Poverty and lack of basic necessities cause a domino effect of triggers for suicides amongst the urban poor
From falling in love as teenagers to being married for five years, Soumya* and Karthik*, were a very popular couple in the Thideer Nagar slum in Saidapet, Chennai.
Now their house remains empty, all their belongings and pictures kept intact, fresh flowers adorning their photographs hung on the wall.
Come next week and it would be one year since they both died by their own hands.
Karthik, a painter by profession provided for the family was also a plumber, carpenter and an electrician. His sister-in-law, Ramya*, brought out portraits of the late couple and said, “Every marriage has issues, and as far as this couple is concerned, Karthik’s alcoholism was getting out of hand.”
India has a problem with suicides. The number of suicides is the highest among youngsters between the age group of 15 to 29, followed by people older than 60 years of age.
According to the 2015 data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the latest available to the public, 70% of the total number of suicides are by people with low income economic status, earning less than Rs one lakh per annum.
Urban slums residences come under this category, where issues like lack of basic amenities, healthcare issues and deprivation of public services also prevail.
Soumya had immolated herself when her husband had come home drunk, according to her sister Ramya. She had previously attempted suicide to make her husband realise that she would not take abuses from him when he comes home intoxicated.
All attempts to save Soumya failed. She had poured a can of Karthik’s paint thinner on herself and the flames leapt up in no time.
“It all happened too fast. She was just going to threaten him like every time. She lit up the match stick and things happened faster than both of them had anticipated. She was just 25, her son was 3 years old,” said Ramya.
According to the NCRB, the causes for suicides in Tamil Nadu during the year 2015 are:
Marriage related: Out of 450 deaths, 226 were men and 224 were women
Debts: Out of 229 deaths, 196 were men and 33 were women
Alcoholism and drug abuse: Out of 422 deaths, 411 were men and 11 were women
A month after Soumya died, Karthik hung himself in the same house. Ramya recounted that he could not bear the loss of his wife, he found no meaning in existence. Their four-year-old son now lives with his grandparents.
Ramya pointed to a little boy sitting with a group of teenagers, watching them play video games on the phone.
“He was too young when his parents passed away, we don’t know what to tell him when he asks about them,” said Ramya.
Alcoholism and family issues, the major causes for suicides, are often interlinked. Trauma of verbal, physical and mental abuse on women due to alcohol disorder of a male family member is the highest reason for death by suicide among women in slums.
There is also the issue of other family problems like accusations of infidelity in marriages and improper handling of teenagers and young adults.
16-year-old Jenny, another resident of Thideer Nagar, hung herself after her father beat her up when she was caught talking to a boy on the phone. She passed away after being hospitalised for 24 hours.
Apart from alcoholism and family issues, urban slum residents are in constant fear of their homes being demolished, of being evicted or of mass relocation.
Dr Shubhangi R Parkar, managing director and Head of the Department of Psychiatry of KEM Hospital and Seth GS Medical College in Mumbai conducted a study ‘Explaining Suicide in an Urban Slum of Mumbai’.
The results of the 2009 study proved that psychological consequences of exclusion from society and lack of access to basic public services play a major role as stressors in urban slums.
Health problems abound in urban slums. Apart from lack of sanitation and lack of proper toilets, leading to open defaecation, open drains and stagnant pools make residents vulnerable to mosquito borne diseases.
Brinda, another resident of Thideer Nagar in Saidapet, is anxious for her two-month-old baby. She has paid several visits to the hospital in the past few weeks.
“Mosquitoes plague our house after sunset. On top of it the unbearable stench of the dumping yard here making this place even more unliveable. Neither do we have money for medical expenses, nor do we have any other place to go,” she lamented.
“People from all over the neighbourhood, rich and poor, dump their garbage over the bridge, we are the ones who have deal with the consequences of this. I don’t let anybody throw their garbage here if I see them.
We have fights everyday regarding this, if there was a public dustbin given to us by the municipal corporation, we would make sure everybody puts the garbage there. But nothing happens, a lot of social workers, politicians and journalists come here, listen to our problems and never come back. Our problems are never resolved.”
Lack of proper toilets and bathrooms force urban slum residents to bathe wherever they find a little privacy, most times, on the pavements outside their houses or in the corners of the lanes. A small patch of dry land amidst the Adayar river has become their spot for defaecating.
Groups of children were playing right next to these spots. “That’s the only place where there’s no water or garbage, we don’t have many options,” said Ritika, a young girl of 10, who impatiently gave these details while her friends kept calling her out to play.
Their small play area was surrounded by a pool of garbage and large mosquito breeding pools.
Rithika abandoned her play time and gave a small tour of her street. Most of the family’s possessions were kept outside the house.
Vessels meant for cooking, storage boxes, a large drum of water, empty bottles of alcohol - all this took so much of the small lane, that one had to walk sideways to get through. Her house had a single bed, stove, and clothes strewn around and a small television.
A tin structure was being used as a bathroom. Three of four houses nearby funded this small closed area so that young girls of their families would take showers here.
Men would find a comfortable spot in the middle of the lanes and make use of any space available.
Sridevi, 50, a grandmother herself, was worried about young boys getting addicted to marijuana and other substances. “Young boys hang around with older boys and get introduced to drinking and substances at a very young age. Then when they don’t have money to buy what they want, they get into fights with the family. Most of the families here have male members of the family who beat up and abuse family members after getting drunk,” she said.
Gambling, relationship failures, eve teasing, peer pressure are also reasons for death by suicide in small communities like Thideer Nagar, says Sridevi. “I have been living here for a long time now, we have seen people dying by suicides due to various reasons, but we are not educated.
So many lives could have been saved if we knew how to seek help. Other than that, a lot of family issues are majorly because of addiction to alcohol, so the government should do something about wine shops,” she added.
In the study conducted by Dr Shubhangi on the suicides in urban Mumbai slums, she demands a desperate need to link clinical approach of mental health to community issues.
Family members of a person with drinking problems are at a higher risk of dying by suicide and therefore awareness regarding rehabilitation should be given and management of alcoholism should be done.
Sanitation facilities should be improved and awareness about personal hygiene should be given. Furthermore, stability in jobs, efforts in resolving community issues by the government should be done more effectively.
Different communities of urban slums have a spectrum of inter-related issues; these issues need to be addressed to ensure that urban slum dwellers are included in the development of society as a whole, providing a better standard of living thereby creating a healthy living environment.
(*Original identity of individuals has been replaced with alternative names on request)
Note: Suicide is not the answer to life's troubles. If you are feeling lonely, depressed or suicidal, help is at hand. Contact SNEHA's suicide helpline on 044-2464 0050