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Mobile phone is at hand, food is not

Nizamabad, June 6: Meet Ms Andhra Pradesh, Rena. Eighteen years old, she doesn’t have to control her diet; when she is hungry, she just goes to sleep.

But she is a survivor. When Bomallaboyi Gangayya, about 40, unmarried farmer, died four years ago, his sister — that was all there was to the family — was just 14. Today, here in this village of Potaram in Nizamabad district’s Machareddy block, Rena lives — survives — all alone in a hut she rents for Rs 50 a month.

Rena is hungry all the time but scarcely knows it. She has killed hunger for so long that she can now forget to eat. But Rena does not look like she is starving. She does not look like she is an image from the Bengal famine or from Somalia or Ethiopia. India’s poor women can conceal poverty under the layers of a saree, under a nose stud and in a coy smile.

Rena could have eaten well, slept better, put on flesh and learnt to laugh if the mobile telephone network could distribute food and water and fertiliser through the airwaves. Three cellular service providers make Machareddy accessible from anywhere in the world — Reliance, Tata and BSNL.

The same Machareddy mandal has reported the highest number of farmer suicides for any block in the country — 55 in about five years. Bomallaboyi, Rena’s brother, was one of the first. There have been seven suicides by farmers in Potaram alone. The 55th suicide — the first by a woman — was just over a week ago.

Farmers have mixed the pesticide endosulfan with locally brewed toddy and walked off to dry fields to die, they have hanged themselves from trees and have set their bodies ablaze after dousing clothes in kerosene. But this is not a story about the Andhra farmer. It is the story of what one suicide by one farmer has left in its wake — Rena’s story.

Rena’s brother tilled their acre of land that could grow sugarcane and maize. The monsoon in Telengana has been erratic; the crop has failed for five successive years. In the years since Bomallaboyi died, Potaram has been put on the telecom map, prohibition has been lifted and Peter Scot whisky is available at “Ruby Wines” just a 20-minute drive away.

Potaram is on the mobile telephone network but outside an irrigation network. There is no canal to bring water to its fields from the Samudrapu Cheruvu tank 5 km away and no canal to take water to the tank from the little river that flows through Reddipet, another 4 km away.

So Rena cannot till the field that could grow sugarcane or maize. Groundwater levels have fallen drastically. Boring a well will mean she will have to take a loan and what can she offer as collateral'

Rena rolls bidis, at the rate of Rs 45 per day per thousand. That is at best for six months in a year. Assuming she finds work every day, that would earn her about Rs 1,300 a month. She is entitled to her BPL (below poverty line) allowance of rice from the public distribution system — 10 kg a month at Rs 5.25 per kg. Moong dal costs Rs 27 per kg.

A standard meal in these parts would include rice, dal, pickle and tamarind soup. But if she were to have two meals daily — the year has 365 days and she finds work for about 140 days — she would not survive.

These days, a teachers’ federation and a farmers’ assistance group are running a free midday meal camp for a month at the Potaram Upper Primary School. Rena goes for her dal and rice there sometimes. The camp will be on till June 8.

Rena has stopped thinking about it. Many have come to hear her story. There are so many people to worry about Rena that she does not need to worry about herself. So she kills her hunger and goes to sleep.

“Everyone comes and asks the same questions, they nod and go away,” says Potaram’s sarpanch Gyara Sailu.

Rena is not alone. Her world in Potaram, a village of about 200 households, includes seven other families where farmers have committed suicide. There is, for instance, Satyava.

Satyava was widowed by Kumar Mallaya’s death. Kumar Mallaya committed suicide. He was about 60 years old. Their daughter Pushpa, 35, died two years ago of a disease. Pushpa’s husband, Anjiah, died last year. He falls in that strange category of victims the local people describe as “hunger death”.

Their daughter Rani, 15, lives with Satyava. Rani is another Ms Andhra.

Then there is Rajava. Husband Narasapuram Devayya, about 50 years, was also a case of “hunger death”. Their son, Balraj, hanged himself last year.

Or, there are Ravi and Raju. Ravi is in his teens. Raju not yet. They live next door to Satyava. Their father, Narasapuram Narsaiyya, a case of “hunger death”; their mother, Lakshmi, died of disease three years ago. There have been five “hunger deaths” in Machareddy since 1999.

And then, in the next village of Singarayapalli, there is the woman who did not survive

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