Black stones in South Punjab

Instances of suicide by 'Kala Pathar' are on the rise. Sheikh Haq Nawaz reports on the tragic trend from Multan

Many of the rural areas of South Punjab are in the grip of a new wave of horror: incidents of suicide through poisoning using ‘Kala Pathar’. Not a day seems to pass without fresh reports of a tragic end to a life using this method. What appears to have started with the rural areas has now spread to the urban zones of South Punjab too – and most alarmingly, is starting to become commonplace enough to be just another daily fact of life. Obviously, the spread of such an unfortunate trend cannot but affect the psyche of the people of this region.

Kala Pathar, a substance whose chemical name is p-Phenylenediamine, is widely used for permanent hair-dyeing. It serves a similar purpose to henna, in some cases. And unfortunately for the last few decades, it has also gained a reputation as the cheapest poison for committing ‘easy’ suicide. Locally known as ‘Kala Pathar’ (black stone), the toxic substance has been known to cause accidental, suicidal and homicidal deaths. When employed as a poison, it extensively damages the mouth, throat and stomach.

In Bahawalpur alone, 703 cases of poisoning by Kala Pathar (PPD) were brought to the emergency ward - 150 resulted in death

There have been reports of relatives who, in the guise of trying to intervene in a dispute, ended up persuading people to commit suicide using this poisonous and easily-obtained substance

In South Punjab particularly, the increasing trend of using Kala Pathar for suicide, amongst the youth, has taken the form of a very dangerous trend.

Especially in rural areas, petty domestic issues can at times flare up without any very concrete reasons. They can then be exploited by relatives with ulterior motives. There have been reports of relatives who, in the guise of trying to normalise the situation in a dispute, ended up persuading people to commit suicide using this poisonous and easily-obtained Kala Pathar.

In recent days, at least some ten cases emerged – six women, three children and a man – where the mode of suicide was Kala Pathar. The fact that this trend particularly affects women and children should be obvious from this small sample.

Rural hospitals’ emergency wards provide records which paint a horrific picture.

Social scientist Salim Ahmad, while talking to this correspondent, stresses: “The open sale of this chemical must be prohibited and if its use is inevitable for some particular purposes, then sales would have to be strictly checked and regulated to ensure that there are no suicidal or homicidal objectives at play.”

As is the case with much of the harm visited in society, whether on the self or on others, these instances of suicide via Kala Pathar are also rooted in social circumstances arising from conservative structures, poverty, inequality, lack of opportunities and pervasive injustice.

According to social scientist Haidar Ali, “The great tragedy of our rural society of South Punjab is that the majority of the people in this region are slaves to rigidity, prejudices, ever-lasting feuds and the concept of a temporary, cosmetic ‘honour’ – which manifests itself in the violent deaths of women and young girls.”

Such a conservative social order is, of course, maintained through an immense amount of violence. And avoiding that violence means subjecting one’s self to a very stifling existence. When such a life becomes far too much to bear, the option of a low-priced ‘exit’ through an easily obtained poison captures the mind of a person in difficult circumstances.

Sociologist Amir Ahmad Khan observes: “Most of the families residing in the rural areas of this region are faced with tragic domestic affairs which breed bitter and acrimonious situations – and these are often unbearable for the more sensitive members of these families.”

The lack of any support network to fall back upon for a troubled individual only increases the possibility of suicide. The concept of seeking professional assistance is, of course, alien to most in a rural area. Even in urban zones, access to counseling and help hardly exists. And where it does, social stigma prevents many individuals from seeking that aid.

The result, especially in South Punjab, is such a spate of early ends to invaluable lives.

To even begin to address the issue of suicide by Kala Pathar would require a detailed investigation of this phenomenon. But even more importantly, it cannot be resolved through regulations or other measures on the part of authorities. Since they are a manifestation of a deep-seated malaise within society, they can only ever be addressed by dealing with the underlying economic and social injustices.

In the interim, of course, measures will have to be taken to prevent desperate people from resorting to the Kala Pathar as an easily accessible ‘way out’ of a tragic and difficult life.