Thursday, May 15, 2008

Telling the story of suicide in Punjab

I began writing my first play ‘Zameen’ after reading about farmer suicides across India and in my ancestral homeland of Punjab.

I had always imagined Punjab as a lush green, mythological land of sturdy farmers, saints and warriors but discovered that in recent years, an ‘economics of genocide’ had driven thousands of its farmers to suicide.

According to vastly underestimated official figures, 150,000 Indian farmers took their own lives between 1997 and 2007. It was a story I felt compelled to tell.

I worked intermittently on the play with Kali Theatre Company, who provide incredible support and encouragement to Asian women writers like myself. After a short studio run at London’s Soho Theatre, I finally journeyed to the real-life setting of ‘Zameen’ at the beginning of the cotton-sowing season last year and again for the harvest, travelling across the cotton belt of Sangrur, Moga and Bathinda in the Malwa region of Punjab.

I visited dusty, time-warped villages, where the last of the camels were ploughing the land, the last of the charkhas were being spun and the last of the handlooms woven, even as the global ‘outside’ was pushing in via satellite dishes, mobile phones, American snacks, Chinese food, cream filled pastries - and the desire to do a ‘2 number’ (illegal) migration abroad. It was an affirming trip in that these characters I had imagined, sitting at my desk in Southall, were living, breathing individuals – struggling but showing a rural resilience to survive.

In Punjab, I met beleaguered cotton farmers and their families - who talked about the high costs of chemical farming (GM seeds, pesticides, fertilisers, diesel, water pumpsets and tubewells), which coupled with erratic monsoons and harvests have led farmers into vicious cycles of debt and others, to suicide. There were also multiple family suicides.

In Sangrur, I visited a cotton farming family in which 3 sons had committed suicide and a fourth was barely able to speak for the burden of the family debt to banks and a local moneylender. In villages such as Harkishanpura and Malsinghwala, collective debt has become so high that the villages themselves were put up for sale.

Young women told me about the growing burdens of consumer driven dowries and the pressures of giving birth to sons in a state where the shocking child sex ratio (approximately 700 girls to every 1000 boys) and high rates of female foeticide and infanticide are among the worst in India.

Aside from wanting to relinquish the farming traditions of their forefathers and migrate abroad, many young village men have become drug addicts and alcoholics. I visited a De-Addiction clinic in Bathinda, treating those addicted to heroin, opium and bhang, as ever new methods of getting high range from spreading boot polish on chapattis or toast to smoking lizard’s tails.

Recent state government statistics estimate that 40% of Punjab’s youth and 48% of its farmers and labourers are addicts. Caught between a traditional and new global Punjab, these are lives in violent transition.

Once the experimental ground for the US sponsored Green Revolution, designed to solve widespread hunger in India, Punjab is experiencing a new Gene Revolution of GM seeds and crops. Many also see it as a dumping ground for lethal chemicals by profiteering agro-chemical companies. Covering 2.5% of land in India, Punjab uses 18% of its pesticides.

The Green Revolution’s chemical farming has led to serious environmental problems that include severe groundwater contamination, desertification and water shortages. Hence, the slow poisoning of Punjab, where excessive use of pesticides banned in parts of the West, are still sold there by Western based companies. DNA mutation, a host of illnesses including cancer and arthritis, premature ageing as well as the death of livestock are being linked to pesticide use. Indeed, the ‘cotton belt’ in Malwa is now known as the ‘cancer belt’.

Big multinationals are also moving in. Stories of land grabbing by companies to set up Special Economic Zones, assisted by the state government are rife. I was told how 376 acres of fertile land had been forcibly acquired by the local Trident factory from 3 Sangrur villages with the help of the state government, barbed wires erected around tracts of the villagers’ land during the night. Subsequent running clashes between police and farmers suggest a rural fight back.

‘Zameen’ offers a glimpse into small village lives. In a globally connected world, these are lives and stories that matter just as much as our British (Asian) ones. From the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the lifestyle and consumer choices we make, to the values we choose to live by, their histories, fate and destinies are tied to our own.

As rural communities in India, South America or Africa pay a high price for global change, perhaps the very least we in the affluent West owe them, is to listen.

Satinder Chohan has grown up and occasionally lives (at her parents’) in Southall. She edited the British Asian arts and style magazine ‘2nd Generation’ and has written articles for various publications including The Guardian and Dazed and Confused. She has worked in journalism, publishing, broadcasting and new media, often around South Asian issues, including researching Meera Syal’s family history for the BBC series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’.
Zameen is her first play.

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