Divya A, TNN, Apr 4, 2010, 03.02am IST
Many believe that a debt-ridden farmer’s problems end when he ends his life. But it is just the start of a tragic trajectory for those left behind. Especially his widow and children. By default, they become responsible for the debts the dead man has left behind.
Thousands of such widows are trapped in the web of debt in the cotton belt of Punjab, comprising sparsely populated districts such as Bathinda, Faridkot, Muktsar, Ferozepur and Sangrur.
A recent study by the Ludhiana-based Punjab Agricultural University in the districts of Bathinda and Sangrur found there had been around 3,000 suicides between 2000 and 2008. Every suicide, says the study, affects at least five people. Mostly, it is the women who have the burden of raising a fatherless family. Last year, the state government announced compensation of Rs 2 lakh for the families of farmers who had committed suicide. But, as with most bureaucratic procedures, the bereaved families are yet to receive the money.
Umendra Dutt, executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission, an NGO working for farmers’ rights in Faridkot’s Jaitu village, says it isn’t easy for the families to get their due. “After the announcement for compensation, the state commissioned a survey to enumerate the number of suicides. But it has not yet taken off”. It is especially hard for widows now, he adds, because they have to “prove” their husbands committed suicide on account of indebtedness.
Dutt says more often than not, officials attribute suicides to “something else”, not agrarian debt. Just weeks ago, G S Kalkat, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, suggested that debt may not have been the only reason as many as 86% of the farmers committed suicide. Kalkat’s claim was disproved the very next day when 13 widows from Ludhiana district met the deputy commissioner with their case files, demanding Rs 5 lakh in compensation, a debt waiver and a government job for one eligible member of the bereaved family.
They described the desperation their husbands felt. Amar Singh of Bondli village near Samrala took a Rs 3-lakh loan after his crop failed. It was a desperate move at a desperate time. Singh went missing from home on April 1, 2009; his widow Manjeet Kaur had to sell off three acres to pay off the loan.
In Dhanur village near Samrala, Kashmir Singh consumed pesticide. He had five children, a wife, a mother, and debt amounting to Rs 5 lakh.
But this is not just the tale of two families, says Kultar Singh, Congress sarpanch of Sandhwan village in Faridkot. “Every month, we learn about at least three cases where a woman has to bear the brunt of life after her husband has committed suicide,” he says. Often enough, the despairing widow commits suicide as well, he adds. The late Indian president Giani Zail Singh belonged to Sandhwan village.
Activist Inderjit Singh Jaijee, whose documentary film “Harvest of Grief” takes a hard look at the agrarian crisis in Punjab’s Sangrur district, says that most villages in the Moonak and Lehra blocks have suffered anywhere between 40 and 80 suicides.
Vandana Shiva, author of “The Violence of Green Revolution” and founder of Navdanya, a movement for sustainable agriculture, says, “Hapless women in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh are bearing the cost of the profits that the seed and chemical industry are making”.
That is a larger issue. But for most widows of debt-ridden farmers, the politics of big business are deeply personal. Pramod Kumar, director of Chandigarh’s Institute for Development and Communication, has conducted a large-scale study on farmer suicides in the state. He says one of the saddest symbols of the spiral of despair is a 70-year-old woman in Ferozepur district who has been left to fend for herself and her daughter-in-law after both her sons committed suicide following multiple crop failures.