Contest elections? Sure, on our issues

P. Sainath

In Yavatmal, a large number of women brave immense hardship to live with dignity in the post-farm suicide period. They articulate their demands with clarity.

Ramabai Katkar with daughter Ashwita

Ramabai Katkar is keenly aware of the ongoing elections. She knows the polling date in her constituency, knows where her voting booth will be, and to some extent follows the ongoing campaign. She articulates her own demands — and what would be election promises were she a candidate — with clarity.

“There has to be a BPL Antyodaya card [for poorest of poor] given to people like us. All girl children must get bicycles — how will they reach school from here? All poor people should get houses under the Indira awaas scheme. And there should be a better old-age pension. Especially in circumstances like ours.”

The problem, she feels, is that the election campaigns right now “do not touch our lives, not at all.” Ramabai, in her 30s, lost her husband Bandu Katkar who, like countless other farmers in Yavatmal district, committed suicide, crushed by debt and the agrarian crisis. There are several thousand women farmers in Vidarbha very much like Ramabai. And well over 100,000 of them nationwide — devastated when their husbands took their own lives in the ongoing farm crisis. There have been at least 182,936 farmers’ suicides between 1997 and 2007 according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Over 80 per cent of these recorded cases have been male farmers, mostly married and with children.

For the women of these farm households, the post-suicide period has often been a descent into abject misery. Quite a few, immediately after the death of their husbands, have been thrown out of their homes by their in-laws. That means fending for themselves and their children without resources. They are also often isolated by the village they live in, which was their husband’s but not their own. “Now,” says one, “we know and are daily reminded that we are outsiders here.” Several face land grab, sometimes by neighbours, often by their husband’s relatives. Sexual and other harassment begins very soon after the husband’s suicide. There are cases where the unrelenting pressure has seen the woman too, take her own life (sometimes along with those of her children).

Yet, the large number of women and children braving immense hardship to stay afloat and live with dignity is inspiring. Many still try to run their farms against all odds, with little or no help from the state. These include women farmers with as many as nine children, including seven girls. They include older survivors in their sixties who work 12-14 hours daily as labourers. That, often at wages less than half the minimum assured by the national rural employment guarantee programme (NREGP). Many do back-breaking labour to be paid only in grain — no cash. Several have sold land to pay off their husband’s debts. Of those paid some compensation by their governments, many have seen creditors grab most of it.

Like most women in her situation, Ramabai farms alone, somewhat isolated in her village of Dahegaon. Like all married woman, the village she lives in is her husband’s village, not her own. “Now,” says one woman farmer, “we know that we are outsiders here.” Ramabai’s isolation is made worse by the fact that she is a dalit. She faces all kinds of harassment and obstruction in her attempts to farm on the poor-quality 12 acres her husband owned. Six of these have been destroyed by a supposed irrigation project that saw them dug up — with no benefit to her at all. She has three young children, one of whom has dropped out of school to become an auto driver. There are also her aged parents-in-law to look after. “And at best I manage to get two days a week of work as a labourer, for about Rs. 50 a day.”

She is willing to engage with politics. Only the presence of her village sarpanch and other males who crowd around prevents her from saying explicitly that she would contest elections, given the chance.

No such constraints trouble Anjubai Gokuldas Busari of Pada village nearby. Also in her 30s, she is ready and willing to fight for her rights, “through elections or otherwise.” Anjubai has suffered what countless women in this Vidarbha region have. The government has decided that the death of her husband Gokuldas was “a bogus suicide.” That is, it declared that his suicide was not due to agrarian distress. This is an arbitrary and mischief-ridden process that is used to evade responsibility. Once a suicide is so registered, the government is not obliged to compensate the family for the loss of its main breadwinner.

“Just look at our condition,” she says in her rickety home atop encroached land. “Yet, I must say there are widows who have faced hardships worse than my own.” Anjubai was part of the local SHG “now paralysed.” She could not repay her loan and others cannot get theirs till she repays. “At best, I get 7 or 8 days of work in a month as a labourer at Rs. 50 a day.” Her own five acres is under an agreement disadvantageous to her. The man farming there gives her a small share of the crop. “It should not be this way. But I don’t see our demands being raised in these elections.”

Rekha Thag, 36, with a boy and girl still in school, was “tormented by my in-laws in Venikota village last year after my husband took his life. I was kicked out even before his body was taken for the funeral.” Rekha moved to Yavatmal town where she works as a domestic labourer in three households and also supplies “dabba” food to a couple of persons. Her total income: Rs. 1,200 a month. The rent for the tiny room she occupies with her children — sharing a wall with a noisy godown — is Rs. 400. She is willing to fight her in-laws for justice. But her approach to the Tehsildar and police have so far proved useless.

Rekha too, is willing to engage with the political process — and even contest the assembly polls months from now, if she gets a chance. Her demands are similar to those of Ramabai. Only, she says with feeling: “Our demands should be for all widows, not just farm widows.” And she wants a monthly pension for all of them fixed at Rs. 1,500. Rekha has suffered twice. In 2001, her father took his own life, another victim of the agrarian crisis.

Anjubai Busari with her family in Pada

“I think all those of us who have had these experiences have common demands,” she says. In January she attended a convention of women “widowed by the farm crisis” organised by the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) in Panderkauda. About 100 such women from just Yavatmal district attended at very short notice. “It is clear we need to organise,” says Rekha.

Rekha Gurnule in Saikheda village is doing relatively better. She has asserted her rights. She has also found a job as an anganwadi worker at Rs.1800 a month. “He ran away,” she says of her husband who killed himself. “I won’t.” She has a daughter aged 4 and a son aged 5. Rekha has got things under some control. So much so that her in-laws prefer to stay with her rather than with their own, other son.

Most of the women farmers who have lost their husbands to the crisis seem to agree on another thing besides political engagement. “We will not make our children farmers,” says Rekha Thag. “What happened with their fathers should not re-happen with them.”

Back in Pada, Anjubai says: “I’m ready to fight. Be it elections or anything else. We must have our rights.” Sitting beside us is Kishor Tiwari of the VJAS who has been helping these women farmers. “Do you understand the implications of that?” he asks her. “It would mean a lot of difficult struggle.” She looks him straight in the eye. “There are no options for people like me other than struggle. What do you think I’ve done all my life?”

First published in The Hindu April 13, 2020