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520 Farmer Suicides in Vidharbha and Counting

Three Weddings and a Funeral

by P. SAINATH

In one third of Gosavi Pawar’s house there was mourning. In another third, celebration. In the last part of his home there was preparation for both mourning and celebration. This Banjara household in Yavatmal , [a town in the Vidharbha district in the north-eastern part of the Indian state of Maharashtra] , had to conduct a funeral and three weddings in 24 hours.

Pawar was the eldest brother and head of the extended family. The `bada-pitaji’ or big father. "In the Banjara samaj," says Mohan Jadhav, "the eldest brother accepts a major role in the marriages of his kin. And he had to perform two that week." Jadhav is secretary of the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) and helped steer the family through its crisis. "Gosavi was deep in debt. As every farmer here is. Yet, he tried to get the weddings done."

He was also one of ten indebted farmers who killed themselves on May 9. And among the 520 who have taken their lives since June last year in the region’s ongoing agrarian crisis. The distress driving the deaths reflects in everything from cancelled weddings to funerals.

Pawar was deep in debt and had little money for the new farming season. He had even resorted to a `khande palat’ to raise the crop loan he required. That is, `switching the burden from one shoulder to another.’ He needed Rs.65,000 [c 43 rupees to $1 US] to work his seven acres. But owed the bank Rs.50,000, which he had to clear first. "So," says Kishore Tiwari of the VJAS, "he took the latter amount from a moneylender at a charge of Rs.2500 – for just one day. He cleared his bank debt with that, got the crop loan and repaid the lender. This means he was left with just Rs.12,500. And a new debt of Rs.65,000." Khande palat is common in the debt-ridden villages here.

Gosavi Pawar went on May 8 from his village of Koljhari to the town of Mohada. The wedding of Savita, daughter of one brother, was set for May 9. That of Pramod, son of another brother, was fixed for May 10. But Pawar never returned. "I first learned of his death from an auto driver," says his son Prakash. "My father had gone to Mohada to buy the clothes, garments and other gifts for the weddings." But no merchant there was willing to extend him credit on the purchases. Already in despair over his debts, Pawar took his own life.

He was brought to the post-mortem centre in Yavatmal town. The police wanted the body removed quickly – post-mortem centres in Vidharbha are busy places. But the grieving family needed to delay bringing him home. "How could they bring a dead body to a house where a wedding was on?" asks deputy sarpanch Tulsiram Chavan. So the body’s return was slowed down until the baraat had left the house. Despite this, body and baraat met at a junction. Pawar’s pallbearers moved away into a field, behind a cluster of trees to avoid contact. But the bride Savita wept, knowing it was her Kaka’s last journey she was seeing at a distance.

There was still another wedding to go the next day. "I wanted to postpone mine when I learned uncle was dead,’ says the bridegroom, Pramod Pawar. "But the village pointed out that the bride’s family and others would be put to huge losses. More so because another couple’s marriage was also tied to mine to save money." Vidharbha’s crisis has seen many weddings called off. Few can afford them. The village elders knew that delay could mean cancellation. So, heartbroken, they went ahead.

"We were so disturbed by my brother’s suicide, we could not even attend to our guests," says Phulsingh, father of Pramod. "I wanted to call it off." That’s when the residents of this debt-burdened village came to their rescue in a moving show of solidarity. People as poor as the family and worse, contributed small sums and other help to see it through. "We held a meeting that night to plan, and everybody chipped in," says deputy sarpanch Chavan. "Some took charge of the cooking. Others looked after the guests. A few arranged the funeral, yet others the transport." And a village celebrated its grief. For many across this region, funerals and weddings now depend on the aid of neighbours whose economic condition might be more dismal than their own.

Savita was married on May 9. Her uncle’s funeral took place the same evening. Her cousin Pramod’s wedding took place on May 10, along with that of the last couple. The collective effort of the Banjara clans saw the family come through the ordeal. At least for now.

The 80-plus Banjara families in this `no-liquor’ village have a collective debt of over Rs.22 lakh. Koljhari’s agriculture is a picture of all that has gone wrong. Soaring costs, fake inputs, crashing output prices, growing debt, and a collapse of formal credit. As with many others, Pawar’s tryst with Bt cotton also proved a disaster. His seven acres yielded just four quintals. A crippling loss. Meanwhile, most adults here – and quite a few who are not – have sought work under the national rural employment guarantee programme. But nothing has happened so far.

Debt-related suicides in Vidharbha show no sign of slowing down. "Nor are they likely to," says Wamanrao Rathore in Koljhari. "See, people have readied their fields for the new season. But no one has bought the inputs as yet. Who can afford them? The banks won’t give them loans. How do they cultivate?"

The 520 suicides listed by the Vidharbha Jan Andolan Samiti since last June is the highest number recorded here since 1998. The 306 since January means there’s one every ten hours now. While farm suicides doubled almost every year between 2001-04, the leap since last November has been huge. That’s when it became clear the government would not reverse the cut in cotton price it had announced. Last year, the state withdrew its `advance bonus’ of Rs.500 a quintal. This brought down what the farmer received for cotton to the MSP of Rs.1700 a quintal. A move that has fed into and spurred disaster.

In Vidharbha’s register of suicides, Pawar is just another statistic. Number 499. For Prakash and widow Kamlabai, he was father and husband. And yet, his death was not a complete surprise. "Yes. We feared he might do this,’ says Prakash. "Anyone in our condition could do this. I could also do this."

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. This piece initially ran in the Indian weekly Frontline. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.