ‘causal’ factor in 2741 cases, suggesting that the remaining unemployed committed suicide for reasons other than unemployment. This is highly debatable.
Firstly, as pointed out by WHO in a September 2018 report, the NCRB is notorious for mis-classification of suicides because its data is sourced from police reports which at best are unreliable for statistical interpretation. The police does not investigate the history of a person who has committed suicide and take a psychologists opinion before entering the root cause of the suicide in its report. It merely reports the last precipitating cause, which is the visible cause. So, for instance, if an unemployed person, who is already down mentally and emotionally because of unemployment, commits suicide after a sudden financial crisis, unless the person has left a suicide note talking about unemployment, financial problems are recorded as the cause suicide, whereas financial stress is only the last straw. Literature on suicide reveals that there is never a single factor that leads to a suicide; rather a combination of factors, with one factor playing the principal role, determining the response of the person so affected to other stressful problems that occur along the way. Employment status is a major factor in mental and emotional health in any persons life. The lack of it affects a person negatively in diverse ways.
Researchers T A Blakely, SCD Collings and J Atkinson of Wellington School of Medicine, University of Otago, New Zealand, surveyed over 2 million people in the age group 18-64 years to find out the association between unemployment and suicide. New Zealand men have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In their paper titled “Unemployment and suicide: Evidence for a causal association?”, the researchers concluded that unemployment confers vulnerability to suicide by increasing the impact of stressful life events.
As compared to an employed one, for an unemployed person any crisis, such as family problems, marriage issues, financial strain, health issues and concerns about the future of children, among others, which are among the causes for suicide, get magnified, leading to suicide. Unemployment, however, still remains the primary cause.
This is highlighted in the case of Santosh Alkar. His was a family torn asunder because of unemployment; his wife had to relocate to Singapore to earn for the family, which in itself created an additional set of problems that led to horrific consequences.
The researchers additionally point out that unemployment may indirectly cause suicide by increasing the risk of factors that precipitate suicide (for example, mental illness, and financial difficulties). Sumit Kumar, as per his own admission on Whatsapp, killed his wife and two children following mounting debts after he lost his job, which was further complicated by the fact that he was using drugs to beat the depression that hit him after losing his job.
Therefore, the NCRB’s claims about the ‘causal’ factor of suicide by the unemployed have to be taken with a massive dose of salt. It can be safely presumed that unemployment has played a major role if not a principal role in all the suicides under the unemployed suicide category, with the only exception being that of the few cases in the data in which a person, to begin with, is unemployed because of mental illness. It is also possible that a lot of suicides caused by unemployment are mis-classified into other categories and, hence, the actual number could be much higher.
In 2017 and 2018, suicide by the unemployed also took precedence over farmer suicides, with a total of 10,349 persons involved in farming sector (consisting of 5,763 farmers and cultivators and 4,586 agricultural labourers) having committed suicide during 2018, accounting for 7.7 per cent of total suicides. In the same year, 13,149 self-employed people committed suicide because of business problems which are again employment related.
If all these three types of suicides are put together, the picture that emerges is that a staggering 30% of all suicides in India in 2018 are unemployment or work related.
There is no denying that after the huge spike in 2015, the growth rate of unemployment suicides has not only held but also increased due to the relentless tanking of our economy, with such linkages already having been established through extensive studies.
In a research paper published in the journal ‘Our World in Data’, the authors Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, reveal that various studies have analyzed the correlation between economic recessions and suicide rates. These studies used WHO and Taiwanese mortality statistics to explore whether there was a correlation between the Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998 and suicide rates.
The results showed that male suicide rates due to unemployment in 1998 rose notably in Japan, Hong Kong and Korea, while rises in female rates were less marked in the same countries. Similar patterns in suicide rates were not seen in Taiwan and Singapore, where the economic crisis had a smaller impact on the economy.
Other studies, have found similar results, providing evidence from the financial crisis of 2007–08 in Europe. There was a distinct change in suicide rates immediately after the crisis.
More recently, the authors says “retrospectively analyzed public data for suicide, population, and economy over the period 2000-2011 across 63 countries in four world regions. Their results correspond with previous research indicating that a rise in unemployment is linked to an increase in suicides.
Many theoretical economists and sociologists, such as Daniel Hamermesh, Neil M Soss and David Lester too have pointed out that unemployment is the most important factor that influences suicide.
Unemployment suicides in India have been consistently increasing, after a quantum leap of 500% in 2015. That was the year demonetization was done, leading to the total disruption of the economy, doing enormous damage to it. This resulted in the shutting down of millions of business, with the MSME sector which provides 45% of the GDP and employed 60 million people in 2015 being hit the hardest.
As Rajiv Chawla, President of Faridabad Small Industries Association, told Economic Times “While demonetization brought many small industries closer to digitalisation, the micro industries had to go through an unstable phase. They were neither prepared for it, nor were they a part of the black economy to begin with. A dholwala at a wedding, a dhaba owner at the roadside, a plumber, or a daily wage earner – all of them earn in cash and are not familiar with credit cards, phone and net banking. Demonetization brought a huge lull in their businesses.”
Chawla also says that business has systematically moved from smaller firms to bigger, more organized players. It started with demonetization where smaller players that did not have card machines or mobile wallets saw a huge dip in business.
The problems of MSMEs became even worse due to the poorly rolled out GST, which further wrecked businesses because of its constantly changing rules and arbitrary structure.
According to various estimates, in December 2019 we had over 400 million unemployed folk in the country. With the state of the economy as it is, this number is likely to hold if not increase. Accordingly, the 2018 unemployment suicide rate and and its growth too is likely to have continued.
Other than instantaneous suicides, such as in the rare cases when a person commits suicide after the unbearable sudden death of someone close, or due to sudden financial disaster or discovery of terminal illness, all suicide victims go down the path of suicide in stages and there are warning signs of emotional and mental distress. These can be picked up early by trained community health workers equipped with resources to identify the vulnerable.
A study by WHO, conducted for the National Council Of Medical Health (NCMH), states that at least 4.5 % or 56 million of the Indian population suffers from depression. A similar study by National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) concluded that 5% of the Indian population has depression – inevitably associated in almost all cases of suicide. Both reports also say that though there are effective measures and treatments against the illness, there is severe shortage of mental health workers, including psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors. Less than 10% of the affected receive professional help. On an average, we have just one mental health worker for 100,000 people.
Many countries have long ago introduced screening tools and projects to identify those at risk of suicide, whereas, in India, we are not even talking about mental health issues, like depression, that are staring us in the face. There are treatments that work effectively in people with suicidal thoughts. These include psychotherapy, medication, or both. Screening and treatments need to be made easily accessible to the common man. Many of the unemployment suicides could been prevented if we had such a healthcare system in place in the country, but we don’t. Moreover, the focus is on physical health rather than on mental health.
Similarly, our present problem is also that despite being a welfare state by our directive principles, and despite being so in practice for most part since independence, leading to some semblance of public healthcare, better economic conditions and education coupled with enormous personal freedoms, during the last six years we are not so. The BJP dominated NDA government has all but ignored social welfare as this is not a priority on its practical agenda; only in its manifesto.
Rather, the priority has been to wishfully attempt to rearrange society on principles that are fully inequitable, leading to appointment to government of those who serve this purpose while being incompetent to run their various ministries and departments, resulting in the devastation of the economy, causing massive unemployment. Under such circumstances, wherein the government has abdicated from its social welfare duties, what would have been of great help in preventing unemployment suicides would have been to have an existing active and effective state schemes that provides a decent allowance for the unemployed as is done in many other countries.
However, no such robust system exists. Sure, there are some allowance schemes, such as that for unemployed youth under the Union government’s rural job guarantee program. But the fact is that those who are actually benefited by it are minuscule in number because the conditions that apply ensure that a overwhelming majority of them do not qualify for it. Conditions like requirement of domicile, age group restrictions, registration with employment exchanges, family income criteria and dependence on parents, among others.
There are similar schemes in other segments of the population too, but they are partially implemented. This includes schemes like MNREGA which guarantees 100 days of employment or money if such employment is not provided to rural folk, particularly laborers. In practice many people do not receive the benefits of either employment or cash in lieu of employment, while the Modi government has even reduced allocations for MNREGA in the last budget and present.
You also have Employees State Insurance (ESI), and allowances under labour laws, but at best these are piecemeal reliefs that apply to a small percentage of the population and are minimal in payouts. There is absolutely no scheme that provides decent financial support to each and every citizen who is genuinely unemployed due to non-availability of jobs. There is no scheme wherein an unemployed person can walk into the employment exchange and collect a dole and keep doing so till he gets a job.
The government may argue that it does not have the money for such a national scheme. But the fact is that it can come up with the money. It needs to cut down its wasteful expenditures on vanity porjects, such as building statues and introducing a bullet train route when there really are more pressing needs. It needs to stop its patronage of crony capitalists and the rich with whom the wealth of the nation is concentrated and who have failed to perform their social corporate responsibilities; plug the leakage of government funds through corruption and cut down on the unjustifiable perks enjoyed by MLAs, MPs and the political class as a whole, along with that of bureaucrats. The money thus saved would to a great extent enable the government to come up with a decent and regular dole scheme for the unemployed. This, of course, will preclude existing piecemal unemployment schemes to be integrated together for effective administration and timely disbursement of monies.
The present lack of such provisions, however, is not the present government’s doing alone. All governments before it too have not made any real effort to create a scheme that supports every unemployed person in the country.
Since our economic state is the principal cause of unemployment suicides, it is high time the government also gets its act together with genuine national interest in mind and revives the economy. The present government has wrecked literally every aspect of the Indian economy, while parallely pursuing its illusionary goal of creating an unequal, discriminating theocratic state, which again is adding to economic problems due to widespread social disturbances. What the nation needs is a thriving economy, jobs, education and healthcare. For the most part, the government is solely responsible for the increasing number of unemployment suicides during 2015-2018. The government must also ask itself why the numbers of suicides by the unemployed increased by 500%, 18 months after assuming power in 2014, especially considering that demonetization and GST had not yet hit the economy then. Was there a message in it from the start that the government has either failed to pick up has ignored it? Before the escalation of unemployment suicides started in 2014, the unemployment rate was 4.49%, whereas, the unemployment rate in 2018 was 6.1 Currently, as per CMIE’s December data, it is at 7.7%.