Beed, Maharashtra: From a distance, Gitanjali Kale could see her father hanging from a tree, and although this is something no 12-year-old ought to know, she sensed at once that something was wrong as she ran towards him, her six-year-old brother trotting alongside.
By the time they cut him down and took him to the hospital, he was long dead.
Gitanjali, now 14, remembers 25 December 2014—the day of the weekly village market. Her mother, impatient for her father to return, had sent Gitanjali and her brother Manish, the youngest of the four children, to find out what was taking him so long. At this point of her story, Gitanjali stops and stares into her lap, her eyes cloudy with tears.
Gitanjali’s mother Savita Kale is dry-eyed when she recounts the last days of her husband’s life. “He had taken a loan and was tense. He had started drinking. But I never thought he would do this,” she says. As the cotton on Sanjay Kale’s 10-acre field in village Pimpri Budruk in Beed withered away for four years in a row, the interest began to mount, and so did the stress.
Savita says he owed more than Rs.2 lakh, money that she will now have to pay back to the bank, to shopkeepers from whom she bought provisions on credit, and to neighbours and relatives who chipped in with what they could spare.
In the end, they could spare nothing. “Everyone was struggling to fill their stomachs,” she says.
Now, with her husband dead, Savita has to provide for herself, her children and an elderly mother-in-law. “The majdoori (daily labour) rate is down. Earlier it was Rs.150 a day, now it’s between Rs.90 and Rs.100—if you can manage to find work,” she says.
Marathwada’s current drought cycle—some say the worst in living memory—began in 2011.
Barring 2013, the rains have failed every year since. In early 2014, a freak hailstorm destroyed a significant portion of standing crop.
For an economically backward region, this cumulative failure of several years has been a calamity, with the water sources, money and, perhaps, most crucially, hope drying up.
The epicentre of this unrelenting drought is Beed which, of all of Marathwada’s eight districts, accounts for the single largest number of farmer suicides—702 of 2,450 is the government’s count—since 2012.
“It is the widow who bears the greatest burden of farmer suicides,” says Manisha Tokle, who runs the Beed-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Jagar Pratishthan.
The state government provides relief of Rs.1 lakh of which Rs.70,000 comes as fixed deposit. “The money may be in her name but she doesn’t have access to it,” says Tokle.“She has no awareness of her rights, including her property rights. When the money comes, someone else handles it.”
In many cases, the in-laws believe that they have a greater claim than the widow to the compensation. When the widow is young and has small children, she will often find herself back at her parental home, says Tokle. But life is hard there too and she will have to work as a daily wage labourer or in her father’s fields to earn her keep.
“Many are kept in a shed out on the field,” says Tokle.
Some like Sharda Kakde don’t even get the compensation.
When her husband hung himself in October 2014, she discovered that the land on which he worked belonged to his father. Now that their son was dead, they did not want his widow or children making any claims, and they wanted her out. “If it hadn’t been for my three kids, I would have killed myself,” Sharda says.
Sevanta, who uses only one name, returned home—in her case to Poi Tanda village—with a six-year-old son, and immediately set out to work as a migrant sugar cane cutter along with her brother and his wife.
When times are hard, work is hard to find. At Poi Tanda, migration for work has been a way of life for years. Every year, when the sugar cane is ready to be cut in western Maharashtra, the village is emptied of its young and able-bodied. Labour contractors will only hire couples—the husband cuts the sugar cane and the wife carries the load. Most receive an advance against the approximately Rs.70,000 they will earn for six months of labour. If they leave early—an illness or an emergency back home—they will have to pay off the advance, with interest, the following year.
Sanjay Chavan was a bright kid who went to school and cleared his 12th standard exams. “My younger son dropped out after 5th standard and accompanied us when we left for sugar cane cutting,” says Changunabai, Sanjay’s mother. “But Sanjay wanted to study and go to school and, so, he never learned how to cut (sugar cane).”
Too educated to cut but not qualified enough for the white- collar job he yearned for, Sanjay took a bank loan against his two-acre farm to grow BT Cotton. When the crop failed, he killed himself, leaving behind a wife and child. They have returned “home” to live with her parents, says Changunabai.
Death by numbers
Chaklamba village lies at the end of a dirt road, about 30km from the main highway. By car, it is a dusty, and bumpy, one-and-a-half-hour drive. Tankers of water arranged for by the administration reach once in five days, say locals. The village shops— Top Telars Jents Specialist, Gurukrupa Digital Photo Studio —have downed their shutters.
When times are hard, there is little to sustain the village economy. Ismail Pathan, a tailor by training and profession, says he works as a labourer. His elder son, has moved to Pune where it is easier to find work. In the white heat of the village, only a few dogs look for shelter under the babool trees.
It’s in this village that on a single day on 7 March this year, two men killed themselves in separate incidents. Manoj Ghadge, 35, set himself on fire shortly after returning from the temple. Shriram Pandu Pawar, 65, hung himself late in the evening. Both had taken loans from banks; Ghadge for his father’s medical treatment. Both found themselves unable to pay the money back.
Manoj Ghadge’s wife, Swati, is not home on the day I visit. Her husband’s uncle, Satish Shesherao Ghadge says that it is customary for a new widow to go and stay with her parents for a “few days”. In the single room that she shared with her husband and two children aged 10 and five, a copy of the Bhagwad Gita lies wrapped in a piece of orange cloth under a black and white TV—a luxury not seen often in this part of the country. There is a single bed in one corner and a small pedestal fan turned towards it.
“We cannot cut sugar cane or work as labourers,” says Satish. “In our caste, we cannot do this sort of work.”
No such inhibitions stop Dondabai Pawar, the 60-year-old widow of Sriram Pandu Pawar, who has spent her adult life cutting sugar cane alongside her husband. Now that she is old, she says her son and daughter-in-law go every year while she stays back to look after their children.
“I had taken an advance of Rs.90,000 and was able to work off Rs.62,000,” says the son, Machendra Pawar. When he got the news of his father’s death, he returned home immediately. “Next year, I will pay back the balance along with interest,” he says. Grief is a luxury few can afford.
Life after death
Such a prolonged drought has inevitably meant that the focus of the administration, as well as NGOs, has been on water management and conservation. The widows and their children have fallen off the radar—or have never been there. “They are scattered all over the district, making it difficult to monitor them as a group,” says Manisha Khale of the NGO Institute of Health Management. And yet, with the numbers swelling, they have become impossible to ignore.
Back in Aurangabad, the son of a farmer from Jalna, Shyamsunder Panditrao Kanke, runs an organization called the Shri Sai Gramin Punarrachna Sanstha that focuses on rural reconstruction. For the past year, Kanke has been writing to the widows of Marathwada inviting them to send their children to his school, Dr Hedgewar Memorial School. The children, Kanke says, receive free education as well as boarding and lodging.
Already 210 boy and girls, all children of farmers who killed themselves, stay at his hostel. In June, he plans to take on another 100 children to his school and hostel. “These children have lost everything. Unless civil society steps in and comes to their aid, we will lose them too,” says Kanke.
When a farmer kills himself, leaving his wife to pay back his loans and feed the children, education becomes an unaffordable luxury. “There is no money for notebooks or stationery or coaching classes,” says Kanke.
Moreover, every mouth to feed must now contribute to the family income—even the children. “They drop out and go and work in the fields as labourers. They have to earn,” says Kanke.
The four Kale children of Pimpri Budruk now live with their grandmother and mother, Savita, in the three-storey house that Kanke runs as a hostel. Along with six other widows who live here with their children, Savita cooks for all the kids in the communal kitchen.
Back home, the house where she lived with her husband is locked. The family went back for a brief visit in Diwali and then returned to Aurangabad where the children are in school.
“Whatever happens, I do not want my son to become a farmer,” says Savita. “I want him to get a steady job. But I have not sold his father’s land. He will do what he wants with it when he grows up.”
Kanke’s is not the only school that caters to such children. In Beed, the NAAM Foundation set up by actor Nana Patekar is involved in the construction of a 500-student residential school called Shantivan. Located in village Arvi in Beed, the school has been operational since 2009 and has, at present, 300 children. By 14 June, says Deepak Nagargojhe who runs the school, it will add another 100.
Donations are trickling in at both the schools. “Those who are worst affected are also our biggest supporters,” says NAAM’s Beed district coordinator Rajabhau Shelke. Agrees Kanke, “People contribute. Somebody will send us a few bags of rice, or sugar, or old clothes. And that’s how we manage.”
Civil society, he continues, must not ignore these children. “Their fathers have died, but we must ensure that at least they have a future,” he says.
A woman’s job
According to Census 2011, 53% of all households in India have no water source at home. “In Marathwada, it is the job of women and children to fetch water,” says Sanjeev Unhale of Dilasa, an NGO that focuses on water management and women’s empowerment. “It is the women who are the worst victims of this situation.”
This year in Beed, as many as 11 children and women are reported to have died while fetching water—some of heat stroke, others after falling into open wells or baolis.
Rajshree Namdeo Kamble was just another 10-year-old kid who loved to dance and go to school. It was also her job to draw water twice a day from the open well used by the Dalits of her village, Pimpalgaon. On 22 February, she lost her balance and fell. She died a day later at a government hospital in Aurangabad.
Under the Jal Swaraj scheme, Maharashtra’s rural water conservation project, there is another source of water, but the Dalits are denied access to it, says Vimal, Rajshree’s mother who is now trying, unsuccessfully so far, to file a FIR with the local police. “There is no water for us, no job cards for us. When there is a drought, nobody suffers more than the Dalit women,” she says.