On 10th December, 2014, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Shri Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary in a written reply to Shri Vivek Gupta in the Rajya Sabha informed that government has decided to delete Section 309 of IPC from the Statute book. Suicide is no longer a criminal offence. Apparently, this was based on a report by Law Commission, endorsed by 18 States and 4 Union Territories. We need not know specific names of these States and UTs. The Law Commission, in its report no.201, titled “Humanisation and decriminalisation of Attempt to suicide” (October, 2008), says, “Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code provides double punishment for a person who has already got fed up with his own life and desires to end it.” In this 38-page report, the Law Commission details reasons and justification for its recommendation – “Section 309 needs to be effaced from the statute book because the provision is inhuman, irrespective of whether it is constitutional or unconstitutional. The repeal of the anachronistic law contained in section 309 of the Indian Penal Code would save many lives and relieve the distressed of his suffering.”
The decision is taken. This is probably one of the series of changes BJP has promised in its manifesto to ‘review and change anachronistic’ laws in India.
Be that as it may, a conversation with one of my journalist friends brought me the realisation. What happens to farmers suicides? We are aware that farmers suicides are happening for the past several years, increasing cyclically. The only authentic nation-wide source of such information is National Crime Records Bureau. With decriminalisation of suicide, this Bureau would not task itself with such collection anymore, and police stations would be relieved of collecting and recording suicides.
With governments not ready to accept recorded statistics of farmer suicides, by their own agency, for political reasons, they would be much more happier if there is no information collection at all. Presently, a serious issue of farmers suicides, with available statistics is buried and neglected by all the four pillars of Indian democracy. With no system of information collection, suicides can be easily be ignored and forgotten. No one can be wiser about the magnitude.
In fact, not just farmers suicides, it will be a issue for all kinds of suicides, if one sees suicides as a socio-economic problem and has policy and governance implications. In India, with a state which is ever distant from the poor and good governance, suicides are often termed as state murders, implying apathy and neglect of government. In the case of farmer suicides, the demand for compensation has been met by many State Governments half-heartedly. There are number of documents to be submitted, for the family to claim such compensations. One of them includes a record from the local Police Station. With the dropping of Section 309, the police station is relieved of such function, including filing of FIRs, investigation, and the responsibility of post-mortem. Unless, ofcourse, all suicides are recorded as suspicious deaths. Prior to the dropping of the section, affected families had atleast a suo moto procedure to rely upon. Not that it happens on its own at every place. But, atleast the police had a responsibility. Now, the onus will be on the families to get this legal procedures done, even while they are in distress over the untimely death. Which department would not collect these statistics? or record such deaths?Policy makers had a statistical burden to respond. What is the alternative?
For me, the answer lies in laws, rules and administrative systems related to collection of statistics in India. We need a thorough review of the same. We tend to rely more and maximum on Revenue Departments – anachronistic and outdated in its outlook and functioning. Like in United States and other countries, India needs to build a vibrant National Vital Statistics System. This system should be made independent of government whims and fancies and should be funded by autonomous, constitutionally acceptable financial support. Data collection and information systems at the State level are almost non-existent.
Suicides and other public healths statistics have to be made independent of the Revenue and Planning departments. As health, economic and social issues became more complex, the content of the information collected on the vital
records has to be expanded and measures to improve its quality are brought in. The function of producing national vital statistics has to be entrusted to a dedicated public research centre, and a system of regular collection, and not to be embedded in departments with bureaucracy breathing down their neck.