Six months ago, Kamalabai Dalve had gone with her husband to work on their two acres of land in Latur district in central Maharashtra. In the evening, he told her to return home to bring him some bhakris. While she was away, he swallowed poison and died. “He did not tell me that he was thinking of doing this at all,” Dalve said. “For two years nothing had come from our farm and we had taken loans worth Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh.”

Dalve is one of around 80 women, all widowed, who came to Mumbai on Wednesday from districts in Maharashtra’s Marathwada and Vidarbha regions to demand better pensions and greater support from the Maharashtra government. Their trip came just as the state is set to face another drought cycle, which already seems likely to be the worst since 2015-’16.

At a rally in Azad Maidan and later at a press conference, both organised by the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch, the women’s demands ranged from higher compensation and pension, to education and independent ration cards for widows.

The group also released a report about the status of women farmers in Maharashtra, based on interviews with 505 women whose husbands had killed themselves between 2012 and 2018. Nineteen organisations from Marathwada and Vidarbha participated in and conducted the survey on behalf of the Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch, which was established in 2014 to fight for women to be recognised as farmers in their own right.

(Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

Inadequate compensation

The husbands of almost half of the survey respondents had died between 2015 and 2016, the worst years of the last severe drought in Maharashtra. Thirty six per cent of the respondents were from the open category, 17% were Other Backward Classes, 9% Scheduled Castes, 6% Scheduled Tribes and 16% Nomadic and Denotified Tribes. Another 14% declined to give this information. The majority of the women surveyed worked either on their own fields or as labourers on others’ farms.

As the report points out, 65,000 farmers killed themselves in Maharashtra between 1995 and 2015. Of those 90% were men, which in turn left almost that number of women to rebuild their lives with little state or societal support.

Key among its findings was that only 34% of the women surveyed received the monthly pension of Rs 600 for widows sanctioned by the state. While 33% of the women had not applied for the pension or had not heard of it, the applications of 26% were not approved by the government. Reasons for not getting the pension ranged from not knowing when it had been deposited, to demands for bribes, to two reported demands for sexual gratification.

The paltry pension amount outraged several women at the rally.

“How are we supposed to run our houses on Rs 600?” asked Chhaya Depe from Dongrivadi village in Osmanabad, whose husband died three years ago. She has to repay a loan of Rs 2 lakh and gets only Rs 100 as daily wages for working on others’ fields – if there is any such work available. “If any of us ever has to go to hospital, we will be unable to pay the bills.”

The spectre of drought is already almost upon Depe’s village, with water coming only once every four days in their taps. Daily work in farms is also hard to come by. “The last time there was a drought, my husband committed suicide,” said Depe. “I don’t know how we will manage this time.”

Women face problems with other payments from the state as well. As compensation for her husband’s death, Dalve received only Rs 30,000 in her bank account, instead of Rs 1 lakh, which Maharashtra had notified in 2005 as compensation to families of farmers who kill themselves. The Rs 1 lakh compensation amount has not changed in 13 years either. Karnataka and Telangana both sanction Rs 5 lakh to families in similar situations, while Andhra Pradesh gives Rs 3.5 lakh. Debtors from Dalve’s village are now harassing her to repay her loans from the compensation amount.

Not everyone even gets compensation. The state government has defined a stringent set of conditions to weed out false claimants. However, activists say the state does this to artificially suppress the actual number of suicides in Maharashtra.

Women hold up copies of their testimonies at the press conference. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

Finding their feet

Another major demand was to establish the independence of women after the deaths of their husbands, both in getting land registrations transferred to their names and not to that of their in-laws, as well as in getting independent ration cards so that they and their children will not have to depend on others for sustenance.

“After my husband died, my father-in-law told me that our son has gone, now you should either drink pesticide or go to your parents’ home,” said a woman from Vidarbha who was quoted in the report.

According to the survey, 29% of the women were unable to get land in their names, while 43% did not get houses in their names. As for independent ration cards, only a little more than half had this.

Education for their children was a pressing concern for several women at the rally. Nilima Bhalerao, from Wardha district, who spoke at the press conference after the rally, narrated how after her husband died and she moved out of her marital home, her children were finding it difficult to access Other Backward Classes reservations for their education.

Others faced similar problems.

“My daughter was studying in the 14th [second year of undergraduate studies] and was about to start her 15th year when my husband died,” said Janabai Namdev, also from Depe’s village. “I had to stop her studies and get her married. My son had to end his studies in the 10th standard. We want the government to support our children’s education.”

The women also expressed the hope that their coming to Mumbai will also encourage others like them to come forward. “I got courage from this organisation to speak up for my rights and my hope is that all women everywhere will one day find the same courage,” said Manda from Latur district.