RAHUL'S LOST WINDOWS
Suicide and starvation haunt Vidarbha villages
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.
CHANDRAKALA MESHRAM 35
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
CHANDRAKALAWITH DAUGHTERS SONALI, 15,
AND PAYAL, 13
KALAWATI WITH GRANDCHILDREN NAMAN, 1, AND ANURADHA, 7