This excerpt from the book ‘Widows of Vidarbha: Making of Shadows by Kota Neelima’ deals with how farmer suicides have affected lives in Maharashtra.
Jyoti Bhumbar, Ashtgaon Village, Morshi Tehsil, Amravati District
A Widow since 13 December 2007
The story of Praveen Bhumbar was a cautionary tale across the well-laid-out village of Ashtgaon in Morshi tehsil of Amravati. It was a story that had unfolded slowly and painfully before the eyes of the entire village. Praveen was a hard-working farmer who struggled to make his 3.5-acre land yield enough to sustain his family, which included his father, wife, three children, and brother. He had cultivated cotton, which used to produce enough profits for the family to set some savings aside; that was how they had rented a tea stall on the road. But the outstanding loans proved to be too much of a burden for Praveen, who burnt himself with kerosene on 12 November 2007, and died about a month later, on 13 December. He was 35 years old at the time of his death and had a loan of Rs 36,863 from a lending agency in his name, including interest, which had been outstanding since 2005. His wife Jyoti had been 31 years old, his son Sachin was 5, while the twins Gauri and Gaurav were 4.
In the letter written by the tehsildar of Morshi to the district collector of Amravati, it was stated that the loan was taken by Praveen, an important fact in the state’s investigation into farmer suicide due to farm debt. There were other loans taken by his father, Shaligram, the sole burden of which was on Praveen as his father’s old age and deteriorating health did not allow him to work towards their repayment. Their farm was rain-fed and even though there was a well, the water was never enough, especially if the rainfall was deficient in a season. Besides cotton, the family tried to grow tur on the field, which was mainly for household consumption. The small size of the land meant that cultivation was limited and so was the yield, which was usually too little to be sold in the market. In 2015, eight years after Praveen’s death, the state of agriculture and the family’s financial situation remained unchanged. There was, however, a change in the importance the family gave to agriculture in their life. Praveen’s wife, Jyoti, no longer cultivated their land but now worked as farm labour on daily wages, while Rajesh, his brother, ran the tea stall they had 123 opened together 15 years ago on the main road from the tehsil capital of Morshi town. The days of surviving on the farm were over for the Bhumbar family; agriculture had cost them not just money and time, but also the life of a loved one.
Rajesh had studied up to Class 12, which he had failed, and dropped out of school. Higher education was a luxury that the small farmers of Vidarbha can rarely afford, and the children are often witness to the effort it takes for their families to pay for their studies. Sensitive and aware of the difficult times, the children work hard to pass school, but if they fail in a class, they usually discontinue their education. The end of their education also spells the end of an opportunity for these children who cannot wait too long for employment and usually join their family in working as farm labour for daily wages to add to their household income. It is on these crowded fields under the scorching sun that the dreams of the educated wither under the gaze of the wealthy landlord and the self-assured state. There is no scope for anger; in fact, no time for it.
Rajesh explained, ‘I wanted to study further and go to college. But when I reached Class 8, I realized there was no money to support my education any further. Then my mother’s brother in Chandur Bazar offered assistance and funded my education until Class 12. But when I failed in that examination, I dropped out of the school.’ As with many things in the lives of the Vidarbha farmers, the options available to them are conditional and timebound. Nothing waits for those who cultivate the land; they have to wait for all things to come to them, including the benevolence of rain and the kindness of men. That is also the reason behind the usual silence of the widows in these villages; there is nothing to express, protest, or argue about. She can only wait.
Jyoti sat in a small plastic chair, with a palpable sense of detachment from everything around her. She seemed to be the kind of person who looked for purpose in life and found it in the affection for others, which gave her the energy to work. With her husband gone, she seemed not just alone, but lost. Her children now were her primary concern, and she did what she could for them. ‘I work as a farm labour for a daily wage of Rs 100 and manage to contribute to the running of the household,’ Jyoti said, and added without conviction, ‘I save whatever money I can for the children and hope it will help them in their life.’ She could not save much, and with the given funds, there was only so far that her children could study. What was worse, there were no other avenues to earn from or hope for. It was as if a way of life had come to an end, but she was still trying to resuscitate it. The time she had spent with Praveen was now a faded memory, something she remembered as if it was a story from a book. The happiness of those early times was overshadowed by the stark difficulties of the present, which began in the dark period preceding Praveen’s suicide. The farm loan that Praveen had been unable to pay tormented him in the days before he killed himself. Jyoti recalled, ‘My husband never spoke about the loan, but we all knew he was under immense pressure. He was a proud man and ensured discipline in the household; he believed that hard work paid off , and chose only the right path to earn a livelihood. But the financial situation of the family worsened and he began to lose hope. He was saddened that he had plunged the family into debt from which there would be no recovery. He felt it was his responsibility to find a solution, and did not burden any one of us with his troubles.’
That day in November of 2007 had started normally for Jyoti; she had left for work on the farm. But she returned home late in the afternoon to discover that Praveen had set himself on fire using kerosene. She understood why her husband had killed himself. ‘He was that kind of a man. He just could not bear the fact that the basic necessities of the household were not being met. He was seriously worried about the simple sustainability of life.’ Apart from the loan from a lending agency, Praveen had also borrowed agricultural inputs from a krishi kendra and taken a 125 loan from a private moneylender, which together amounted to between Rs 60,000 and Rs 70,000. These loans were not written off or rescheduled like formal loans when the farmer died; they had to be repaid by the family. ‘Life has only become tougher for us after his death,’ Jyoti said.
In 2015, the twins Gaurav and Gauri were 12 years old studying in Class 7, while 13-year-old Sachin studied in Class 9. Gaurav lived in Chandur Bazar with the same relative who had helped Rajesh with his education. The family had to be dispersed so that the children could be supported; Jyoti had reconciled to this distance but missed her son constantly. There was no fee to be paid for the two children in the zila parishad school, and Gauri even got the school uniform free. ‘I cannot send them to good schools; I cannot afford to give them an English education in a convent. It is way too expensive for a poor farmer’s child. I do my best but it still does not prepare my children for a better future,’ she said, her frail shoulders burdened by the problems left behind by her husband and those that life had added since his death. She was aware of the escape Praveen had opted for, but justified it as the act of a sensitive and honest man. She did not hold him responsible for the present state of her life. ‘I work as labour now, something I never imagined I would do in my life,’ she said and paused. ‘I never worked as labour when my husband was alive. We had responsibilities even then, but we faced them together. I miss him so much.’
Rajesh ran the tea stall alone and supported the family. Like most farmers in these villages, the monthly expenses were a constant source of worry for him. ‘The electricity bill for the month is about Rs 700–800, water bill is Rs 700 annually. These are bills that have to be paid, and then there are medical expenses and those for the children. Money is required for these necessities and none of them can be compromised upon. This tea stall and farm labour are the main sources of income, aside from the farm where agriculture is a gamble.’
Ashtgaon, a village of 1,500 people, knew of the hardships of the Bhumbar family. The tea stall was on the district road that connected the village with Morshi, which was a moderately busy route. The state transport buses stopped close by to drop passengers, and there were a few other shops that mainly dealt in repairs of farm equipment. The tea stall stood under the shade of a thick banyan tree and had a few chairs for people to sit. Most of the villagers stopped there for a cup of tea, cookies, or toast before heading their way. Invariably, they asked about the well-being of the family and whether there was any trouble. Rajesh liked the support of the community and was inspired to keep on with his struggle. Ever since his father Shaligram, who suffered from asthma, had fallen ill, Praveen had taken care of the family. Rajesh remembered his brother with respect, ‘My brother used to be my guide. He was strict but also affectionate. I still remember the way he used to discipline me if I returned home late. He wanted me to become someone important in life, and not remain a poor farmer. I wish I could do a job and build myself a career.’
The earnings from the tea stall were enough to run the household, but there was not enough left to save. ‘We do not have extra money to do anything else. Every member of the family works and contributes to the expenses that we all know must be paid. We work hard every minute of the day to just survive. Where is the chance for us to aspire for anything more or be anyone better?’ he asked.
Even eight years after his death Praveen was deeply missed by his wife and brother. A loan and a crop had killed him, like most other farmers who commit suicide in Vidarbha. A chapter seemed to be closed and it brought an end to the dependence on agriculture, to the constant wait for rains, and to a life regimented by nature. Now, Rajesh made tea for a living and Jyoti worked as farm labour. The compensation she had received for Praveen’s suicide seemed to be the last tribute to the fight they had all put up to remain farmers. And lost.
Excerpted with permission from Oxford University Press.