How the better half dies — I

By P. Sainath

— Photo: P. SainathThe outdated portrait — all the family had — of Pedda Narsamma, surrounded by the eight-member household she held together. Deaths like Narsamma's are rarely counted as "farmers' suicides." In social perception, the `farmer' is a landed male with a patta.
The outdated portrait — all the family had — of Pedda Narsamma, surrounded by the eight-member household she held together. Deaths like Narsamma's are rarely counted as "farmers' suicides." In social perception, the `farmer' is a landed male with a patta.

ANANTAPUR (ANDHRA PRADESH), JULY 31. When Pedda Narsamma hanged herself in Pandi Parthi village, her eight-member household was shattered. For decades, it was Narsamma, 50, who kept both farm and family going. Two years later, the Government has taken note of this suicide. And an inquiry process seems to be on. But her family is unsure of any compensation.

Pedda Narsamma was a Dalit. And a woman. And women are not accepted as “farmers.” Which means this may not finally go down as a “farmer’s suicide.”

“Our mother ran everything,” says her son, Narasimhalu. “My father is mentally unsound and has not worked in a long time. She did most of the work at home, brought up the children and even looked after her grand children. She also planned and did much of the work on our five acres. And often worked on the fields of others to make ends meet.”

By 2002, the ends would not meet. And Narsamma planned her own end. “It was too much for her that the crops kept failing,” says Narasimhalu.

Just farmers’ wives

That thousands of farmers have committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh in the past seven years is now known. Far less known is that women farmers, too, have taken their lives in no small number.

It is only in recent months that — in a few cases — their suicides are being counted at all. “In both social and official perception,” says a senior Government officer, “the farmer is a landed male with a patta. Women do not fit in that category. Their property rights do not exist in practice. And men do not accept them as farmers. They are seen, at best, as farmers’ wives.”

Though close to a fifth of all rural households in India are female-headed, few women hold titles to land. Even in land-owning households, they do most of the work on the farm, but are not seen as farmers. In one estimate, women account for 90 per cent of all those engaged in transplantation.

They also make up 76 per cent of those sowing seeds and 82 per cent of people transporting crops from field to home. They are a third of the work force that prepares the land for cultivation. And between 70 and 90 per cent of those involved in dairying.

In districts like Anantapur and Mahbubnagar, the numbers of women-headed households are even higher. Lakhs of people migrate from these regions each year in search of work. With men usually going first.

Working against odds

In recent times landed farmers have joined the same landless labourers they used to employ, in large-scale distress migrations out of the State.

This leaves still more women running farms, families and finances alone and against huge odds.

Those odds proved too much for Kovurru Ramalamma in Digumari village. “The only thing I ever saw her do was work,” says Sudhamani, her daughter. “My father never did. The two acres of land we had leased kept her busy every moment that she was not running the home. She worried about my marriage and that of my sister.”

By 2000, the family’s debts touched Rs. 1.5 lakhs as crops failed. Over Rs. 30,000 went in medical costs. A broken Ramalamma, 46, consumed pesticides and took her life. After her death, her family gave up the leased land. They have none of their own. That makes compensation claims sticky. How do they prove they were farmers when it happened?

In Khadarpetta village, N. Bhagyalakshmi, 28, couldn’t cope any longer. “She asked me,” says her husband Jayaram Reddy, “`When will we pay off all these debts?'” They owed Rs. 1.6 lakhs. This June, “when it was clear there would be a fourth bad year, she took her own life.”

There have also been suicides among women farmers whose husbands have migrated. Swaroopa Rani, vice-president of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association in the State, explains why.

Many responsibilities

“To begin with, they were doing the bulk of the work. Now they have to face the banks, the moneylenders. They have to bring up the children and send them to school. Raising and spending money for the needs of the household becomes their job. And, on top of it all, they have to run the farm. Sometimes, the pressure becomes too much.”

And sometimes, one suicide swiftly follows another. As in Choutapalli village in Krishna district. “Madduri Anasuya killed herself three days after her husband Mohan Rao took his own life,” points out AIDWA’s Swaroopa Rani

How many women’s suicides have there been in these years of farmer distress? “We may never know, ” says Dr. Rama Devi. Now based in Hyderabad, she was teaching at the Government Medical College, Anantapur, in 2001 when she noticed the number of women’s suicides being brought in or reported. “They too, were certainly victims of the agrarian crisis,” she says. Moved by the intense misery she was witness to, Dr. Rama Devi brought out a book on the subject in Telugu titled “Cheyutha” (Helping Hand). In it, she tried listing the deaths.

“In a single year from August 2001,” says Dr. Rama, “there were 311 women’s suicides in just Anantapur district alone. And these were only the recorded ones. There must have been a lot more that went unreported. Close to 80 per cent of these 311 were from villages. And most of the women were from a farming background.

“The links with the farm disaster were clear and many. For instance, the worse the farm crisis got, the more the dowry problems grew. This was a factor in quite a few suicides. The crisis also had another serious fallout for families. Many weddings were delayed for lack of money. And I came across cases where the girl committed suicide because she felt she was a burden on her family.”

Hit in other ways too

“The women were also hit in other ways. As farming floundered, many families came to the towns. The men sought work as auto drivers or daily wage labour. Often without success. In this struggle against poverty, the stress on their wives was enormous. Drunkenness and beatings were on the rise. Some of these women, too, took their own lives. Whichever way you look at it, the collapse of farming in Anantapur was closely linked to the suicides of hundreds of women in the district.”