It was a small gathering, but powerful one. A district collector, two sitting MLAs, three contractors, a head of the district unit of a national party, and a leader of another national party, now in the opposition – by all means, each one enjoyed a clout in the government, and a position in the politics of this Gandhian district.
The year: 2004. Month: September. I sat sheepishly on a corner chair in the third row facing the revenue collector of that district in his chamber, watching, for two and a half hours, hectic activities and discussions between him and the members of that august gathering. There were of course a number of intruders in between. And cell phones rang with impunity. Many of those calls got cut brusquely.
Well… there were many important issues to be fixed in quick time. Who will lay the road? How much budget? Who will bring the garlands? How many? In how much time would the money be released for the emergency op? Guest list? Who would manage the media? And who should receive the compensation-cheques?
The first few questions were resolved quickly, I noticed. Within a few minutes, in fact. The three contractors were indeed going to get the contracts for laying roads to the villages where Madam would go. The two MLAs, would get the cut in that. The leader of the district unit of the party now had to ensure that the administration selected at least one farming family from the constituency of the state president of the party. Otherwise, it would be a dampener on his growth prospects, and possibility of getting the party ticket for elections. The last question – who would get the cheques – was therefore very hotly contested for much of the time.
Each of the MLAs proposed a name of the farmer who had committed suicide in their respective constituency. And the leader of the opposition proposed the third name. “Three families, that’s final?” asked the collector. “No,” interrupted the district party president. “Take one from our madam’s constituency,” he pressed. “Remember,” he told the two MLAs, “we must take one from her area.”
Thankfully, this district had no dearth of dead peasants – those who committed suicide in distress.
“Take that family, what’s the name? Yes, Deshmukh. That will be good. The surname is perfect, and it suits madam,” he suggested.
“Is that final?” the collector asked again.
The opposition leader said, “it’s okay, as long as you are including the family I proposed from my constituency. What’s the name, I forget? But good, there’s an old man, an old woman in there. It would also make a good picture.”
“Okay then, one from madam’s constituency, one from your area Mr Opposition leader, and one from your constituency, Mr MLA (one of the two, he pointed his fingers at), so this is final. Mr Joshi (the collector’s deputy), these are the final names. Madam and the chief minister will visit them,” a much relieved district collector said handing out a chit to his deputy.
“You may now release these names to the press by the evening, we have only three days left.”
The deputy took the list, penned down a few notes and left.
As this was over, one of the three petite-looking contractors mumbled: “Sir, the sum will be released soon? See to it that it does. We are not waiting for it, I just thought since it’s emergency situation, it would help us get the work done fast.”
The collector smiled wryly and nodded his head with eyes embedded down on a piece of paper in a file.
“Don’t worry, your work will be done in time,” he remarked.
The contractors smiled in happiness. The other dignitaries in the chamber joined the chorus. Every one shook hands. The meeting was successfully over.
The contractors had to lay the road to the three villages, where, in the next two days, a huge caravan of the country’s top-most political leaders would travel, in their pursuit to play guardians of the ‘aam-admi’, a month before the state went in to elections.
Vidarbha countryside was burning, and it burnt for all four years that this government was in the power. So the opposition had an edge. The sitting coalition had managed to convince Madam that her visit was necessary in the run-up to the elections, lest they shall lose the ground to the saffron flags.
It was all the more needed because just a fortnight ago, the opposition coalition’s top leadership traveled in a few villages, distributing money for the photo-ops to the mourning families of the farmers who had taken their own lives in that season.
If the party wants to return to power, Madam must visit the region and distribute aid to a few families, to show that her party still stood by the poorest of the poor.
Madam, feeling empathetic to the deceased farmers, decided to come.
Three families were in despair; each had seen a young farmer member of their family commit suicide, unable to see the growing distress in the family, mounting debts, biting hunger and no hope at the end of the dark tunnel.
Two farmers had left behind their widows and young children, struggling to take education.
The third had left his old parents, and an unmarried sister. He was a graduate himself.
All three farmers had committed suicide by consuming pesticide – Endosulphane, a poison that knocks ones life within seconds of consuming it. In Vidarbha that's what farmers have been consuming to kill themselves.
The list of the farmers ending themselves in the region was burgeoning. And the three families chosen for the ‘compensation award’ were the ones who were first rejected as ‘misfit suicide cases for compensation’ by the same administration.
Hours before her arrival, it was decided that Madam will now visit only one family in a village, and the other two at the makeshift helipad. These families would be transported to meet her at the spot in official vehicles. The district administration decided that Madam would deliver cheque to the widow she visits in the village, while the two other families would get the cheques at the hands of the chief minister, who would also travel with his party president.
That way the picture would look balanced. Apparently, this subtle change was made at the behest of some one from the party ranks. It was silently pushed in.
The aid: Rs 30,000 in cash and Rs 70,000 as postal deposits that would give a monthly income of Rs 457.
To distribute 3 lakh rupees, the government spent, not less than, Rs 50 crore on the high-profile visit – hiring vehicles to preparing a helipad to managing the media, the spending on the one-day bonhomie was not certainly going to be a small affair.
After all, it was election time. The money the families would receive could neither wipe out their outstanding debts, nor bring back the lost one. It would, though, make or break the party’s election chances.
The village got a facelift, overnight. Hundreds of policemen occupied its every nook and corner, its every square inch.
Several houses got painted free of cost, and internal cramped roads leading up to the Deshmukh house got tarred.
The small village forgot its tragedy in that euphoria, and the family, its pains. Madam’s visit to their place was no small a fete for them.
In the death of its headman, the family had hogged the limelight suddenly – journalists, photographers, bureaucrats, there was no dearth of visitors to this household.
Madam had come calling on them. The two other families forgot their grief too. They sat in a car for the first time, perhaps savouring one happy moment.
A month later, when I visited the three families, it was a scene of more despair and grief.
The widow of Deshmukh had lost her money to the private lender, who had lent her husband money for inputs. Her son and a daughter had dropped out of school. Two years on, the woman still does not have her farm well dug, or electricity dues waved.
Alas, they were just high-profile pre-election promises not really meant to honour.
In the other two households too, money provided no relief, no panacea.
The old man in one family died for the want of medical attention in October 2005, a year after he lost his son, who committed suicide in his farm. The old man could not marry off his youngest daughter.
The third widow has migrated to her maternal home in Amravati, where she works as a landless labourer, in addition to the Rs 457 that she gets from postal savings.
And farmers’ suicides continue to haunt the dusty countryside of Vidarbha.
Madam’s visit paid off to her party in a big way though!
It could salvage some of its lost ground and wrest a few seats in the region where farmers were seething with rage against the ruling coalition. It returned to power in the state that year.