By Farheen Qureshi
Back-to-back lockdowns have not only affected Kashmir’s people economically but psychologically too, resulting in more deaths by suicide.
A transient thaw and the despairing dozens were back on a bridge pleading a diver to rescue a sinking woman.
Between the fatal action of the woman and the fraught reaction of masses, the valley in the second viral wave only witnessed another addition in the surging suicides.
The distrait woman had appeared on one of the seven bridges of Old Srinagar, on a balmy summer day, and jumped into the river.
This new splashing shock came on the day when the body of a youth who had jumped from Srinagar’s Cement Bridge days ago was finally fished out.
Growing suicidal tendencies among Kashmiris is witnessed even more with the consecutive clampdowns that have taken a heavy mental toll on people.
The suicide spate shocked all and sundry when a post-graduate from Kulgam made a video moments before taking his own life.
With a broken voice, the boy in the video is heard saying that his life has become “miserable” as his family has been struggling financially.
While explaining his plight, he said that he’s sacrificing his life only to make sure that his family’s suffering ends and for all those teachers whose salaries have been withheld.
“I can’t take my university studies forward because of my father’s salary being withheld by the authorities for over two and a half years now,” the boy before taking his own life said.
As soon as the video hit the internet, public reaction started pouring all over the social media calling it “heart wrenching”, hence, putting pressure on the authorities to release the pending salary worth Rs 33 crores of around 600 teachers, including the father of the Kulgam boy, days after his suicide.
“The obvious cause of suicide attempts is financial stress in the families,” Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association (JKHBA) sharply reacted to the suicide spree.
“People in general and charity institutions in particular should take care of the distressed families in and around their respective localities.”
According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the unemployment rate in Jammu and Kashmir has increased to 12.1% in May 2021 from 8.6% in November 2020.
Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad, President Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCC&I) said that whenever Kashmir faces lockdown, more than 5 lakh people get jobless immediately during the period.
While there’s not even one sector that has not been affected, statistics show that more than 70,000 people have been directly affected and rendered jobless in the tourism sector — comprised of transporters, hoteliers, houseboat owners, local shopkeepers and many others — in lockdown.
“The situation is more distressing and pathetic today,” Sheikh Ashiq said.
“Within fortnight’s time, we’ll be coming up with a huge proposal to be put forward to the Centre as well as to the J&K govt. Its focus would be purely on the financial aspect in regard to all the business sectors.”
The trade leader said that there’s no cash flow in the lockdown-ridden valley today. “There’s a liquidity crunch in the market and stressed assets are increasing. People are buying only essential items because there’s no cash available with them.”
Due to the lockdowns, business communities have seen limited working days since 2019.
“The lives are very important but the livelihood has to be taken care of too as businesses have to run while making sure the SOPs are not compromised.”
According to KCC&I, Jammu and Kashmir has lost almost Rs 10,000 crores in the third lockdown alone.
“Economy is in doldrums and our businessmen are anxious,” said Muhammad Yasin Khan, President of Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation (KTMF).
“Whenever we talk to traders, transporters, distributors and other trading companies, we get to know that there’s only 30% of work running in some business communities while 70% of it remains stagnant with the restrictions that are put in place often due to one reason or the other.
“Around 95% of people have borrowed from financial institutions. We’re unable to pay interest to the banks. Performing Assets have turned into Non-Performing Assets. Transporters and local shopkeepers are the worst hit and on the verge of falling apart. The situation is such that the transporters are not even in a position to pay the insurance of their vehicle today.”
But as the erstwhile state reels under lockdown, Jammu and Kashmir suffers a loss of Rs 272 crores while Kashmir region alone suffers the loss of Rs 150 crores per day.
Since Article 370 was abrogated in August 2019, Kashmir has moved from one clampdown to another. With the incessant political instability in the valley, many say, it’s very difficult to cope up with the situations that demand patience and perseverance.
As the region has already entered the 23rd month of lockdown, psychological instability stemming from social anxiety including state repression, unemployment, family disputes, peer pressure and competition in the postmodern societies with pandemic paranoia makes it more difficult for people to survive, driving some of them to suicides.
Mental health experts say that in West and many other cultures, economic deprivation will be the number one cause of suicides, while in Kashmiri culture this will be undoubtedly one of the important causes but not the most important in view of the cultural values particularly social support and social bonding.
“There’re many people who come to me often with suicide ideation but almost all of them fight temporary hopelessness and live happily thereafter,” Dr. Arshad Hussain, professor at Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences Kashmir.
“We need to talk about those cases as well so that people do not see temporary hopelessness as end of the story but beginning of meaningful and productive lives. We need to be sensitive to the suicide contagion. The media need to be sensitive and not sensational.”
Pertinently, United States-based advocacy group, National Alliance on Mental Illness in its Why Suicide Reporting Guidelines Matter, writes that the sensational role of media in covering suicide cases today result in what behavioral scientists call “suicide contagion” or “copycat suicides”.
Dr. Hussain argues that there’ll be a certain section at risk categories in the society to watch out for in this pandemic.
“The foremost among them is the families who suffered Covid mortality especially the younger victims and also those families who couldn’t even give a proper adieu to their loved ones and express grief in the way that Kashmiris culturally are accustomed to,” the mental health specialist said.
Parents and religious leaders on ground need to understand the grim situation that the youth is dealing with because of many socio-political and psychological factors, he said.
“They need to behave in such a way that people with mental health issues find a first resort with them without being feared of getting judged.”
Notably, mental health is a well-recognized condition in Jammu and Kashmir but services mostly remain inaccessible due to social taboos and unavailability of community-based mental health services in most of the districts in Kashmir.
Amid all this, any random and glum sightseer on bridges today makes people paranoid over his/her motives.
To check and balance the ‘brink behavior’, people especially from Srinagar have sought an immediate intervention of the administration, requesting them to deploy live boats around river banks and bridges so that the rising suicide incidents can be foiled in the future.
But while the river police is patrolling the perilous waters of Kashmir today, many say the mental distress needs larger intervention because even lifeguards are often caught off guard these days.