The COVID outbreak unleashed a mental health crisis on low-income groups in the unorganised sector, evident by the fact that there has been an over 166 per cent increase in suicide among daily wage workers between 2014 and 2021.
Why the data on suicides is currently in the news?
INDIA’S stunning 13.5 per cent Gross Domestic Product (‘GDP’) growth rate could have been a cause for much celebration had it not coincided with the release of the National Crime Records Bureau (‘NCRB’) data for 2021. ‘Crime in India’, the annual report of the NCRB for crime-related statistics, reported that the registration of violent crimes such as rape, kidnapping, atrocities against children, robberies and murders increased to levels set before the pandemic. Still, the overall crime rate (per one lakh people) decreased from 487.8 in 2020 to 445.9 in 2021.
For the second consecutive year, the maximum number of suicide victims were daily wage workers, increasing from 37,666 in 2020 to 42,004 last year. The data also revealed that the maximum increase in the rate of suicide was observed amongst “self-employed persons”, with an increase of 16.73 per cent: from 17,332 in 2020 to 20,231 in 2021.
As steps are taken to recover from the overall impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to move beyond macroeconomic indicators like the GDP and focus on the pandemic’s larger impact on society.
Across all categories, the dominant reasons for suicide were related to personal life: family problems, illness, love affairs and marriage. However, for almost five years now, the uptick in suicides has been staggering, going from 1,33,623 in 2015 to 1,64,033 in 2021: a whopping 22 per cent increase.
As steps are taken to recover from the overall impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to move beyond macroeconomic indicators like the GDP and focus on the pandemic’s larger impact on society. An important part of that process is to confront the reality that the COVID outbreak has unleashed a mental health crisis on low-income groups in the unorganised sector.
Working conditions for labours in the unorganised sector had never been perfect, but things over the past decade have worsened, evident by the fact that there has been an over 166 per cent increase in suicide among daily wage workers between 2014 and 2021. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the possible causes that may have been aggravated during the COVID crisis that triggered this rise.
These causes can be broadly divided into two types: social and economic. The social crisis stemmed from the threat of the virus and the decisions taken to contain it. The economic causes are a by-product of these decisions.
What are the social factors?
Virus:Not many may still remember the kind of panic and fear that the early days of COVID outbreak in 2020 had caused. This invisible, undefinable disease targeting people indiscriminately while simultaneously forcing everyone into the confines of indoors, a sci-fi dystopia unfolding in real life, was bound to induce some level of psychological problems. The worst part of it was, despite attempts by several sections of the mainstream media and politicians, there was simply no definable ‘other’ to blame for the misfortune one suffered.
Inequality:Despite leaders across fields screaming that ‘we’re in this together’, people weren’t. One’s experience through the pandemic was determined by social and economic capital they had. Whereas on one end, people were watching reruns of their favourite shows on the television, a larger mass of people was on the streets, desperately trying to get back to their homes on foot. Some had the luxury to access the most expensive of medicines; others couldn’t even afford proper meals.
Lockdown sabotaging the future: Whereas people working in the formal sector still had some degree of financial security as their salaries were more or less unaffected, the people working in unorganised jobs suffered the worst of the pandemic. With no income, most were either forced towards taking loans, or had to eat up their savings. So when the corporatesector was talking about using the crisis as an opportunity to increase wealth, for the people at the bottom, it meant giving up on their future.
Inflation and unemployment:Having suffered major disruptions in the global supply chain along with an economic collapse, there was both a shortage of goods and livelihood opportunities. Despite India faring relatively better than other economies, an inflation rate of around 6 per cent has been breaking the backs of many. This has resulted in an already beaten lower income group losing even more and not even getting any chance to rebuild.
Non-inclusive growth:India’s recovery from the pandemic has been defined as K-shaped. This means that some sectors and people have managed to not only return to pre-pandemic levels of wealth and income, but have also seen increased prosperity. On the other hand, others have continued to lose even more. India’s growth story seems to have left a large section of its people out, and that class is clearly feeling the burden.
What are the solutions policy makers must look at?
All these aggravated fault lines eventually result in the inducement of the same feeling: frustration. The lack of growth, missing out on opportunities, losing one’s future and seeing stagnation in life, add up to create a hopeless and frustrated individual who just wants a way out. Whereas those with money have the option of approaching psychologists and avail of expensive therapy, for the have-nots, there simply is no mental health redressal mechanism.
The lack of growth, missing out on opportunities, losing one’s future and seeing stagnation in life, add up to create a hopeless and frustrated individual who just wants a way out. Whereas those with money have the option of approaching psychologists and avail of expensive therapy, for the have-nots, there simply is no mental health redressal mechanism.
Therefore, for any realistic solution, these handicaps of the victims must be acknowledged. Thus, for addressing the crisis at hand, the approach should be based on acknowledgement, rebuilding and prevention.
Acknowledgement:In our political and mainstream discourse, socio-economic inequality (which increased in India due to the pandemic) is hardly given the attention it deserves, being looked at as a by-product of policies that just has to be lived with. This was most reflective during the protests against the controversial farm laws, as many commentators thought that even if the farm bills induced inequality they were better for the economy. The current attitude of the Union Government towards the disparity in wealth was also reflected very well when members of the ruling party chose to disparagingly call social welfare measures “rewadi culture”. Inequality needs to be addressed as a problem for there to be a solution.
Rebuilding:So far, policy measures taken for people in the unorganised sector have been related to mere survival. For example, focusing on providing free ration of food grains and vaccines. However, as we move towards economic recovery, it is important to address people’s aspirations and create opportunities. Schemes such as the the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act can be used. Steps should be taken to ensure that people who have lost livelihood find similarly placed jobs. An approach can be based on using the upcoming census’s data to specifically target communities which have lost the most during the pandemic. The immediate crisis that needs to be dealt with is inflation; getting it under control is absolutely crucial in order to stop the further erosion of the lower socio-economic classes’ wealth.
Prevention:As the world becomes a more unstable place, the State needs to become ready and prepared for the possibility of facing similar situations better. Thus, there need to be strong safety nets for unorganised workers. Something like unemployment insurance can be a method. Ensuring that there exists infrastructure and Standard Operation Procedures to deal with such situations, like emergency food kits, travel arrangements and easing up of loans, will also be necessary.
A frustrated working class is extremely dangerous for any country; mixed with high inequality, it is a recipe for disaster. Thus, it is important that the NCRB data not be viewed in isolation as that of crime or mentally ill individuals, but as a reflection of deep-rooted problems that our society faces.