Ten years ago, a guest house was built in the town of Khanauri, on the border of Punjab and Haryana, by the Sahara Charitable Trust. Usually, these are initiatives for tourists in the area, but the reason for the little establishment in Khanauri is different.
There is a canal here that attracts a large number of visitors from all over Punjab, but it’s not because of scenic beauty. People come to Khanauri looking for their dead.
Built between 1950 and 1954, Bhakra Main Line (BML) Canal is 164 kilometres long and runs through Punjab and Haryana. The inter-state channel carries water from the Sutlej to these two states and Rajasthan. At Khanauri, the BML canal branches out towards Rajasthan and here, where water gushes out of a sluice gate, is the spot known for being the floating ground for corpses.
It’s a gruesome spot. The stench of rotting flesh hangs in the air and in the garbage-caked water, there are almost always a few dead bodies to be seen. On the morning we visited Khanauri, two figures floated in the canal: one was a dead buffalo; the other, a bloated, discoloured and mutilated cadaver of a man.
Nobody knows who this man is, where he’s from and how he ended up in a canal on the Punjab-Haryana border.
A sight like this is common in Khanauri. Locals say that there isn’t a day when at least one or two bodies aren’t seen at this spot where the barrage acts as a temporary barrier — and this is literally just on the surface. There’s no number for the bodies that drown or pass through the barrage at night.
“We are seeing 35-45 bodies every month in Khanauri,” said Inderjit Singh Jaijee, chairman of the Baba Nanak Educational Society (BNES). “This doesn’t include the bodies that have died in the last two to three days because they stay underwater. So, assuming 35-45 bodies a month, we have more than 500 bodies a year. That adds up to some 6,000 bodies in 10 years.”
Jaijee has been working in rural areas of Punjab since the 1980s and also heads the Movement Against State Repression (MASR), a sister organisation of BNES, which has been documenting farmer suicides in Sangrur district. BNES also runs a rescue programme for families of suicide victims.
According to Jaijee, instances of farmer suicides in Punjab are grossly underreported and he believes most of the bodies in BML are of those who killed themselves because of rising farming debts. “If there’s a murder, the police is very active,” he said, when asked if the canal had become a convenient dumping ground for violent criminals.
“If it’s an accident, say a car or motorcycle falls in the canal, the press is active. They [the majority of the corpses found] are not murders or accidents – some may be, but they are reported. But what about those that are not reported? There’s a huge amount.”
From the corpses that collect at Khanauri, only those that are identified — usually by the families that come looking for their missing relatives — are recovered by divers. If not, they either flow further down the BML or get stuck at the barrage.
Families come to Khanauri from places like Patiala, Ropar, Sirhind, Fatehgarh and Ludhiana, in the hope of finding their missing loved ones among the dead that gather in the BML. Jagpal Singh from Bhattiwal Kalan in Sangrur district, had been staying at the guest house for four days, ever since his father-in-law disappeared from Patiala.
“He was disturbed psychologically,” he said of the missing man. “His farm was adjacent to the canal so we think perhaps he fell in.” Jagpal had enlisted gotakhor (diver) Ashu Malik’s help to retrieve the body, but that would only happen once the corpse showed up. And so Jagpal was in Khanauri, waiting and hoping to see his father-in-law float among the garbage and green waters at the BML barrage.
Malik says he’s been diving into the canal to find and drag out corpses for 24 years. His experience suggests that Khanauri is the morbid gathering spot for the dead simply because of economics. “To recover a dead body from the canal, it costs nearly Rs 7,000 to Rs 8,000, including the cost of transportation, fuel, last rites and post-mortem. But the government doesn’t bear this cost. They [the police officers] have to pay it out of their own pocket.”
Reports suggest the police offer little by way of help or support. Not just that, they also say the claims of daily sightings of corpses are false. “There’s no truth to two-three sightings a day,” said Baljeet Singh, Khanauri’s Station House Officer, to The Hindu. He also said there was a police post near the canal. “Just few months back, we’ve posted four policemen for round-the-clock vigil and to assist families of victims,” he’d claimed. However,The Hindu found no one at the ‘post’ for almost four hours.
Sardar Kuldeep Singh, former Sarpanch (village head) of Khanauri Khurd, doesn’t blame the local police. Like Jaijee and Malik, he estimates between 30 and 35 bodies are found in the canal in a month. He also pointed out that there are bodies that flow underneath the barrage, officially enter Haryana and thereafter are not only lost to the families, but also become another state’s problem.
Rather than the police, Kuldeep points his finger at the state government. In 2012, the Punjab and Haryana High Court instructed the state government to install underwater cameras to help with detection. These are yet to be installed. The only CCTV cameras here are the ones put up by the Sahara Charitable Trust, which also built the guest house. “The police’s hands are also tied because the cost is too much,” said Kuldeep. “The Centre should intervene.”
That there is a crisis in the agricultural sector in Punjab is one that few acknowledge. While the government’s statistics largely underplay the numbers, MASR estimates that there have been 50,000 farmer suicides in Punjab between 1988 and 2010. The Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) estimates the number to be even higher – 90,000 suicides between 1990 and 2006 (the estimates are based on random sampling).
Jaijee concedes that not all suicides in Punjab are related to farming, but he insists at least “70 per cent are due to debt.” The staggering figures that MASR has exclude bodies that pass undetected underwater or get caughtin the undergrowth and silt.
Warning: Slideshow includes a disturbing image
The debt accrued by farmers in Punjab has acquired astronomical proportions. A recent estimate puts the total amount of outstanding farmer debt at nearly Rs 70,000 crore. A 2014 study found that 89 per cent of farmers in Punjab are under heavy debt.
The same study points to the reason why farmers are forced into borrowing money – Green Revolution agricultural practices, which led to immense growth in the farming sector in the 1970s and 80s, are now economically unfeasible for the small farmer. While the cost of production has steadilyincreased over the years – cost of seeds, fertilizers, tractors, fuel – grain prices haven’t kept pace.
As a result, small farm holdings have progressively become less profitable, causing farmers to accumulate debt which they have difficulty paying back.
A by-product of the growing unviability of farming is the process of de-peasantisation – it is estimated that 14.39 per cent of farmers in Punjab had left the profession since 1991. But their prospects, even after leaving farming, aren’t very bright.
“In all the universities of Punjab, only five per cent of the students that graduate every year are from the rural sector,” said Jaijee. “And the rural sector is itself 70 per cent of the population.”
Speak to the people who stay at the guest house in Khanauri and farming families will say their earnings have been dipping in recent years. Some, like Jagpal, will talk about how men turned to alcohol in an attempt to deal with the stress of their failing farms.
Statistics can be manipulated, but perhaps the most telling sign that the farming crisis in Punjab is real is that no one in Khanauri thinks suicide is an extreme reaction to the circumstances.
For people here, it’s almost an understandable next step because everyone’s feeling the bite. And so it makes sense to remove yourself from the world around you and throw yourself into a canal — even if it will mean ending up at Khanauri, bloated beyond recognition, surrounded by garbage, eyed by wild dogs and becoming a rotting statistic of despair.
This article was republished from Newslaundry.com.