Stuck in an odd clash between superstition and science, people are struggling to explain a very dark “epidemic” that is sweeping across a region of central India.
The region of Khargone has reported 381 suicides in the past year. In particular, the rural village of Badi – with a population of just 2,500 – has reported over 350 suicides in the past twenty years. In the first three months of this year, 80 Badi villagers have killed themselves, Times of India reports.
The village’s current leader, Rajendra Sisodiya, has recently seen his mother and brother commit suicide. Sisodiya was elected leader after the previous leader, his cousin, hanged himself outside his house two months ago.
As for an explanation behind this wave of deaths, opinion is divided between “demonic possession,” socio-economic inequality, and even pesticides.
Khargone is recognized as being one of the poorest and culturally isolated regions of the country. It’s therefore no surprise that many are explaining the problem as a product of poverty, underfunded health services, and lack of awareness.
"Depression isn't something people here are easily able to relate to or identify. When they are unable to find any reason, they associate it with locally explainable phenomenon like demonic presence," Dr. Srikanth Reddy, a psychiatrist based in Indore, told Times of India.
Dr. Reddy went on to speculate that depression and schizophrenic episodes could be triggered by excessive use of farming pesticides.
He said, "Apart from financial distress, there could be other causes for this depression. In a study some years ago in China, where a large number of farmers in a particular area were committing suicide, it was found that insecticides used there contained organophosphate, which is highly toxic and causes depressive mental conditions.”
This Chinese study, commissioned by the World Health Organization, looked at 10 rural communities in Zhejiang province. They found a clear correlation between the communities who had easier access to pesticides – particularly organophosphates – and rates of suicide and mental illness. Although other studies have also found this link, they admitted that finding the actual biological mechanisms of this was very hazy and remains controversial.
Nonetheless, onlookers are desperately hoping for an answer and a way to address the issue. Ashok Verma, a local official, is establishing a special committee and launching a full investigation into the wave of suicides.
Also speaking to Times of India, he said: “This is a very grave situation and we need to act fast. The villagers lack confidence and motivation and it's very important to counsel them.”
Main image credit: Arjun Claire/Flickr/European Commission DG ECHO. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)