Pandemic: 112,000 suicides among day labourers in India

Earlier this week, the Labour Minister presented the figure in Parliament, specifying that the deaths occurred between 2019 and 2021. Several studies had already found severe psychological distress among internal migrants caused by the loss of jobs during the lockdown. According to some estimates, poverty levels are even higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Between 2019 and 2021, at least 112,000 day labourers committed suicide in India. The figure was presented in Parliament earlier this week and Labour Minister Bhupender Yadav showed that the numbers have been rising: 32,563 workers died in 2019, 37,666 in 2020 and 42,004 in 2021.

But in the three years under review, the total number of suicides was 456,000: according to government data, this included 66,912 housewives, 53,661 self-employed workers, 43,420 employees, 43,385 unemployed, 35,950 students and 31,839 people employed in agriculture. 

Numbers that give an idea of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country's economy and society, which has been hit by several waves and subjected to a harsh lockdown since March 2020, during which the unemployment rate has soared to 24% (in normal times it is around 7%) and thousands of migrant workers from rural areas and disadvantaged social classes have been forced to return to their villages (sometimes even on foot after transport was suspended), abandoning the urban centres where they had moved in search of work. 

According to the most up-to-date data (from 2011), there were at least 140 million internal migrants providing the cities with cheap labour: day labourers, street vendors selling fruit and vegetables along the road, rickshaw drivers and cleaning women.

Millions of people who out of the blue found themselves without work and who, not having received state subsidies (96% of those surveyed in one study said they had received no help at all), were unable to eat anything for several days in a row.

It is precisely among migrant workers that several studies have found the highest rates of psychological distress during the pandemic: research has shown that 63.3 per cent of participants suffered from loneliness, 48 per cent felt a decrease in social connectedness, 50 per cent experienced fear of death, over 58 per cent experienced frustration and tension. Three quarters of the respondents were also diagnosed with depression, mainly caused by anxieties over job loss and the inability to care for loved ones.

Although India's economy is now on the upswing, with GDP growth estimated at over 6% (a figure that indicates a slowdown compared to previous years), hunger and poverty rates had risen dramatically during the pandemic.

Government data show that the percentage of people earning less than USD 1.90 a day - what the World Bank considers the extreme poverty line - in cities, which are more affected by the restrictions than rural areas, rose from 5% in March 2020 to 47% the following month.

Despite the subsequent reopening and resumption of activities, rates have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels: according to some projections, there were still 115 million people below the extreme poverty line at the end of 2021, i.e. 44 million more than in 2019. 

These figures were confirmed at the end of 2022 by World Bank estimates, according to which the pandemic has created 71 million new poor, at least a third of whom are in India alone.

But the proportion could turn out to be higher if official government figures on poverty are ever published, statistics that have not been released in India since 2011 (probably also in an attempt to conceal the country's problems from the world), emphasised the World Bank, which instead used for its calculations the numbers of the Consumer Pyramids Household Survey conducted by the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, a think-tank that monitors the national economy.