Photographs of village women – multiple pots perched on their heads – walking on parched ground to fetch water, or standing in serpentine queues, may be the defining image of drought in India, but that is just one aspect of the hardship they face during drought.

Many women, especially those from Dalit communities and nomadic tribes who lack land, water resources and other meaningful livelihood opportunities, and hence entirely depend on public systems for survival, are deep in debt due to loans taken from self-help groups and microfinance institutions, and drought exacerbates their inability to repay these loans. And while its common for farm loans to be waived or rescheduled, women who take these loans to buy cattle and for other income-generating activities are afforded no such relief.

Spiral of indebtedness

Kantabai from Gangapur village of Latur district is just one such example. An agricultural labourer in her mid-fifties, she has borrowed over Rs 50,000 across five self-help groups linked to banks or to microfinance institutions. Though she migrated to Mumbai in search of work due to the drought situation in her village, she could not live there for long since she did not find work there that could sustain her. Back in her village, things got only worse with no work, no water and an uncertain supply of rations. Harassed by loan recovery agents on one hand, and abused by the privileged caste water mafia on the other, Kantabai represents the plight of women particularly those belonging to socially-disadvantaged sections of Marathwada, while the government stands as a mute spectator.

“No water, no land and no work, so more and more loans,” said Kantabai. “The repayment schedule hasn’t changed, I just feel like ending my life now. Can our loans be waived or at least rescheduled like the farm loans?”

Loans taken from self-help groups with bank linkages and other microfinance groups are all in the name of women, typically for cattle or some income-generating activity at interest rates that are as high as 23%-25% per year. With four consecutive drought years, these women have had to make distress sales of their assets, which were bought with the help of their loans. Their goats, cows and buffaloes could not be sustained because of the lack of water and fodder. With no income and only loans to repay with interest, in addition to fines for delayed payments, women are borrowing more and getting deeper into debt. What began as borrowing for livelihood activities has ended up becoming borrowing for survival – with women and their families sinking deeper and deeper into debt, almost in tandem with the plummeting water table.

Regulate microfinance institutions

Several women at the Dalit vasti in Gangapur village spoke about the impacts of drought on their lives and livelihoods. “Men don’t have work so women take loans for livelihood activities…. part of which goes towards paying the bribe for processing our loans,” said Balika of Gangapur village. “We mortgage our jewelry to pay for this bribe.”

“Every woman in this Dalit vasti has a loan on her head,” said Chhaya. “At least Rs 1,000 a month has to be paid… for the last few months, there has been an additional fine for non-repayment”

“Look at us we have sold our gold mangalsutras and even the silver toe rings we had,” added Shantabai.

The Reserve Bank of India has issued guidelines for loans in calamity areas. The guidelines are primarily applicable for farm loans but also bring within its ambit other loans, which could, if argued strongly, include loans extended to self-help groups at least through banks. The RBI guidelines need to be widely applied to self-help bank linkage loans to benefit women.

Microfinance institutions, however, are completely unregulated in Maharashtra. The present drought provides ample evidence as to why these institutions need to be regulated especially in calamity areas. The Maharashtra government needs to table a strong regulation for microfinance institutions, tailored on the lines of the Andhra Pradesh microfinance ordinance immediately.

In the context of severe and recurrent droughts, celebrating Bharat Mata through slogans is certainly not enough. Maharashtra must strongly act in favour of poor and marginalised women to ensure immediate and just distribution of water and sustainable opportunities for meeting livelihoods. Until then, the women of Marathwada will continue to face a grim battle for survival.

Seema Kulkarni works with the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management. This article is based on several years of work in Marathwada on issues of women and water, and a recent field visit to Latur and Osmanabad districts along with Roshan Rathod, an intern with SOPPECOM.