Documentary Focusing on India Farmer Suicides Has Amherst Connection
Amherst, Mass.—A political science and women’s and gender studies professor at Amherst College says she hopes a movie her mother produced about a wave of suicides by farmers in the Punjab region of India will shed light on the vexing challenges that farmers and their families face globally and locally, while also raising funds for the affected families.
The documentary, Harvest of Grief, will be shown at a benefit screening at 7 p.m. August 29 at Amherst Cinema. This 67-minute documentary chronicles the victims' untold stories. It is shot in four villages in Sangrur, a relatively poor district of Punjab.
The film is directed by Anwar Jamal and produced by Rasil Basu, the mother of Amrita Basu, who is organizing the local screening and a panel discussion to follow.
Professor Basu said her mother became interested in the film’s subject matter while working in India as the head of an NGO she founded that focuses on women’s empowerment after a career at the UN.
“She read a column in a newspaper describing farmers in Punjab committing suicide because they were unable to meet payments on their loans,” Basu said. “She became particularly intrigued by this issue because that region had always been described as India’s granary. She wanted to explore not only the suicides, but also their impact on family members, especially mothers and grandmothers who are left to tend the land after their husbands’ deaths.”
Sut Jhally, professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and founder of the Media Education Foundation in Northampton, will introduce the film and facilitate the discussion. The panel discussion will feature Rasil Basu, as well as other regional experts on India and agrarian political economy, including Robert Pollin, Professor of Economics and founding Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Vijay Prasad, professor of South Asian History and International studies at Trinity College in Hartford.
This sometimes harrowing documentary has been praised for its unflinching look at the plight of farmers in a region that is known as the breadbasket of India. Since the mid-1990s, however, unable to bear the burden of escalating agricultural costs, declining soil fertility, dwindling yields and mounting debt, small and marginal farmers have been killing themselves. The government’s official figures put the suicide count in Punjab to date at a little over 2,000. However, experts put the number well over 40,000 in 20 years.
As a result of the farming community’s patriarchal structure, Rasil Basu says, women are ill-equipped to cope with the abrupt and violent loss of male breadwinners and the challenges and responsibilities that confront them. Often farms are confiscated because of women’s inability to repay high-interest loans. Widows, who become the sole breadwinners, are harassed by money lenders. Children suffer by being forced to leave school and work at early ages.
Although the film focuses on India, Rasil Basu says that the questions its raises are relevant to farming communities around the world. “The film explores issues like the use of pesticides and the availability of bank loans,” Rasil Basu said. “Even though the contexts are dramatically different, there certainly are global and local connections.”
For example, a screening of the movie in Des Moines, Iowa, was well attended by local farmers, and prompted many comparisons between family farms in India and the Midwest.
The Amherst Cinema, the Media Education Foundation, AmherstCollege, and the Political Economy Research Institute at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst are co-sponsoring the screening of Harvest of Grief (www.harvestofgrief.com). To arrange an interview with Rasil or Amrita Basu, please contact Amrita Basu at email@example.com , Rasil Basu at firstname.lastname@example.org or Peter Rooney, Amherst College Director of Public Affairs at 413-542-8452 or email@example.com.
The Amherst Cinema is located at28 Amity Street, AmherstMA 01002. Tickets for the screening are available at the Amherst Cinema box office or online www.amherstcinema.org . Seating is limited and advance purchase is strongly recommended.