Thousands of Maharashtra farmers commit suicide each year. What happens to their families?

Devanand Nandagawli committed suicide in 2007, leaving behind a wife, two children and an elderly father.

Cotton fields skirted the house of late Devanand Nandagawli on one side. The deficient monsoon rain of September 2014 fell indifferently on the waiting plants. The sun set behind the cement-and-brick house, and there was the faint outline of a television dish on the terrace. Cattle in the front yard shifted slowly, as if feeling the dusk’s approach. Devanand’s photograph was on a wall that was the colour of the evening outside, framed by a garland of unfading plastic flowers. He had consumed poison on September 1, 2007, exactly seven years earlier. The eldest of three brothers who were all dependent on the 9-acre field, he had committed suicide when the cotton crop failed that year.

Devanand left behind his wife, Anita, and their two children. Thirty-year-old Anita was thin, her frame sparse – a feature common among women in Indian villages.

Data shows that women in rural India do not get the benefit of proper nutrition in their formative years or even throughout their life. She worked in peoples’ fields for a wage, tended cattle, and took care of household chores. Despite everything, it was easy to get drawn to Anita’s bright smile, which filled the small room with light and hope.

“Did I show you all the documents I have?” she asked, speaking about the death of her husband. Her attitude was diligent, her expression earnest as she checked the small plastic pouch in which the documents were preserved and laminated to prevent damage. This was clearly one of her most important possessions, the tangible proof of her husband’s struggle. The post-mortem report was painfully elaborate and Anita knew every detail of it: “Provisional opinion as to cause of death: Poisoning, however, viscera preserved for chemical analysis.” Anita did not need the post-mortem report to tell her that Devanand died of poisoning. But a government document has sanctity like nothing else in rural India and has the power to grant or deny recognition of a farmer’s suicide in Vidarbha. No one, and especially no farm widow, is negligent of official documents; least of all someone as focused and meticulous as Anita. It was as if her husband’s absence had forced her to be doubly aware of the world and given her an extra pair of eyes, along with an immense patience to repeat the circumstances of her husband’s death. “There was no money...” She stopped, standing up from the chair for a male member of the family who entered the room.

“There was a bank loan of Rs 60,000, which was unpaid for years. We could only clear a part of it through the Rs 30,000 cash compensation we received; the Rs 70,000 was deposited in the bank.”

The family had an APL card and it had not been easy to get a BPL one, which provided more food grain. Anita’s name was not on the ration card, although she had applied for its inclusion. The family had not sought welfare under any government scheme, and they had not been able to respond in time for the schemes that the government had offered. About a year ago, in August 2013, Anita had to undergo a surgery. There were documents for this as well, a biopsy report and a discharge summary from a private hospital in Yavatmal. “It cost me Rs 20,000 for one day,” she said regretfully. The histopathology report of the lump that was surgically removed showed “multiple granulomas” and the advice was to “investigate for Koch’s disease”. When asked if she had gone through any follow-up medical treatment, Anita explained that it had become impossible after the bills for the surgery; she did not want to incur any more expenses.

Anita had another document of importance; a letter issued in 2013 from the Women and Child Development Department of the administration asking her to submit relevant papers to enrol in a scheme that ensured her two sons would get monetary support every month for their education. Eight-year-old Gaurav was in Class 3 and seven-year-old Shourav was in Class 2. They were still in their white-and-khaki school uniform, too involved in the conversation to change. “A lot of things are free and that’s why we can afford their education,” Anita said, adding, “Their school fees, books, uniforms, mid-day meals. Of course, the free toys have long gone!” Anita herself had studied until Class 7, while working on the farms. She watched as one of her sons opened an English exercise book, her gaze ensuring he handled the pages with respect. Both children grimly listened to her; despite their age, they already knew that their difficult financial situation made their education unaffordable. The monthly expense for the family was Rs 6,000 and the yearly bill for electricity at the house was Rs 1,500; there was no bill for electricity at the farm because there was no water to draw from the well. The requirements were increasing; a basic cell phone was necessary and its monthly bill was Rs 100. Further, the family had to sell two cows to fund her father-in-law, Suryabhan’s treatment, who had been unwell.

They missed the deadline to submit the documents to the Women and Child Development Department because the family had been away from home, when the letter came in 2013. The letter also asked her to be present in person at the time of submission of documents, which meant Anita would have had to take a day off from work. She could not communicate to the officials who summoned her that she could not detach herself from her world even for a day.

Instead, it should have been easier for the government to reach out to her, or perhaps, the government was far busier than Anita, widow of Devanand Nandagawli, mother of two, a farmer and a daily wage earner.

The house looked almost the same in 2015; the sun rose from behind the cow-pen in the front yard, and the light reached deep into the house as if to check the time on the clock in the front room. The facade had been painted; it had been just a few days since Sankranti, the festival of happy farmers preparing for a new season and new harvests. The room was still blue, and the air cooler still sat in the corner, as if it remained clueless about its function. Someone had thoughtfully placed a shawl over it, considering the winter. Suryabhan was dressed in a fresh white cotton dhoti and tunic, the traditional attire for men in villages while indoors. However, his son, Avinash, wore track pants and a T-shirt. Suryabhan said, “I will continue doing agriculture on my 9 acres of land, whether any of my sons are interested or not.” He missed the son he had lost. Devanand had shared his burden and his debts until they crushed him to death. There was a catch in his voice as he said, “I constantly remember my son, and I miss him every time we are all together as a family. He is always in my thoughts.” There was stillness in the room as he continued, “Yes, my son committed suicide. And yes, it was because of crop failure and debt. But I cannot give up on agriculture or my land. My son died because of crops that failed due to lack of irrigation, it wouldn’t have happened if we had irrigation in my field. We are dependent on rain and when the rains fail, we face severe hard- ships.” But the option of selling the land or moving away from agriculture did not appeal to him. “This is a 30-year-old land. I paid Rs 20,000 in cash for 6 acres, and then bought 3 acres more for Rs 10,000. There never were any irrigation facilities in the field,” he explained.

“If we sell, we will get Rs 1 lakh per acre,” he paused, as if even the thought of it required strength for him to endure. Then said, “There is no way I will sell this land. Ever.”

Like Suryabhan’s 9-acre, rain-fed field, most of Vidarbha’s farms lacked irrigation facilities, which caused low yields and agricultural distress. Suryabhan was very aware of the problems of agriculture, especially those that beset small and marginal farmers. He believed it was tough for traditional farmers to survive on agriculture alone. But he also had the spirit of a farmer, of someone who had seen both the anger and benevolence of nature, the bad and good harvest, and the rainclouds at the end of every drought. “There are many difficulties we face as farmers,” he continued, “but if we sell our lands then we will never find our way out of our problems.”

It seemed a difficult argument to accept, considering that the untenable conditions led many farmers to end their lives. In fact, Devanand’s brothers had themselves been unable to reconcile themselves with farming after his death and seemed to have broken the tenuous link with the land that had supported generations of their family. Sentiment for agriculture, like with any other sentiment in Vidarbha, sounded risky and ominous. Suryabhan, however, felt quite the opposite. “Even if we make losses, we need to continue working the fields, and I’ll tell you why. I have learnt through my experience that like in anything else in life, only perseverance and hope can lead to success. I farm in the hope of a better harvest and in the hope that it may rain.” There was a hint of revenge in his determination, a burden of loss on his squared shoulders. “As long as I have the strength in my ageing arms,” Suryabhan said, “I shall continue tilling this land.”

The region remained rain-fed despite the obvious problems of irrigation and the farmer suicides. In the absence of accessible canal irrigation, wells were facilitated by the government, but only for fields smaller than 5 acres. Suryabhan’s 9 acres, of course, did not meet this criterion. He needed the water for the crops so badly that he even came up with a drastic solution. “If I divide my 9 acres equally between my two sons and me, then each part will get 3 acres. That way, we’d be eligible for a well.” Perhaps, knowing his desperation, the local official of the village sought a special cost for cutting up and re-registering the land. “I paid because there was no choice; I needed that well. But this plan did not materialise – the official died in a road accident.” Suryabhan lost his money and his urgent solution awaited the pleasure of the next village official. Without the documents of registration that would have shown 3 acres each in the name of his two sons and Suryabhan, it was impossible to get the well. That meant another year of waiting for the rains, and the clock ticked on at a steep cost.

Excerpted with permission from Widows of Vidarbha: Making of Shadows, Kota Neelima, Oxford University Press India.

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