Seeding Wellbeing in Drought- Prone Regions
The association between mental health, poverty and social exclusion — although well-established — still fails to influence MH discourse substantially. Distress caused by the everyday hardships of poverty continues to be pathologized and medicalized, putting the onus for it on the affected individual, besides furthering the problematic assumption that such distress can be effectively understood or managed through a diagnostic, expert-led, recoveryfocused, bio-medical approach. Mental distress arising from challenging life circumstances such as poverty, systemic social exclusion, structural violence, and discrimination, cannot be addressed solely through medical diagnoses and interventions.
Farmer suicides are a stark example of poverty-induced distress that underlines the need to go beyond clinical settings. In Marathwada, 11,995 farmer suicides were officially recorded between 2015 and 2018(1), with Osmanabad district alone accounting for 34%. Unlike other districts in Maharashtra, Osmanabad suffers from chronic drought. Year after year, the effects of climate change on their crops, unpredictable markets and mounting debt take an immense toll on farmers’ mental health.
Despite a significant number of agrarian schemes(2) by the government to alleviate farmer debt, and the presence of four agricultural universities and 150 colleges in the region that might offer knowledge resources, farmer suicides are increasing. Those tasked with reducing their number understand little about the situation on the ground. Women farmers, invisible and unaccounted for, continue to be left out of these conversations. Existing state interventions and development programs lack MH components, focusing largely on debt reduction, which — though crucial — is only one of the many steps needed to mitigate farmer distress.
A community-led psychosocial approach
The failure to stem farmer suicides in the region could be attributed in part to this bifurcated response: on the one hand, a purely developmental approach (debt reduction); on the other, a biomedical and clinic-based approach. A more nuanced approach would consider the community as a resource, and center the voices of user-survivors. Such a community-led approach would foreground the ‘subjective perceptions and experiences of those within low-income communities whose voices are often marginalized.(3)
Shivar Foundation, a volunteer-driven non-profit, models this psychosocial approach to local farmer distress. Volunteers all fit the basic criterion of being from farming backgrounds.
‘Someone from a farming family knows what the issues are, knows about farmer distress in an intimate, personal way. They don’t need to be given any background orientation on how or why farmers are distressed. They also have a bigger stake in resolving this distress... after all, these are their own communities.’ (Hegana V., personal communication, 1 June 2020)
The Shivar volunteers, then, constitute a much-needed resource for these rural communities, and a lifeline for farmer families in distress. The community based network of 700 trained individuals has its ears to the ground, and a place within each household. These volunteers go door-to-door, enquiring about distress: providing psychosocial first-aid; imparting information on available government schemes; enabling households in debt to access cash support, credit, and farming equipment. Moving away from providing MH services through clinical settings that prioritize the voice of the ‘expert’ MHP, Shivar relies on the lived expertise of its community-based volunteers. MH thus becomes community-led rather than external or outsider-led, encouraging practices of inclusion and support, while advocating for social justice.
“Someone from a farming family knows what the issues are, knows about farmer distress in an intimate, personal way”
a cadre of trained lay counselors
Shivar volunteers receive training on policies and schemes through workshops, refresher courses and ongoing modules. They also learn to identify signs of distress and provide basic counseling. Once trained, they pass on their knowledge and psychosocial training in community centers as well as in schools and colleges – so as to have, in each household, one trained and informed youth member able to identify distress and proficient in addressing it, through counseling or advocacy, or both. The aim is to stitch together a support network encompassing farming families across the district.
‘In 2018 we got a call from the headmaster of one of the schools we had recently visited. A 6th Std boy who had heard our talk on signs of distress had told him that his father had been displaying these signs for several weeks. We immediately contacted the family and discovered that the boy’s father had stopped communicating with family members, spent hours by himself, seemed upset, and had lost all interest in farming.’ (ibid.)
As part of their intervention, trained volunteers counseled the farmer, and tried to understand the reasons underlying his distress — which included a Rs 1,50,000 loan, and no access to finance to purchase seeds, or to pay for his children’s education. With the farmer, the volunteers made a six-month agricultural plan that would leverage his six-acre land holding and enable him to repay his loan and pay for his children’s education too. They connected him to a universityrun seed distribution scheme, and he planted jowar and green peas that year. Six months later, he got in touch to say that the combined harvest had earned him Rs 2,50,000, and he could now repay his loan.
Besides training community members in identifying signs of distress and disseminating information about agrarian schemes, Shivar Foundation also runs a psychosocial helpline for farmers. Callers are invited to visit the Foundation’s Farmers’ Friends Centers to discuss their issues in more detail. The helpline and centers are also managed by community-based volunteers.
‘In 2017, we received a call from a sugarcane farmer who had sold his harvest to a Solapur-based sugarcane company but hadn’t been paid. He had written many letters to government officials, to no avail. He had a loan he needed to pay back, and had had to sell his wife’s jewelry to do so. He had already attempted to take his own life twice, prior to calling our helpline — and was on the verge of a third attempt. Our volunteers intervened, were able to get district officials to resolve the case, and the farmer received his money.’ (ibid.)
Shivar’s volunteers bring to the table lived expertise that is culturally appropriate and relevant. Over 1,500 families across the district have benefited from this communitybased psychosocial approach to alleviate farmer distress.
Mitigating lockdown distress: leveraging a pre-existing lifeline.
With communities living in this drought prone region routinely experiencing high levels of distress, farmers already on the brink were further burdened by COVID-19 and the nationwide lockdown. Earlier, the Foundation's helpline would receive 250 calls a month, but since the lockdown this number has almost doubled. The lockdown was imposed just as farmers were getting ready to sell their harvest. They had also been awaiting the loan waiver list that was to be announced.
To mitigate the lockdown’s impact, Shivar’s volunteer network swung into action, enabling access to markets in Pune and Mumbai where farmers were able to sell their crops at a profit. Besides harvest distribution, Shivar has also been engaged in providing COVIDrelated information and distributing safety equipment. Shivar was able to anticipate how farmers would be affected, and to respond appropriately.
Shivar’s model validates how communities are a valuable resource for themselves. The lived expertise of the volunteers enhances the cultural relevance of Shivar’s psychosocial programs. Their approach shows us how voices like those of women farmers and farmers with experiences of mental distress are crucial, and must be foregrounded. The model exemplifies how community resilience may be built and safeguarded from within. ¤