Like thousands of other farmers in India’s Punjab, Gurpreet Singh was never likely to become a rich man. He had one acre of wheat to his name – barely enough to scrape a living for his family in Sukhanwala village, where agriculture has been a way of life for centuries.
Last year, though, unseasonal rain floods destroyed his entire crop. Already some £2,000 in debt, the prospect of having to borrow yet more money was more than he could bear. Instead, he rang his wife from the fields one day and told her he was about to kill himself by drinking pesticide.
“He told her to talk to him now, to say goodbye, and to look after their two daughters,” said Gurpreet’s father, Makhan Singh, 70, tears streaming down his face. “We reached the farm and tried to rush him to hospital, but he died on the way.”
Tragic as it is, Mr Singh’s story is far from unusual in the Punjab – especially in his home district of Malwa, where most farmers have only a few acres of land, and life is always lived close to the margins.
In the past 20 years, some 3,300 destitute farmers have committed suicide in Malwa – so many, that in some local villages, nearly everyone has a tale of a relative who has died.
What was always a hard life, though, has become ever harder since 2016, when the cost of land rentals and farm supplies began to rise far faster than crop prices. Roughly half of all the farm suicides in Malwa have taken place in the past four years.
Some farmers’ leaders link the rises in farm supply prices on government measures to liberalise the farm economy. They warn the suicide figures are likely to rise even higher thanks to newly proposed agricultural laws, which will scrap fixed-price guarantees for crops in government markets.