Sui­cide and star­va­tion haunt Vi­darbha vil­lages

India Today - - FRONT PAGE - By Damayanti Datta and Ki­ran Tare in Vi­darbha Pho­tographs by BHASKAR Paul/www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

KALAWATI, whose hus­band com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2005, be­came a sym­bol of resur­gence when Rahul Gandhi men­tioned her in a 2008 Lok Sabha speech. In 2010, plagued by debts, her son-in-law killed him­self and in Septem­ber, her daugh­ter set her­self ablaze.

The long, bumpy road to Jalka, 130 km from Nag­pur, trav­els through miles of scorched cotton fields. In a tin-roofed hut, Kalawati Ban­durkar, 55, sits sur­rounded by her six grand­chil­dren. She tries to dis­ci­pline them with an oc­ca­sional shout, and then ruf­fles their hair in rough af­fec­tion. She picks up the cranky oneyear-old, Na­man, her grand­son who has just lost his mother. One more hun­gry mouth to feed in a fam­ily of eight. Kalawati’s fore­head pleats in a fierce frown. “You can’t de­pend on any­one, any­thing. Not rains, not govern­ment.” Per­haps not even on her 28-yearold daugh­ter, Na­man’s mother Savita, who set her­self ablaze in Septem­ber. “She was bleed­ing con­tin­u­ously since Na­man’s birth,” says Kalawati. “I used to take her to the doc­tor.” But with money in

I didn’t get any com­pen­sa­tion. I don’t know why. They didn’t give any rea­son.


VIL­LAGE Saikheda HUS­BAND HANGED HIMSELFIN 2006 IN­HER­ITED DEBT Rs 50,000 from bank and some from pri­vate money­len­ders

LOAN PAID BACK on her own. No sup­port from the govern­ment, in- laws or broth­ers

WORKS ON her own five- acre farm and also as con­tract labourer on other farms to sup­ple­ment in­come

MOUTHS TO FEED 3 BIG­GEST POCKET- PINCHERS Soy­abean oil Rs 70 a litre Clothes for daugh­ters Rs 500- 600

short sup­ply, Savita took the fa­mil­iar way out. Poverty and grief stalk Kalawati’s home.

“I would take you to the house of Kalawati…a wo­man with nine chil­dren whose hus­band com­mit­ted sui­cide. I would urge you to re­spect her.” When Congress Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Rahul Gandhi quoted her ex­am­ple in his July 21, 2008, Lok Sabha speech, de­scrib­ing how she had di­ver­si­fied her in­come, Kalawati be­came the sym­bol of ru­ral resur­gence. But Rahul didn’t re­turn to check on her. In 2010, Kalawati’s sonin-law, plagued by debts, com­mit­ted sui­cide. In Septem­ber, it was her daugh­ter—the fourth death in her fam­ily in the last six years.

There’s at least one Kalawati in ev­ery vil­lage in Ma­ha­rash­tra’s “grave­yard for farm­ers”, Vi­darbha. In the last 16 years, Vi­darbha has recorded the largest wave of sui­cides in his­tory, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­tre for Hu­man Rights and Global Jus­tice of New York Univer­sity School of Law ( CHRGJ). And a great num­ber of those af­fected are cotton farm­ers. A study of of­fi­cial data by K. Na­garaj of the Madras In­sti­tute of De­vel­op­ment Stud­ies, re­ports that nearly 29,000 farm­ers com­mit­ted sui­cide in Ma­ha­rash­tra be­tween 1997 and 2005 due to ex­treme poverty. The fig­ure for Vi­darbha is es­ti­mated to be 8,652 be­tween 2004 and 2011. This year, 647 cases have al­ready been re­ported, ac­cord­ing to the Vi­darbha Jan An­dolan Samiti ( VJAS).

The fig­ures hide lives ru­ined as col­lat­eral dam­age. Ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates, there are 1.5 mil­lion sur­viv­ing fam­ily mem­bers af­fected by the sui­cides. Their sto­ries are no less tragic. With the hus­band’s death, a new vi­cious cy­cle of debt is set in mo­tion: the wi­d­ows in­herit their hus­bands’ debts, work round the clock to pay back as well as make ends meet, lose a way of life, sta­tus and stand­ing in so­ci­ety, and the chil­dren get sucked into farm work.

We asked Kalawati if she re­mem­bered Rahul. “Who is he, I asked, when some­one brought him (Rahul) in. They said, he is Indira Gandhi’s grand­son,” she says with a touch of a smile. Ever since Rahul vis­ited her, do-good­ers topped up her bank ac­count and politi- cians hounded her to be­come their mas­cot. But of­ten tall prom­ises and gen­er­ous sup­port came with rid­ers.

Kalawati hasn’t got any com­pen­sa­tion from the govern­ment af­ter her hus­band com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2005. “The land we cul­ti­vated was not in his name,” she points out. Hence her hus­band’s death has not been recorded as a ‘farmer sui­cide’, mak­ing her in­el­i­gi­ble for com­pen­sa­tion. Shra­van Hardikar, col­lec­tor of Ya­vat­mal district, Vi­darbha, ex­plains the con­di­tions: that one has to be a farmer, own farm land and have taken a loan for farm­ing. But loans from pri­vate money­len­ders are not con­sid­ered, although the bulk comes from them as govern­ment banks give just Rs 10,000 per acre of cotton.

Within weeks of Rahul’s visit, NGO Su­labh In­ter­na­tional awarded Rs 36 lakh to Kalawati—the only Vi­darbha widow to ben­e­fit hand­somely. But very lit­tle re­mains of the monthly in­ter­est of Rs 25,000, af­ter split­ting it up among her daugh­ers and de­mand­ing sons-in­law. As per con­di­tions, she can’t touch the fixed de­posit un­til her youngest son, eight now, be­comes an adult. She could have saved her daugh­ter’s life if she had been able to.

Life is hard and death is a way of life on Vi­darbha’s cotton fields. One can spot miles and miles of cotton in full bloom, on a land­scape dot­ted with steepled tem­ples, from the Nag­purHy­der­abad high­way. The ad­ja­cent

Tipesh­war sanc­tu­ary with its ac­tive wildlife makes the place un­safe af­ter dark. But Nanda Bhan­dare, 31, is hard at work on the fields of vil­lage Bhad­u­mari with her mother-in-law and 15-year-old daugh­ter, mov­ing from row to row to pluck cotton buds. A daunt­ing task: the stems can cut skin and 1 kg of cotton fetches just Rs 5. She has been work­ing since 8 a.m. and at 6.30 p.m., with just 10 kg in her sack, her eyes well up with tears.

“Glob­al­i­sa­tion ex­cludes as much as it in­cludes…the farmer in Vi­darbha drinks pes­ti­cide as global cotton prices tum­ble,” said Rahul at the Ra­jiv Gandhi In­sti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Stud­ies in Delhi on Oc­to­ber 18. Nanda’s hus­band had also drunk a cup­ful of in­sec­ti­cide in 2006. Un­able to pay back Rs 35,000 to a co-op­er­a­tive bank and Rs 50,000 to a pri­vate money­len­der, he was in de­spair. He forced her to beg money from her par­ents, for him. Next day, he killed him­self. But he left the money in­tact, for her. She paid his loans with the govern­ment com­pen­sa­tion of Rs 1 lakh, ek­ing out a liv­ing on her seven acres and on other peo­ple’s farms to make ends meet: “We live day to day.”

Cotton is an ex­am­ple of In­dia’s shift to­ward cash crop cul­ti­va­tion. But it’s a

shift that has added to farmer vul­ner­a­bil­ity. “The open­ing up of agri­cul­ture to global mar­kets since the ’90s has hiked up costs, re­moved safety nets, re­duced prof­itabil­ity and pushed many into a debt trap,” says Vi­jay Jawand­hia, farmer ac­tivist in Vi­darbha who heads the Shetkari Sang­hatana of Ma­ha­rash­tra. Tech­nol­ogy has played a ma­jor role in this. Most farm­ers in­vested in the new, ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied Bt cotton seeds in the hope of higher yields. Over 95 per cent of cotton pro­duced in In­dia now is Bt cotton. “But Bt cotton seeds de­mand even more of two re­sources that are al­ready scarce for many farm­ers: money and water,” ac­cord­ing to the CHRGJ re­port. They seeds cost dou­ble, can’t be re­planted and need very high quan­ti­ties of water. In Vi­darbha, un­like in Gu­jarat where Bt has been a suc­cess, farms are pri­mar­ily rain-fed. De­spite ag­gres­sive mar­ket­ing, the fact that Bt re­quires more water has not been com­mu­ni­cated ef­fec­tively to farm­ers by multi­na­tion­als and their li­censees, who now dom­i­nate the In­dian mar­ket.

“There is will­ing­ness in the govern­ment to help,” says Jawand­hia. “The Prime Min­is­ter vis­ited us in July 2006.” But these ef­forts come af­ter years of in­ac­tion, to­ken debt re­lief and waivers.

As Kalawati’s case shows, these are of­ten short term and farm­ers fall off the map due to bu­reacu­cratic rigid­ity. “The govern­ment has done lit­tle to ad­dress the real fac­tors,” says Nitin Khadse, farmer ac­tivist from Jalka. Ir­ri­ga­tion fa­cil­i­ties have re­mained mea­gre over the years. Of the 14 lakh hectares un­der cotton in Vi­darbha, only 16 per cent is ir­ri­gated. Farm­ers have al­ways re­lied on state as­sis­tance. But the state with­drew sub­si­dies and al­lowed min­i­mum sup­port price (at which it buys crops if mar­ket price falls) to stay far be­hind the ris­ing costs—of seeds, fer­tilis­ers, pes­ti­cides, and labour, he adds.

Ma­ha­rash­tra Chief Min­is­ter Prithvi­raj Cha­van ad­mit­ted that 75 per cent of the cotton pro­duced in Vi­darbha goes to other states of the coun­try be­cause of the lack of cotton-based in­dus­tries in the re­gion. “We are plan­ning to frame a new tex­tile pol­icy to gen­er­ate em­ploy­ment,” he said at a farm­ers’ meet at Lo­hara in Ya­vat­mal district on Oc­to­ber 24. The same day, Agri­cul­ture Min­is­ter Sharad Pawar promised in In­da­pur that the cur­rent curb on cotton ex­port would be lifted af­ter Di­wali so that farm­ers could gain. “We are fight­ing two en­e­mies, the cli­mate and volatile mar­kets, with­out help from the govern­ment,” says Jawand­hia.

Only the very tough sur­vive. “Vi­darbha women are very hard-work­ing,” says Kishore Jag­tap, project co­or­di­na­tor with the M.S. Swaminathan Re­search Foun­da­tion ( MSSRF) in Wardha. About 70 per cent of field work­ers are women in Vi­darbha and their knowl­edge about cul­ti­va­tion is su­pe­rior to men, he says. “With­out their men, women are forced to take on the job of mar­ket­ing the pro­duce, in­ter­act­ing with mid­dle­men, banks, cred­i­tors and con­trol­ling the money they earn and spend—things that were their hus­bands’ do­main ear­lier.”

Women are the first to rise and the last to go to bed, spend­ing the day be­tween kitchen, chil­dren, cat­tle, clean­ing and farm work. The day typ­i­cally starts at 5 a.m. Farm work starts from around 8 a.m. and goes on till 6-6.30 p.m. “I am al­ways tired,” says Nanda. “I work 12 to 14 hours daily, and it just doesn’t help.” Like 95 per cent women in the re­gion, as re­vealed by a sur­vey con­ducted this year by MSSRF, she could also be se­verely anaemic. With just tea and bis­cuits in the morn­ing and two mea­gre meals of jowar and tur dal a day, that’s hardly a sur­prise. “We found that ex- ces­sive and con­tin­u­ous labour also brings on early gy­nae­co­log­i­cal prob­lems among them,” adds Jag­tap.

That Chan­drakala Meshram, 35, was once star­tlingly at­trac­tive can be made out from pho­tographs hang­ing on the walls of her home in Saikheda, a lit­tle vil­lage of 140 fam­i­lies that has seen seven farmer sui­cides. The pho­tos were clicked by her hus­band, Gan­garam, who had a cam­era of his own, she says. The bat­tle for sur­vival has been par­tic­u­larly lone­some for Chan­drakala af­ter he hanged him­self from a log in their hut’s ceil­ing. “I did not get any com­pen­sa­tion,” she says. “I don’t know why.” But her hus­band had left be­hind a bank loan of Rs 50,000 and some money owed to pri­vate money­len­ders. She and her two pre-teen daugh­ters weren’t just thrown out by her in-laws af­ter her hus­band hanged him­self in 2006, her three broth­ers also aban­doned her. Chan­drakala works 12-14 hours a day but earns only Rs 1,500 from her five-acre plot. “For 15 days a month I work on other peo­ple’s farms at Rs 100 a day,” she says.

Aparna Ma­likar has the right to be bit­ter with the seamy side of life she has seen since her hus­band’s sui­cide in 2008. But the 27-year-old mother re­mains un­daunted. And has gone






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