Sunday, July 08, 2007

Super moms of the suicide-country

In Vidarbha, where an average one cotton farmer ends his life every six hours, Mangalabai and Kamalabai are mothers who singularly stand out. After the death of their husbands, they learned every thing and are raising their family with unnoticed resilience. This one's the picture of the widow, of a farmer who committed suicide two years ago, and her two children in a village in Akola district, in western Vidarbha.


When Prabhakar Digambar Mohadkar, 55, hung himself from a tree to take his own life, which was steeped in unfathomable debt in September 1998, his widow Mangalabai stared at a long and treacherous journey, full of hurdles and thorns.

But the resilient woman did not blink. What if her man had forsaken the world, she still had a role to play – a role that was far bigger and far more important.

"I still had three daughters to marry, after we performed weddings of our five elder ones," recounts Mangalabai, who, post the suicide by her farmer-husband, single-handedly managed her seven-acre farm in Rampur village in Yavatmal. "I had no time to mourn his death," she remembers wryly. Big loans had to be repaid; three daughters had to be seen off; and then there was the farm.

Mangalabai is the super-mom of the suicide country Vidarbha, where an average one cotton farmer ends his life every six hours, even as the agrarian distress turns worse. These are mothers, who singularly stand out and raise their family in the face of a crisis and loss of their men. Vidarbha's farm widows are also mothers, who, very often, get junked in the debate over farm suicides and biting distress.

"Time passed so quickly," says Mangalabai, now in her late sixties, nonchalantly. It's hard to be alone, she adds. "Now when I look back, I wonder how I managed my responsibilities!" But, she adds, there was no time for her to live for herself!

Remarks Kishor Tiwari: "Those who think lowly of these women, the widows, as victims or sufferers and pity them, should come and see their resilience. We see their struggle every day! Make no mistake, these women, these mothers, have an unmatchable strength and undaunted courage. They are inspiration to all of us."

"Many of them are illiterate; had no idea of accounts or banks; but after the death of their husbands, they learned every thing, when our agricultural systems are not women-friendly. Rural tragedy is still unfolding. There is no health care; there is no support system; and, there is no money. Even then these rural mothers fight their way out, even while some of their own people mock at them," says Tiwari.

Tiwari's organisation, the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, felicitated Mangalabai and 20-odd farm widows like her, in March 2007, for their astonishing struggle.

Mangalabai repaid all her loans by saving every single penny and cleared her burden. She married her three younger daughters and refused to pay any dowry to the grooms. "To my luck, all my sons-in-law are very good," she says. And she saw to it that all her daughters came to her for their first deliveries – a custom, she followed very religiously, notwithstanding her fragile financial condition.

Saraswati Amberwar, about 50, is still waging the battle that began some 10 years ago, when her husband Ramdas ended his life in Telang Takli village, in Yavatmal's Kelapur block. It was the first suicide case to have been widely reported by the media in 1998 – and the only outcome of it was that she got a lakh rupees in compensation. "The cash of Rs.30,000 was exhausted long ago, and the monthly interest that I get on the remaining RS.70,000 is abysmal to run my household," she says. Saraswati now tills her ten acres alone.

The banks and her creditors troubled her, year after year, for the recovery of the loans that her husband had taken from them. But the woman did not budge. Last year, she lost her eldest daughter to brain tumour; and the youngest is diagnosed with clinical depression ever since the death of Ramdas Amberwar. Saraswati says this girl needs medicine worth Rs.200-400 every month. Treatment is costly but inescapable.

In 2005, when the creditors did not stop chasing her, Kishor Tiwari shot a letter to the cooperative bank officials in Marathi. Loosely translated, it read: "Last night Ramdas Amberwar came into my dreams. He told me that he is waiting with the money in heaven and has asked you (bank officials) to go there to fetch it."

The banks have stopped troubling her since, says Saraswati. That has eased the pressure. But the pressure of farming clearly shows on her face. But there are two daughters to be married off still, she notes, and piled up debts to be cleared. "These women are the face of the Vidarbha's agrarian tragedy, but they also portray a resilient face," says Tiwari, whose organisation has singularly focused on the plight of the region's cotton farmers.

Added to the problems of debt and distress are the in-built social pressures on women – the land laws that weigh inherently against them, the pressures from in-laws, the rigid caste and class structures which turn these women even more voiceless and much more. Their struggle in the face of such odds remains unheeded and unnoticed, points out Tiwari.

Cut in to Jalka, a village about half an hour's drive away from Rampur, where Kamalabai Bandurkar is about to wed her fifth daughter. "Three more to go now!" she tells us, smilingly.
Kamalabai's husband consumed Endosulphane in January 2006, with mounting debts finally becoming a fatal burden. Shattered, she hooked on to an unforeseen hope that life would change for better. While her income rests fragilely on the only buffalo she has, a 50-something Kamalabai is not giving up. The mother in her stands up, every time the untidy yet playful if somewhat noisy house, sinks in money and food crunch. A family of ten, minus her husband, is now swelling; she's now a grandmother of four. "Life has to go on," says this mother of nine, "crisis or no crisis". If only the path was a trifle easier, she'd have been relaxed.

But Kamalabai, who also tills a nine-acre barren farm-plot, knows she's not alone in the cotton country waging the great agrarian crisis today. There are hundreds of moms striving to lift their families out of the plight alone. There are hundreds of them holding out the promise across the suicide-ravaged region.

As Robert Frost wrote: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep; but I've promises to keep, and miles to go, before I sleep…"

Burning down standing sugarcane crops

Yavatmal, May 2007:

Panjabrao Jagtap was attuned to the cotton woes. But the 45-year-old farmer in Yavatmal's Datodi village has just tasted the bitterness of sugarcane as well.

"I burned all my standing crop because there was no buyer for it," says a flustered Jagtap. He set ablaze over 200 tonnes of his standing sugarcane crop a week ago, shouldering huge losses. His only hope wrests on government compensation.

Close to 1500 tonnes of sugarcane remains uncut on the land of Datodi farmers. It will all wilt in the flames over the next week. They've no option but to burn it.

Across Maharashtra, especially Marathwada, estimates from the Sugar Commissioner's office in Pune and various other independent agencies suggest that an overproduction of sugarcane is crushing farmers. Roughly 50 lakh tonnes of cane is uncut and uncrushed. Farmers are in dire straits.
"It's an irony," notes a local Panchayat Samiti member Vijay Raut, "sugarcane is burning in cotton-rich region."

Datodi village, located in the catchments of two rivers Painganga and Arunavati, turned to sugarcane when the Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, called on the debt-ridden cotton farmers of Vidarbha to shift to the sweet cane last year. They are now paying the price.

"Our fertile soil and irrigation facility make sugarcane cultivation possible, so we thought of giving it a try last year," says Prahlad Patil Jagtap, a veteran and a director of now-defunct Shankar Sugar Mill, Bangud, Yavatmal. There was one more strong reason for the farmers to opt for sugarcane crop, instead of cotton.

Vinay Kore, Chairman of Warna Sugar Mill and Maharashtra Transport Minister, decided to run on lease the defunct Jai Kisan Sugar Mill at Bodegaon in Darwha tehsil of Yavatmal district last October. The Warna management promised local farmers that they would buy the entire sugar cane crop, whatever be the costs. Datodi villagers obviously thought they would benefit if the mill revitalised.

But as the international sugar prices collapsed and a bumper crop rolled out in western Maharashtra and Marathwada, the Warna management packed up and left the area, leaving the local farmers to grapple with the shock of huge losses.

Ironically, the host management of the mill, chaired by the former minister and senior Congress leader Manikrao Thakre, has no concern for farmers either.

Just factor this: When Datodi farmers were sinking in despair, the entire cabinet, including the chief minister, was in Yavatmal to attend the wedding of Thakre's son. The problem of sugarcane is not as acute here as it is, say, in Marathwada, but it assumes a different dimension in a debt-ridden Vidarbha, farmers note.

"In a region devastated by deepening agrarian crisis, promotion of sugarcane is a prescription for disaster," warns Vijay Jawandhia, a farmers' leader in Wardha.

Why would the farmers not take the extreme step, in such a case, ask farmers of the village. In Yavatmal, about 11000 hectares of land have come under sugarcane. But farmers ask who will purchase the crop next year, when mills are defunct?

Take this: As many as 13 of the 16 sugar cooperative mills in Vidarbha are closed – an estimated liability of all the mills put together is to the tune of Rs.1500 crores. What is more, the celebrity politicians of the region own all the sugar mills.

Only one is operational in its full capacity, while two others are operating at 50 per cent capacity. Mismanagement and lack of sugarcane availability in the areas are among the major factors for the closure of sugar mills in entire Vidarbha.

One sugar mill can crush up to four lakh tonnes of sugarcane in a crushing season. Farmers say there was no point in sanctioning so many sugar mills in Vidarbha, when the government knew sugarcane couldn't be cultivated in the region that is almost entirely rain-fed. "It's a massive loot of the public money," they say.

"I can't dare cultivate sugarcane this time around, after this bitter experience," says Vishnu Patil Jagtap, another farmer who has had to burn his crop on five acres of land. "The Bodegaon mill bought only half of my yield," he informs.

Datodi's total loss on account of unpurchased sugarcane is a meagre Rs.15 lakhs, compared to the phenomenal losses borne by the Marathwada cane farmers. For the entire state, the cane problem is getting worse with farmers burning the crop in the fields. But the fallout of sugarcane crisis in Vidarbha could be manifold.

"A small trigger is enough to knock the fragile village economy in the region," warns Jawandhia. "Indebted farmers will have no option but to die."

Now teachers turn to moneylending in Vidarbha

Akola, Yavatmal, May:

Chaya Thakre, 38, is still to come to terms with the blows. Bruised, and shaken, she sits on a bed in Akola town’s general hospital, her two sons by her side.

“It was a close shave for her,” says her husband Sahebrao Thakre. “We’ve lost our land; I am lucky that my wife is still alive,” he says, completely shattered.

Two days ago, an “ideal” teacher in Lakhmapur village, some 60 km from Akola town, and his family tied Chaya by ropes and mercilessly beat her in her field.

Her fault: she had tried to stop her tormentors – the family of her moneylender from claiming possession of their farm and working it for the coming season.

“It is my land, they have grabbed it by deceit,” cries Chaya. “It’s the only thing we owned, and now it has been grabbed by this moneylender,” she complains.

Two years ago, when banks turned him down, a desperate Sahebrao borrowed Rs 20,000 from Sheshrao Sontakke, a recipient of President ‘ideal teacher’ award. In return, the teacher got him sign sale deed papers for his four-acre land.

A year later, as per the deal, Sahebrao repaid double his loan amount – Rs 40,000, to the teacher, and sought back the deed papers. But the Shylockian lender, who is alleged, to have in possession tens of acres of land grabbed from the distress-ridden farmers like Sahebrao against loans, coolly went back on his words.

Sahebrao lost his land, and money, but local Shiv Sena MLA Gulabrao Gawande won him possession of his land last year along with hundreds of others through a campaign against the moneylenders. Yet, legally, Sontakke still owns the land.

On May 22, when Sahebrao was away from his village, the Sontakkes entered the field and tried to claim possession of the farm. That’s when Chaya says she took on the moneylender and five others, including his wife Usha, and got thrashed.

This one’s a growing trend in Vidarbha – teachers turning neo-moneylenders.

In 2005, a farmer in Janunagaon village in Akola district, Santosh Sontake, lost both his father and land as a result of the growing racket of usurious lending. His father Gopal had “mortgaged” three and a half acres in the same fashion as the Thakres did to their moneylender. He too had borrowed only Rs 20,000 and in his case too, the lender was a primary school teacher and a big landowner.

“The land was worth Rs 5 lakh. He coaxed my father into signing the deed and staying with him for a while. The trouble began when I made my father see what was going on,” says Santosh.
Hired killers murdered Gopal Sontakke, and the police arrested Santosh. “The effort was to frame me for killing my own father.” However, the case collapsed the day one of the hired killers was nabbed. The teacher-sahucar is still free. And Santosh hasn’t got the deed of sale of his land scrapped. He has lost the land.

“It’s sad, but true,” says Congress member of Arni Panchayat Samiti in Yavatmal Vijay Raut. “If husband and wife both are teachers, they bring home Rs 30,000, and lending a huge chunk of it to desperate farmers guarantees high returns and land, if borrowers fail to repay loans,” he informs. “Interest rate could be as high as 60 to 120 per cent annually,” he says. “And that too at a compounded rate.”

Admits an executive member of the Vidarbha Madhyamik Skhikshan Sangh, an organization of middle-school teacher, in Yavatmal: “I’ve no hesitation in saying some of us are big moneylenders and land lords in villages, but that is not new.”

He says the recent Akola incident is a blot on the teachers’ fraternity. “Since the teachers covet respect in villages, the law enforcers often don’t look into the cases of money lending involving teachers. Now even gram sevaks are in the game.”

A teacher with the Zilla Parishad School at Dotodi village in Yavatmal’s Arni block admits on the condition of anonymity: “Many of us do lend money to the farmers in the village. Since we live here, we have to help them in their need.”

Mortgages are long out of the game; now legal sale deeds are in vogue. The state government ran a drive against moneylenders. Now it has been relaxed.

When you borrow money, you sign a deed saying you have 'sold' your land to your creditor. This deed is registered at the district deputy registrar's (DDR) office. The oral promise is that when you repay loan, your creditor tears up the document. But, he does not. And you find you have been robbed of your land.

Adds Raut: “Not all teachers, who lend money to farmers, are usurious though. But an overwhelming majority of them are into money-lending business.”

Explains farmers' leader in Wardha Vijay Jawandhia: “The governments awarded fifth pay scale to its emlpoyees as an acknowledgement of high-cost economy, but kept farmers in low-cost rural economy. This is one important factor that is aggravating the agrarian crisis and fueling the economic inequalities.” He says a farmer prefers to sell his 10-acre land and pay the fee of his son’s B.Ed. course, for, he feels a teacher’s salary is better than the returns from his agriculture.

Jawandhia says a Zilla Parishad teacher earns several times more than a small and marginal farmer does, annually. “Will the government ever realise this huge disparity and rectify it by giving farmers the prices in lieu of cost of living?”

Meanwhile, for Sahebrao, the episode has brought back the ugly memories of his father Gulabrao Thakre’s murder. Gulabrao was done to death on the issue of land grab allegedly by Sontakke’s relative in the same village, Govardhan.

“I am lucky to have my wife still by my side,” Sahebrao says.

Meanwhile, Gawande, a former minister, warns that there would be a bloodbath if the police don’t proceed against the moneylender and put him behind the bars.

But, Akola Superintendent of Police Shantaram Waghmare says he is helpless in this case. “The High Court has ruled in favour of the Sontakkes. Why did this woman try to stop them from tilling their land in the first place.” The verdict says Sontakke owns the land. “We can’t take action.” And that’s the saddest part.