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Between pyre and poverty

-Widows of Vidarbha

Jwada, Amravati

I often go to bed thinking of the various possibilities of a brighter tomorrow. But that night, on the muddy floor in Jwanta, a village in Vidarbha region, I lay sleepless switching my moist gaze between the ceiling fan and the picture of Jitender hanging on the wall. He must have hung himself right above my head where his wife Savita found him in the middle of the night.

Once Vidarbha was known for its cotton or 'white gold’ production, but now Vidarbha is mostly known as the suicide belt of India. From 2012 to today, approximately 4,000 farmers committed suicide in the six districts in Vidarbha region – Amravati, Yavatmal, Wardha, Washim, Akola and Buldhana.  Even a debt of  Rs 10,000 was enough to push a  farmer over the edge. Young farmers (aged between 18 and 30) accounted for the second-highest number of suicides, leaving young widows and children behind. And the situation looks worse with every passing day, and might aggravate if the rainfall is poor even this year , after 4 consecutive years. Banks are not very eager to give loans to farmers, as the recovery is difficult when the annual earning is as low as 20,000 rupees. The poor and marginal farmers fall into the clutches of moneylenders, who charge higher rates of interest, which the farmers are unable to repay thus leading to the spate of suicides in the region.

Purna river, Buldhana

Buldhana

The wells are dry and the tap water works once in every fifteen days which leads to an acute shortage of clean drinking water. Fatal diseases among children and elders due to unclean water is normal here.

Pimplegaon Kale, Buldhana

Those who could afford and had the courage to take another risk, migrated to big cities like Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur. Those who are left behind only dream about being in the big cities.

There is no work even as a labourer for last two months - Seema Adhikane, 39, Tonglabad

Women usually walk up to 3 km to fetch water for the family to meet the bare minimum need of daily chores. Using toilets or taking a bath is a luxury they can't afford. There is no water in schools for kids, and they often come back to home for water and fields for toilet.

In suicide-ridden villages of Vidarbha, tales abound of the sufferings inflicted on the widows of farmers who have killed themselves because of the agrarian crisis in the region. The whole farmer suicide issue is viewed from the  perspective of the male member of the family but it is important to tell the stories of women who are left behind. So when a crisis-hit farmer kills himself, what happens to the widow and children?

So when a crisis-hit farmer kills himself, what happens to the widows and children?

The widow is further pushed into the debt trap which multiplies her struggle to make ends meet. The families have to take to working as  laborers in other peoples’ farms to sustain themselves. The children often drop out from the schools, realizing that their mothers can’t afford to pay their fee. In the tender age, they also work as laborers to provide for the family.

Savita is one of such widow who is now left with the responsibility of her three daughters- Yogini 12, Roshni 10 and Tanu 6, also debt which her  husband borrowed from private money lenders and banks for farming. She received a compensation of Rs. 100,000 from the government but only 30,000 had been given to her immediately, while 70,000 have been deposited for her children when the eldest one turns 18. The money wasn’t enough for her to pay the debts and she ended up borrowing more money. And the lack of rainfall in the last few years have led to crop failure and crushed her under the debt.

Savita explains it has almost been 2 months since she has had any work, even as a laborer. There is absolutely no source of money for her. In such a situation, women also go through extreme emotional trauma given the fact that she has to  provide for the education and later for the wedding their daughter. She ended up paying 1300 rupees today to cure severe headaches during such a crisis, which in fact, is equivalent to the monthly expenditure of the family.  

The only man in the family is her 93 year old father, who started to stay with them after Jitender’s suicide. She still longs for a male protection for her family to avoid all the harassment a widow faces in the society. After the husband’s death, these widows cannot forge new relationships with men. While the bread-earner of family is no more, she has pushed herself to take all sorts of jobs from working on the others' farm as laborer to ironing clothes of neighbors without any shame. Many of these women face harassment from those they confide in, like the in-laws. Young widows have often been sexually exploited by the father-in-law or the brother-in-law. Often, their families refuse to take them back, so they have nowhere to go.

The only treasure these women possess are their children, who provide them the strength to keep going. Yogini, the eldest (on the right), is a good dancer. With no internet or YouTube, she simply waits for her favorite songs to play on TV and tries to remember the steps. I ask Yogini what she would like to be? I was expecting an obvious answer given her keen interest in dance. But in a low voice, she said whatever the destiny brings her way. The hopelessness in the voice of a 12 year child soaked my heart with sadness and I could imagine how hard life has been to her lately. The children also fight constantly along their mother every day, she explains that she has to walk 3 kms each way to reach her school in this scorching heat of Vidarbha.

Tanu is full of energy and possesses a charm which is hard to go unnoticed. I was touched by her gesture when she innocently included me in the names of her family members as she scribbled on a slate. She was wearing her best dress; a green color frock - the only tinge of green I saw in the otherwise lifeless region. Her laughter is the food for the poor family, especially for her mother who breathes and lives for her children. I started to see my reflection in her, as my father died when I was 4 years old and my mother took care of three children on her own.

  He spent Rs. 3.6 lacs on her daughter's wedding as dowry, he could never recover from the loss in agriculture and had borrowed money for the wedding of her daughter. He consumed pesticides he used for agriculture to end his life. - Chita Deepak Rao Khode, 50, Village- Vai

Sangeeta, widow of Ashok lives with her two sons: Mangesh and Aakash. Tonglabad is one of the villages where Congress scion Rahul Gandhi visited during the election campaign in 'scorching Vidarbha heat' and waived off the debt for 4 families. However the situation hasn't quite improved, the younger son Aakash had to drop his studies to support the family. In spite of  suffering from sickle-cell anemia , Aakash works as a laborer and goes through extreme pain and weakness every day.

"We haven't eaten any vegetable for the last two months, we only eat lentils that we produce in our fields" - Sangeeta Ashok Saatpaise, 45, Tongalabad

Pragathi Chaukade, 40, Village- Bagghi

She met with an accident a year back and she couldn't bear this unplanned expense apart from her regular expenditure on education and food for the two kids. The villagers collected donation to get her a medical treatment which wasn't successfully done due to lack of money. She now goes through pain every day and can’t work as a laborer anymore which used to be the only way to earn her living after her husband committed suicide. Her daughter wants to go for competitive exams, but she has no clue how she would afford it. Her son has problem with his eyes and he can't see properly leading to severe depression. The only hope for her is to start a small scale business if she can get a sewing machine so that she can pay for her daughter's education.

Savita Praveen Chaudhari, 30, Vai, Amravati district

She was only 17 when she got married and now has two kids. Praveen died just 7 months ago which is the most recent case of farmer suicide in the district. She is now looking forward to start a small business to take care of her two children.

Vaishnavi Thakre, 13, Sonora Village

Vaishnavi was only 5 when his father committed suicide. She is now staying in a hostel as her mother can't afford to pay for her travel to senior school in Chandur. She misses being at home.

"I have never worked in fields, I don't like it either. I am studying hard to be a doctor and serve those who can't afford it" - Vaishnavi Thakre, 13,

Marut Rao, 83, Viashnavi's grandfather is now the only bread-earner of the family and almost spends all his time in the fields to take care of farms after his son died.

"The old sustain the pressure, as they have seen more calamities in their life, the experience gives them strength to survive. But they can't bear the pain to seen their son die. I wish I could talk to him one last time to change his mind" - Marut Rao, 83, Sonora Village

Meeting these women and children, I feel compelled to tell their stories especially when I know the life without a father. Their struggle and resilience shouldn’t go unnoticed and forgotten. Their stories should be remembered to inspire the women in today’s society, that no matter how tough life is, you should never give up. And we, as a society need to empathize with them, stand with these families and give them the mental and financial support they need before they breakdown and follow the same path as their husbands. We shouldn’t be waiting for the Government or nature to change their ways.

I am collaborating with Aarti Bias from Swarjaya Mitra, an NGO which works closely with individual families and ensure they receive the benefit of Government schemes which requires numerous paper works and constant push to Government employees. I am putting constant effort to ensure that these stories are recorded and retold till the necessary steps are taken by the Government.

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