New Delhi: A copy of the Telugu daily Sakshi, dating back to 2015, is M. Lakshmi Devi’s constant companion. The newspaper, a part of which is stained by tea, contains a report about the suicide of a debt-burdened farmer—her husband.
“We had leased five acres of land to grow paddy but the crop failed. He left home one day to work in the fields and hung himself. The neighbours found his body," Lakshmi Devi recalls. The mother of four now works as a farm hand, tilling the lands of others.
Lakshmi Devi was among the 300 widows of farmers who came to New Delhi this week from across various Indian states to join a protest organized on Monday by a coalition of 184 farm unions demanding fair crop prices and freedom from debt.
Each had a different story to tell but their problems are similar—crop failures, rising debt and cost of cultivation, and losses from farming due to low crop prices leading to suicides.
Vennela Vankudothu, 18, from Yadadri district of Telengana, comes from a family that is marginally better off than its neighbours. The family owned nine acres of land and leased five acres more to grow paddy and cotton. Her father took a hefty loan from private money lenders but it was a bank loan that drove him to suicide, she says.
“We had a loan of Rs3 lakh from the bank to buy a tractor. The bank first sent a notice and 10 days later sent two men to confiscate the tractor. My father could not handle the public humiliation," she says.
Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows that between 1995 and 2015, about 321,428 farmers and agricultural labourers committed suicide across India with just five states—Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka—accounting for nearly 60% of the deaths.
Disaggregated data from NCRB’s 2015 report show that indebtedness and farming-related problems were the reasons for about 60% of the suicides by farmers in 2015. The data also showed that about 73% of farmers who committed suicide during the year were small and marginal farmers owning less than five acres of land.
But these numbers speak little of the struggles of the families coping with the suicide of a relative. Kanta Pandurang Bhise has come to Delhi all the way from Latur in Maharashtra to make her voice count. Of slight built, she begins hesitatingly but then her voice picks up. Bhise had an 18-year-old daughter, Mohini, for whom the family was seeking a groom. Many proposals came but “some wanted money, some wanted gold. We had neither," Bhise said. She and her husband repeatedly discussed how to raise money. Selling off the meagre land on which they grew soybean was one option.
Mohini, who overheard one such conversation, would have none of it. She killed herself. In her suicide note, Mohini wrote the land had to be kept for her brother: how else would he survive? “My daughter was so beautiful. She was fair, she had big eyes…and now she’s gone. This should not happen again and that is why I have come to Delhi," her mother said.
Lakshmi Devi and Kullayama are both from the same village in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh which has been blighted repeatedly by deficient rain, with 2017 marking the sixth consecutive year of drought. “After we met each other, we reached out to other single women in the village. There aren’t too many people we can rely on, including family members. When we meet other women like us, it gives us some strength," says Devi.
Associating with farmer organizations like Rythu Swarajya Vedika (RSV) has given some of these women a greater understanding of their rights.
In the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana, families of farmers who committed suicide are entitled to a compensation of Rs5-6 lakh.
“However, there is severe reluctance on part of district-level government staff to implement it; besides the process also requires 13 different documents to prove that farm related distress led to the suicide," said Kiran Kumar Vissa , founder of RSV.
Most of the women Mint spoke to said they are yet to get compensation though in some cases the suicide-deaths took place more than four years ago.
“Earlier I used to feel sad that life has dealt us such a cruel blow," says Manisha, 18, who lost both her parents to suicide. Her grandmother passed away six months ago and she gave up her studies so that her younger brother can stay in school. “But now I feel angry and frustrated. My parents’ death entitles me to a few benefits but even these are being denied to us. I have come to Delhi so that my voice will be heard. I am not sure though if any one is listening."