Women and work

How a Dalit woman found success as a farmer, years after her debt-ridden husband took his life

Pushpa is the only Dalit widow in Warangal consistently making profits from organic farming.

Warangal in Telangana has borne a morbid and consistent association with crop loss, drought, debt traps and farmer suicides. Each suicide sends households into a downward spiral of further destitution, as families struggle to survive with meagre compensation for the loss of the only working member in a household. It took Pushpa, a Dalit widow in Damera village, ten years to break the pattern.

Pushpa lost her husband when she was 22. Bikshapati, a debt-ridden cotton farmer, ended his life with a bottle of pesticide 28 years ago – until then, Pushpa’s world had consisted of her home and farm. She cooked food for her husband and son, Sumanth, assisting Bikshapati in the farm when needed.

Unable to live alone after his death, she moved back to her mother’s home, leaving Bikshapati, and her farm barren. Pushpa’s old mother would go to the market every day and buy vegetables, which they sold in the neighbourhood market to earn a a living. Years passed, but Pushpa never considered returning to the farm because she could not afford to buy seeds and other agricultural tools. Credit for Dalit farmers was next to impossible, and they had no valuable assets to mortgage. Private creditors denied Pushpa money, and like the majority of her neighbours, who were also marginal cotton farmers with no proper documents for their land, the government did not want to give them loans either.

In 2004, an NGO in Warangal called the Sarvodaya Youth Organisation started to work with debt-ridden cotton farmers, with the objective of promoting organic farming. When they approached Pushpa to help her financial situation, she gave them no positive response. Fortunately, they didn’t give up. It took time to convince Pushpa – the organisation offered her organic cotton seeds, natural fertiliser and pesticide in the guarantee of harvest. They insisted that she keep away from BT seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

“My mother was very old, she couldn’t keep helping me to earn a living,” Pushpa said, when asked what finally changed her mind. “Besides, Sumanth had completed his schooling.”

Finally, she accepted their support. They gave her vermi-compost, neem powder and Brahma cotton seeds which are drought proof. Pushpa moved back to her home and began to work on the farm, ploughing, seeding, watering and weeding the land. Her mother and young son helped as much as they could. Other farmers didn’t think much of her organic experiment – she was frequently chided for trying to cultivate with cow dung, urine and neem, but Pushpa persisted because she had nothing to lose.

“They always laughed at my mother,” Sumanth said. “Her husband could not survive despite chemical farming, yet she experiments with all this, they would say.”

Despite the fact that it was a drought year, Pushpa harvested 1,800 kilos of organic cotton from one acre of land. Some 100 kilos of lentils, maize, vegetables and castor as inter crops proved to be the bonus for her hard work. As the barter system still prevails in Warangal, Pushpa managed to get sugar for her caster. One of the most fascinating things Pushpa discovered, was that organic farming was less expensive than chemical farming. Like many other farmers who had left chemical farming for good, Pushpa found that her own health improved – headaches and fatigue had been a regular part of farm life in the past, when she helped her husband with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. She settled her debt with the NGO, and in the following year, she bought a cow.

Pushpa is the only Dalit widow in Warangal consistently making profits. Since her husband’s death, she has entered the banking system, has repaid all his debts and even hired seasonal labourers for assistance on the farm. Her son, who married this year, has just found a job. Pushpa has built herself a small house.

Organic vegetable cultivation. Credit: Hajhouse/Wikimedia Commons.
Organic vegetable cultivation. Credit: Hajhouse/Wikimedia Commons.
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