One of the videos shows an old man walking calmly towards a divider at a toll plaza in the night. There is no one around. The old man loosens his turban and ties it to an iron bar in the plaza. Another video, from a different angle, shows the old man struggling to make a noose of his turban. Then there are images which show the old man’s lifeless body hanging above the concrete divider. There’s another video in which people, possibly local residents, are bringing down the old man’s body.

It is a disturbing memory but Gurdeep Singh likes to watch and share the videos of his father’s last moments, caught on CCTV at the toll plaza.

Around 10.30 pm on September 26, Gurdeep Singh’s father, 68-year-old Tara Singh, died by suicide at the Ghulal toll plaza, some two kilometres from his home in Rohla village of Punjab’s Ludhiana district. The toll plaza was one of the many sites where farmers gathered to protest against the three farm laws recently repealed by the Centre.

“He had been at the protests there for nearly eight months,” said 35-year-old Gurdeep Singh, who drives an autorickshaw for a living. “He would come home for a few days and then go again.”

Tara Singh was a landless labourer. He worked on other people’s land, earning Rs 8,000-9,000 a month. But he was deeply connected with the farmers’ protests against the three laws. Farmers feared the laws would lay them open to corporate exploitation and the minimum support price regime would be dismantled.

“We exist because of farmers,” said Gurdeep Singh. “If there’s no farmer, what will a farm labourer do?”

His mother, Prakash Kaur, was also part of the protests. She had been stationed at Delhi’s Tikri border for nearly eight months, helping out at a langar for the protesting farmers. “Even when my father committed suicide, she was at the Tikri border,” said Gurdeep Singh.

On that September night, Tara Singh could not take it anymore. “He was worried that the protests were dragging on with no results in sight,” said Gurdeep Singh. “I was also making less because there were fewer passengers during the protests. My mother was at the Tikri border for so long. All of this was at the back of his mind.”

The government’s repeal of the laws has brought little solace to the grieving family. “Had the government repealed the laws before, my father would have been alive and with us,” said Gurdeep Singh.

Gurdeep Singh watches videos of his father’s last moments. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

The toll on small and marginal farmers

Tara Singh is among the hundreds of farmers who died during nearly 15 months of’ protest against the three farm laws. While there are no official figures for the total number of deaths during the protests, farmers’ groups have been documenting the toll. According to Samyukta Kisan Morcha, the umbrella group of farmers’ unions that led the agitation, at least 720 farmers lost their lives during the protest.

A survey of 460 farmers from Punjab who died in the protests found most were small or marginal farmers, if not landless labourers. The study cites the agricultural census, which categorises landholdings in India under five sizes.

Marginal farmers are those who own less than 2.47 acres of land while a small farmer owns less than 4.94 acres of land. On average, the farmers who died cultivated 2.94 acres of land, found the study, titled “Separating Wheat from the Chaff: Farm Laws, Farmers’ Protest and Outcomes” and conducted by two academics at Patiala’s Punjabi University. The average age of the farmers was 57.

The protests were led by farmers primarily from Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. So far, only the Punjab government has announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each and a government job for the kin of farmers who died during the protest. On December 9, when the farmers decided to end the protest, the Centre said the Haryana and Uttar Pradesh governments had also committed to giving compensation “in principle”.

According to the latest data, the Punjab government has already given jobs to the kin of 157 farmers who died. Besides, compensation of Rs 5 lakh each has been disbursed to 400 families. Tara Singh’s family have also got compensation of Rs 5 lakh but they are still waiting for the promised government job. Some families have got both compensation and jobs.

Before paying compensation, the government needs reports from district authorities verifying the deaths. Every other week, it arranges formal programmes where job letters are handed out to bereaved families.

Some families appear to have slipped through the cracks of this process and got nothing from the government. Many of them, bereft of their main breadwinner, struggle to survive.

‘The lives they left behind’

Take the case of Kulvinder Kaur and her four daughters, who live in Patiala’s Seona village. Her husband, 49-year-old Jagtar Singh, had been a contract farmer who would regularly join the protests at the Delhi border. On August 19, he left home for the Patiala bus stand. He was planning to board a bus for the Delhi-Singhu border. He had a heart attack at the bus stand and died almost immediately. “His body was brought home by some farmers who had gone with him,” recalled Kulwinder Kaur.

Since then, she has taken up jobs as a domestic worker to make ends meet. Her elder daughter, an arts graduate, has given up her studies to become a seamstress. “I can’t afford further studies for her,” said Kulwinder Kaur. “I am not sure how long I can sustain the education of my other daughters.”

Nearly four months have passed since Singh’s death but no government official has visited the family, which belongs to the Other Backward Class in Punjab, about compensation or a job. “My daughters tried to hold a sit-in protest in the village when a local MLA was expected to visit but he didn’t come,” said Kulwinder Kaur.

So far, the only help they have got is village-level donations and charity. Caught in a daily struggle to survive, Kulwinder Kaur has little time to make the rounds of departments to press her case. “If I don’t work, we will have nothing to eat,” she said.

She lives with her four daughters in a crumbling single-room house. The only room in the house, which doubles as a kitchen and a bedroom for Kaur and her four daughters, opens directly into a narrow village road. They have to use a washroom on a public road.

“My husband used to say that farmers have to win this battle,” said Kulwinder Kaur. “Farmers did win the battle but what about the lives they left behind?”

‘He was our future’

Unlike her, Jaswinder Singh does not have pressing financial worries. He owns 2.75 acres of land in Patiala district’s Kheri Jattan village and also got Rs 5 lakh in compensation from the Punjab government. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which manages Sikh places of worship, also gave the family Rs 1 lakh. A local kabaddi academy also pitched in with Rs 50,000.

He was also given a Class IV government job in the agriculture department. Having studied only up till Class 8, he would have been eligible for little more. His son, 19-year-old Navjot Singh Swaich, would have studied much further – had he lived.

Jaswinder Singh shows his 19-year-old son’s photograph. Picture credit: Safwat Zargar

Like so many villages across Punjab, Kheri Jattan had been sending a group of five men to the Delhi-Singhu border protest site every week. If a household could not send a man from their family, they had to pay a penalty equal to the daily wage of a labourer – about Rs 400 here.

On February 23, the village routine changed slightly – a group of six teenagers, including Swaich, left to join the protesting farmers at Singhu border. “All of them were of the same age and friends,” said Jaswinder Singh.

It was the first time Swaich had been to the protest site. It turned out to be his last. “On the night of February 26, my son spoke to me on the phone for a long time,” said 37-year-old Jaswinder Singh. “He told me about the dinner he had and what it was like there.”

The next morning, Swaich did not wake up. The other boys who had gone with him later reported that he had gone to sleep in the tractor. “He was declared dead after a medical examination,” said Jaswinder Singh.

The postmortem examination revealed that his son had died of a cardiac arrest. “He was a healthy boy and never had any health issues. We are still in shock,” said Jaswinder Singh.

Swaich had recently passed his Class 12 exam. He was preparing to take another exam under the International English Language Testing System – the language test needed to study abroad. “He wanted to go outside India for further studies,” said Jaswinder Singh. In his spare time, Swaich would help his father with work on the farm. He had also learnt to drive a tractor.

The compensation now means little to the grieving father. “He was my only child, someone who would keep my name alive,” said Jaswinder Singh. “Now, it’s only me and my wife. He was our future. The void left by him can’t be filled by money.”

‘Inadequate’ compensation

There is no one explanation why most of those who died in the protests were also impoverished.

“My simple understanding is that the farmers who have died were those people who were already suffering from a high-degree of indebtedness and were very poor,” said Lakhwinder Singh, who co-authored the Punjabi University study.

The lack of a proper diet, poor medical services at the protest sites, inadequate clothing in the winter cold and the harsh winter might have contributed, he speculated.

According to Lakhwinder Singh, the government needs to do a lot more to address the problems of families bereaved in the protests. He was also critical of the Centre’s thrust on state governments to compensate the families.

“The compensation [offered by the Punjab government] is highly inadequate,” he said. “The agitation was against farm laws enacted by the central government and it should have ideally taken the responsibility of providing a decent compensation package to the farmers. State governments should be just supplementing.”

While Punjab’s Congress government was offering Rs 5 lakh to bereaved farmer families in the state, it had promised Rs 50 lakh each to the families of four farmers and a journalist in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh, Lakhwinder Singh pointed out. Eight people, including the farmers and the journalist, were mowed down during a protest in October. The convoy that killed had been ferrying the son of Union Minister Ajay Mishra.

“If their families can be paid Rs 50 lakh as compensation then why not the [families of] other farmers who died during the protests?” Lakhwinder Singh asked.