Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of retrievals of bodies of people who have died by suicide.
Today will be a quiet day, Gurbaksh Singh, 27, thought to himself as he dressed in blue jeans, a hoodie and black boots, and set off for work one December morning. The week had been unusually cold, and he had very little work. He expected to lounge in the sun, drink tea, make small talk with a few people, and get home early.
He drove his motorcycle through Khanauri, a town in the Indian state of Punjab, to reach the banks of the Bhakra canal. It had rained all night, and the streets had turned slushy. The Sutlej River, which flows more than 300 miles, all the way here from the Himalayas in Tibet, gushed at the sluice gate of the canal, accompanied by a deafening roar. Three men were waiting for him near the gate. “Kya aap gotakhor hain?” one of them asked, stepping forward. “Are you the diver?”
Singh is a diver, but not for exploration or science. Rather, he retrieves the bodies of suicide victims from the canal.
The canal is just over 100 miles long, running through several towns in Punjab and the neighboring state of Haryana. In recent years, it has been the site of many suicides, as despairing, debt-ridden Indian farmers taking their own lives has become an epidemic. The bodies pile up at Khanauri, where they get stuck at the sluice gate, which blocks off one end of the canal. Desperate families from nearby villages and towns gather and wait for their dead to show up. By now, Singh has probably retrieved 100 bodies, but he does not keep count. He’s busier in the summer, when more people commit suicide by jumping into the water than in winter. He does not know why that is. “Maybe they’re scared, and the cold water scares them more,” he says, a meditative look on his face.
Like many young men his age, Singh has a well-trimmed beard and a stylish haircut. He is reed thin, but he says the job requires more mental strength than physical strength.
He stands at the edge of the water and uses a long rope with a three-pronged metal hook to bring up the bodies. With the hook, he tugs the bodies closer to the shore. He then strips off his clothes, gets into the water and pulls them the rest of the way out. On days when he can’t retrieve the bodies with the hook, he has to dive in. It takes him about half an hour to bring out each body.
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Sometimes the bodies are so decomposed that he panics when he’s underwater. “It’s a dangerous job. The water is always turbulent. Some of the bodies I catch are in such a bad state that the families refuse to look at them and I feel disturbed for days after.”
On that December day, he listened patiently as three men shared their story with him. On the morning of December 10, Ashok Kumar, a 32-year-old carpenter from Patran, had left home at 6 a.m., earlier than usual. He left his motorcycle and cellphone at home. When his wife asked him where he was going, he merely replied that he would be back. At 4 p.m. the family got a call. His shirt, sandals and wallet had been found next to the canal, about six miles upstream from Khanauri.
“If he really did jump, then the body will show up today,” said Ashok’s younger brother, Vinod. “It takes two days for it to reach down the canal.” His eyes were vacant and his face was stretched with fatigue. He clutched a poster of his brother, a man with wide-set eyes and an earnest face; his name, address and a contact number were written below. Ashok had recently lost his job; he had become withdrawn and stopped communicating with his family. “Maybe he just wanted to be alone and he wants us to believe he took his life. Maybe he will come back in a few days.”
As Vinod spoke, he instructed his friend and brother-in-law to keep their eyes on the water. The three men had kept vigil through the night, taking turns to watch.
Some years ago, a local NGO built a rest house on the banks of the canal for the families of the dead. It’s a humble structure, a single room that looks out over the water. The room is desolate, with some empty cups of tea on the windowsill, discarded by families. The rest house is painted an incongruous shade of pink, someone’s attempt at bringing hope to this macabre setting. But the pink walls are now a testament to daily tragedy, covered with posters of the missing: a smiling young woman next to a frail and elderly man, both gone for over a year now. That morning, a poster for Ashok Kumar went up in one corner.
There were more than 16,000 farmer suicides in Punjab between 2000 and 2015, according to a report, and the canal passes through Malwa, the region with the most farmer suicides in the state.
The canal, now so closely associated with death and despair, was once a symbol of Punjab’s agricultural success. The region, often described as India’s breadbasket, was the site of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, supported by American scientists and touted as a solution to India’s poverty and food shortages. The water from the canal irrigated vast tracts of land and dramatically increased the production of rice and wheat in the region. But the Green Revolution didn’t go as planned. Small farmers were marginalized, the land was ravaged by intensive cropping of wheat and rice and a dependence on agrochemicals, as traditional sustainable methods were abandoned — a pattern that has not yet been broken. By the 1990s, farmers’ incomes were so squeezed that many started taking out loans. They’ve since been trapped in a cycle of debt that many cannot escape from.
Human rights activist Inderjit Singh Jaijee has undertaken the grim duty of documenting farmer suicides in the region for decades, and he has been instrumental in drawing attention to the canal suicides. The authorities continue to ignore and suppress the issue, he alleges. “Nearly 75 percent of the population of the state depends on agriculture, and most cases of suicide in Punjab are linked to agriculture,” he says.
Even if all of the deaths in the canal are not farmers, many of the others are nevertheless connected to the issue. Such was the case with Rajeev Kumar’s father (no relation to Ashok Kumar), who took his own life three years ago by jumping into the waters of the Bhakra. The family lives in a nearby village, and Rajeev’s father owned a grocery store that sold essential commodities to the local farmers. His own debt accrued when his customers could not pay him anymore. In a story echoing Ashok Kumar’s, one morning he left home, and a few hours later the family received a call.
The tragedy hasn’t escaped the attention of the media. Local papers carry myriad stories of the hopeless victims, each stripped down to a headline: doomed lovers … troubled sisters … broke businessman — all jumping into the canal. As its lore has grown, Khanauri has started attracting people who come here out of curiosity. There are benches by the banks of the canal that face the water. On most days, a handful of passersby can be seen, waiting to spot a body. “I heard of this place, and since I was here, I thought, I’ll stop for some time,” said one middle-aged man on a bench.
Conversely, for those who live in the village, death has become banal. “I have been seeing this for years, sometimes two bodies a day,” says a tea seller whose shack is located nearby. “Before the diver used to work here, wild dogs used to attack the corpses.”
Singh’s job, though sorely needed, isn’t overseen by the government or the private sector or even an NGO. Rather, there is a police post near the sluice gate, devoted solely to the canal deaths, and Singh has been informally contracted by the police to help recover the bodies.
“When the families come here, we record the basic information. We help them claim the body, and we sometimes help them with last rites, in the case of very poor families,” said an officer at the station, who did not want to be named. “We cremate the bodies that are unclaimed.”
The tools Singh has to work with are limited. For many years, activists have demanded the installation of underwater cameras, ambulances and a mortuary at the site, but none of these things has materialized. Death is handled on an ad hoc basis. After Singh pulls out the bodies, he cleans them with a disinfectant, wraps them in layers of plastic, which he ties carefully with rope, then hands them over to the families.
He does not receive any fixed salary for the work. The families give him what they can afford, anything between 2,000 to 5,000 rupees ($30 to $70). In some cases, the families can’t afford to pay anything, but Singh is their last hope on their darkest day. “I help those who can’t pay,” he says. “I think of it as public service.”
Before he was a diver, Singh used to work in a scrapyard. “There is a risk in every job, and I found it more difficult to scrap metal than to do this,” he explains. “Over here, at least my body gets some rest in between.”
At home, he has a wife and an infant son. His parents are farmers with a small landholding. He would have liked to live off the land, but it wasn’t sufficient, although he is still fond of the family’s property and cattle. He speaks wistfully of learning to swim with water buffaloes as a young boy. “I used to catch the tail of a buffalo and follow it into the water. Water does not scare me, but sometimes the bodies can,” he says. When he talks about his work, he tries to sound detached. “I don’t think much about it. It’s my livelihood.”
Ashok Kumar’s family waited at the banks that entire week. They carried on searching along the path of the canal for the next month. He is still missing.
“I don’t believe he’s gone,” his brother says. “I think he will come back when he’s not disappointed with us anymore.”
“I tried to help them, but I couldn’t,” says Singh. “When I bring up a body, I know it’s a difficult moment for the family, but it’s also necessary. It helps them find a conclusion.”
If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 or the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. You can also text HOME to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line, for 24/7, anonymous, free counseling. International helplines can be found at the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Bosch Foundation for the Indo-German Media Network.