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No country for women
Swapna Majumdar2/22/2020 10:28:26 PM
Mudapu Yadamma, 38, is from Mallareddipalli village in Nalgonda district, Telangana. Two years ago, her husband, a farmer, committed suicide by consuming pesticide and left her with a debt of Rs 3.5 lakh. Kamatham Lakshmidevi, 31, is from Danduvaripalli village in Ananthapur district of Andhra Pradesh. She, too, was left with a debt of Rs 8 lakh after her husband, also a farmer, killed himself two years ago.
Vidya More, 38, is from Maharashtra. When her husband ended his life in 2012, his suicide was declared not eligible (as a farm suicide) thereby denying her the right to ex-gratia compensation.
They may live in different States but the fate of farm widows across the country is worryingly similar. Not only do farm widows suddenly become invisible to the State, they are ostracised by their families and are left to fend for themselves, especially when they are hounded to repay the debts taken by their farmer husbands. Latest statistics released by the Government show that 11,379 farmers killed themselves in India in 2016. In other words, there were 948 suicides every month or 31 growers committed suicide daily. One big reason for this was mounting debts. While the inability to pay back loans can be attributed to several reasons, including failed crops, the agrarian crisis and the unavailability of alternative opportunities for earning a livelihood, the burden of repaying the debts has fallen on their widows.
At present, there is no programme or policy that frees these farm widows from debts incurred by their husbands. The harrying by banks or moneylenders begins almost immediately after the husband's death, leaving hardly any time for the widow to mourn her spouse.
The need to survive and look after her children pushes her to earn a living. But studies have shown that the woman farmer often adopts the same kind of farming as the deceased husband. She also resorts to the same practice of chemical-intensive and external-input-driven farming requiring investments and borrowing. But with women farmers not seen as credit-worthy and access to Government schemes and credit being limited, the situation can be so hopeless and dire that women farmers are often forced to take the same path as their husbands and end their lives. Women accounted for 8.6 per cent of farmer suicides in the country.
A prime cause has been the inadequate efforts by the Government to prevent farmer suicides coupled with insufficient and lopsided support to families affected by them, according to the Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM), an informal forum comprising 120 organisations of women farmers and civil society groups in 24 States working to secure rights of women growers.
Recent consultations on the "Status of Women Farmers in Farm Suicide Families" held by MAKAAM and UN Women also revealed that the lack of recognition by the Government of the deaths as farm suicides in many cases further exacerbated the conditions of the marginalised widows as the State refused to extend any support to them.
Korra Shanthi is one such victim of State apathy. A resident of Nalgonda district, Telangana, Shanthi and her husband were engaged in cultivation on leased land. When her husband ended his life in 2018, Shanthi was left with a debt of Rs 6 lakh. Although she applied for ex-gratia payment with the help of local activists, she has not received any money yet. Shanthi has been told that she is unlikely to receive it because her husband did not own any land in his name, making her ineligible for ex-gratia payment.
Since several State Government rules specify that only land owners and land title holders are considered as farmers while extending support to the suicide-affected family, those toiling on leased land fall through the cracks. With land ownership being the main criteria, tenant farmers and women farmers, especially farm widows who do not have land in their names, are not recognised as real farmers. Further, farmers who have borrowed from moneylenders also don't get counted as eligible or genuine cases and their widows and families are denied compensation. "This is one of the biggest problems in Punjab," contends 40-year-old Veerpal Kaur. A resident of Mansa district, Punjab, Kaur has witnessed the despair that led to her husband, father and father-in-law ending their lives. But their families were not considered eligible although the suicides were due to farm distress.
Lack of recognition is a major hurdle in the relief and rehabilitation of widows and their families. This is according to a MAKAAM study on the status of women in farm suicide-affected families in six States of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. One of the important findings was that in Maharashtra, Punjab and Karnataka, only those farmers who had institutional debt were considered as genuine and eligible for support, not those who ended their lives due to pressure from moneylenders.
Moreover, there was a wide variation in the relief and rehabilitation package given by these six States. The study showed that the criteria used to determine "farm suicides" were different across States and even within the relevant agencies like the police, agriculture and revenue departments.
According to MAKAAM's Seema Kulkarni, even in the States where compensation was being paid, it was not uniform. "While Andhra Pradesh provides a compensation of Rs 7 lakh for each family, in Maharashtra, which has the largest number of farm suicides in the country, this is only Rs 2 lakh. In the case of Telangana, although its policy states a compensation of Rs 6 lakh, hardly any payment had been made since subsuming farm suicide cases into the Farmer Insurance scheme called Rythu Beema Padhakam", says Kulkarni.
Of all the States, only Andhra Pradesh had a one-time settlement mechanism, (used in certain cases), to settle all outstanding institutional as well as private loans within Rs 1 lakh to liberate woman from never-ending debt. However, its use was limited.
The study also found that only Karnataka had a policy to support education of children from farm suicide families, including reimbursement of fee of those studying in private institutions. "However, even here, the implementation was poor and lacked coordination between different agencies, states", Ashalatha Satyam of Rythu Swarajya Vedika, a MAKAAM partner.
She points out that such a policy does not exist in other States. This is why many widows in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh had to pull out their children from schools. Although the Maharashtra Government had announced a support package related to education fee, nothing has been finalised so far.
In cases where land is in the name of the husband, wives have the opportunity to eke out a living once they are able to get it transferred in their name. But even here it is usually a long and uphill battle as relatives don't want to give her the rightful share in the property. Lack of land ownership has forced most of the women to either become labourers or seek other means of employment, often at the cost of their safety. So, Mudapu Yadamma is dependent on wage labour to keep her three children in school since her in-laws are not prepared to give her a share in the family land. Kamatham Laxmidevi, too, was denied her share in the family land cultivated by her husband and does any work that helps her earn a living. Vidya More has taken up sewing and wage labour to make ends meet. But all this isn't enough to repay the huge debts incurred by their husbands.
They are not the only ones struggling for survival and their rights. Hundreds of farm widows have fallen off the Government's radar. Government apathy and hopelessness have led many to take their lives. This is not unknown to the political masters. Then what is the Government waiting for? Just how many more suicides will it take for it to take action?
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