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From Agra to Prayagraj, spike in suicides is the untold story of pandemic business distress

Each morning, the small towns of UP awoke with anxiety about suicides as incidents increased in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-induced lockdowns.

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Trigger warning: This story contains content about suicide. If you or your loved ones need help, please reach out to a mental health professional.

Prayagraj/Agra/Ayodhya: When Manoj Pathak walked into his office premises on the morning of 3 December, he became the first to witness a horrific mass suicide that shook the town of Agra. The body of his 46-year-old employer, Yogesh Mishra, who had been living in the Uttar Pradesh town for more than two-and-a-half decades, swayed mid-air, with the noose squeezed around his neck. Beside him was the lifeless body of his 43-year-old wife, Pratichi, and their five-year-old daughter, Kavya. But that wasn’t all. The family left behind a suicide note and an 11-year-old daughter — who was the sole survivor of the tragedy. “Jai Mahakal,” the note read, “to whom it may be a concern.”

Yogesh, who hailed from the nearby Etah district, owned a medium-scale business. “We both [husband and wife] are responsible for this mass suicide. For this, no legal action should be taken against any person in any form. Thank you mother, brothers, sister and sisters-in-law for giving us love,” the three-page suicide note said.

A week after the suicide, when ThePrint visited the grief-stricken family in Agra’s Maruti Enclave area, there were more questions than answers. Vishal Mishra, Yogesh’s elder brother, wondered: “Yes, there has been financial distress but he had never discussed or shared (it) with anyone.” The police officials, however, said, “We are still investigating. But financial distress could be one of the reasons because the family does not have doubt anyone else.”

The 11-year-old daughter, the lone survivor, was still too traumatised to recollect what happened. “She was sleeping with her grandmother that day,” Vishal said.

Yogesh Mishra's office premise where he was found dead. | Photo Credit: Jyoti Yadav
Yogesh Mishra’s office premise where he was found dead. | Photo Credit: Jyoti Yadav

Recently, death by suicide has come to be associated with the business class in Agra. Prahlad K. Aggrawal, the president of Agra Tourism Welfare Chamber (a body that represents more than 200 businesspersons), says, “Covid distress has taken a toll on everyone involved. From small scale to big ones, there is no relief from the losses and there is no government aid either.”

Yogesh’s is not an isolated case. Data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit India, 11,716 businesspersons died by suicide.

Under the ‘accidental deaths and suicides in India’ category, NCRB indicated that there was a 29 per cent jump in suicides among businesspersons. In 2019, it recorded 9,052 such deaths.

Niraj Jaiswal, president of the Civil Udyog Vyapar Mandal (a representative body of around 400 businesspeople) from Prayagraj, told ThePrint, “Varanasi and Prayagraj are religious cities. We also have Kumbh and Allahabad High Court here. Since the courts also shifted to Zoom, the hospitality sector has been badly affected. Most hotels remained closed for many months.”

Cities like Agra are suffering due to the restrictions on international tourism. Anoop Goyal, secretary of the Agra Tourism Welfare Chamber, says, “Those who have been in a specific trade cannot change the trade overnight even at the cost of suffering losses. For the last two years, we have been waiting for the government to allow international tourism. In Agra, we can’t run any business in domestic tourism. Domestic tourists neither buy these art crafts nor hire tour guides.”

“We are paying GST too and there is zero relief from the government’s side despite this tourism industry contributing to the country’s GDP,” Goyal adds.

Also Read: Is attempt to suicide punishable? Two laws have opposing views, SC seeks govt’s response

Deaths and extreme stress

Ever since the Narendra Modi government relaxed lockdowns, Hindi dailies in Prayagraj have been reporting news of suicides. The headlines often range from — “A person drowns himself in the Ganges”, “Youth found hanging in the narrow lanes of Karnalganj”, “Local businessman shoots himself in Thatateri Bazar.”

Each morning, the town of around 15 lakh wakes up with a flurry of news about suicide deaths.

According to the Prayagraj Police, the number of suicide deaths in May, June and July 2020 — the months where the lockdown’s impact was felt the most by businesses — far exceeded the number of deaths by suicide in the same months in 2019.

The number of such deaths in 2021 has only been rising – Prayagraj recorded 22, 24 and 26 suicide deaths in May, June and July, respectively. In 2020, the figures for the three months were 28, 21 and 22; and in 2019, it was 16, 12 and 11, respectively.

“A single woman who ran a parlour to raise her children approached us some months ago. During lockdowns, everything was closed but as soon as things became slightly better, she visited the mental health ward seeking help. She was suffering from wage losses that had led to extreme stress and anxiety. She had panic attacks. She told me that she can’t take out loans or can’t work as a labourer either,” Dr Rakesh Paswan, MD in Psychiatry at Motilal Nehru Divisional Hospital, Prayagraj, told ThePrint. “I counselled her but the situation among small- and medium-scale businesses is somewhat similar. People started calling for repayment of loans and debt. There was no work yet. We are seeing many such cases.”

Also Read: Many more people commit suicide due to bad marriage than divorce, NCRB data shows

Badly affected interpersonal relations

Police records in suicide cases often simply cite ‘husband-wife differences’ as the main reason. “Interpersonal relations have been badly affected. Husband-wife differences have escalated during two consecutive lockdowns,” Dr Paswan says.

Ashish Gupta, a 44-year-old businessman from Prayagraj, was one of the 26 registered people who died by suicide in July 2021. At around 4:30 pm on 26 July, he went inside the washroom of his house in the Gol Market locality, locked the door and then shot himself.

Bathroom where Ashish Gupta shot himself. | Photo Credit: Jyoti Yadav
The bathroom where Ashish Gupta shot himself. | Photo Credit: Jyoti Yadav

He is survived by two daughters aged 10 and 8, wife and parents. When ThePrint met his cousin Saurabh in August, he showed a WhatsApp message that Ashish had sent minutes before killing himself, at 4.23 pm — “Saurabh, please ask Aunty to look after my Pihu, Palak and Shweta and my parents. My kids are so innocent and this world is so brutal, I request you to fulfil my last request. Saurabh, my mother needs to go to a Lucknow hospital after a month.”

Ashish also sent five other messages to his sisters and his wife, unconditionally apologising for his extreme step. The lane where his shop was located started picking up business in August and September after the deadly second wave of Covid-19.

“I have been in this [business] for the last 25 years, and even my forefathers never saw such times,’’ says 48-year-old Mohammad Shoeb, who runs a small-scale utensil business in the locality.

Vyapaar khatam hi samajhiye. Paisa lautana hai logon ka, ghar se samaan ki list aa jati hai ki ye lete aana shaam ko. Dimag uljhan mein hai lagataar. Humein toh sarkar se koi incentive bhi nahin mila. Poora unorganised sector barbaad hai (Businesses are done for. We have debts to pay off, and we get a list of things to bring home in the evening. Our minds are constantly burdened. The government has not given us any incentive. The entire unorganised sector is destroyed),” Shoeb adds.

While Ashish’s family could not put the blame on pandemic or lockdown, his brother emphasised that the whole year brought so much uncertainty that it became difficult to even comprehend what triggered Ashish. “A day before, he took his daughters to eat out at Civil lines. He was not in debt and all seemed fine.” Saurabh says.

Dr Ishanya Raj, a clinical psychologist from the Motilal Nehru Divisional Hospital, highlights various factors that could’ve contributed to the cases of suicides. “Many people are in huge debt. During the lockdown period, no one visits them physically to ask them to return the money but as the lockdown is lifted, the fear of seeing the faces gets on nerves. It is also the time when you are not in the family watch as other members also start going out.”

“The moment lockdowns are relaxed, people start reaching out to us, in a dire need to be stopped from committing that act,” Raj adds.

Also Read: Kin of those who died by suicide in 30 days after Covid diagnosis to get ex-gratia: Centre

A situation similar across towns

Pradeep Kumar, who runs a small scale business in Ayodhya, along with a few others, performed the last rites of Sheetla Prasad, a businessman from Prayagraj.

“He had booked a hotel in Ayodhya where the staff found him dead. Nobody came forward to claim his body, so some of the businessmen traced his extended family members and informed them. Since they could not reach, we performed his last rites,” Kumar says.

“Police often claim that affairs, disputes with wife and children, or a spat with other competitors lead to such deaths, but it is true that Covid has impacted the business community to a large extent. We feel stressed,” he says.

Kumar also says that he hasn’t heard of the case from the police, which is said to be investigating the matter as no suicide note was found on the body.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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