Bharatbai (in green saree), her mother, Prakash (wearing a cap) and a neighbour outside their hutment in Pethwadad village
The air is filled with the intoxicating aroma of mahua flowers being dried. Inside the two-room hutment, perched atop a small stony mound overseeing farmlands, are a few empty utensils, some old bags in a corner and several clothes strewn across the floor.
Chickens flutter about the courtyard under a thatched shade. Although the mercury is pushing beyond 43°C, most people are outdoors, tilling their farms for the kharif (summer) crop.
There’s no sign of electioneering anywhere in Pethwadad, a village 75km south of the Nanded district headquarters.
Prakash Paratwad, 21, is wearing a cap, perhaps to hide his recently tonsured head. His eyes are filled with tension and confusion. His mother Bharatbai is in her early 40s. Devastated by her husband’s suicide, she looks as if she’s 60.
Bharatbai can’t understand why Namdeo Mahadu Paratwad, 45, killed himself. Poverty? The family had been used to it all their lives. Weather? They had seen it go bad several times before.
There had been not a hint from Namdeo other than his constantly worried look. “But we used to be worried all the time all these years,” she says.
Three weeks after he hanged himself from a tree, Namdeo is now just a piece of statistics in Maharashtra’s farm suicide belts of Vidarbha and Marathwada.
The latest suicides such as Namdeo’s, prompted by the February-March hailstorms and rain that destroyed the standing winter crop, are still continuing. But they are not an “election issue” — perhaps they have become too endemic.
In Namdeo’s case, police in the nearest town, Kandhar, have registered a case of suicide driven by domestic quarrels, as one newspaper reported it. Bharatbai denies having fought with her husband.
It’s the tractor trolley parked behind the hut that holds the key to what went wrong for Namdeo, a five-acre farmer from the tribal community of Mahadev Koli whose crops of chana, jowar and wheat were ravaged by a rain of lemon-sized hails.
The losses on the fields amounted to Rs 50,000-60,000, the family says. It meant Namdeo would have had to skip the next six-monthly instalment of his repayment for the loan he had taken to buy the tractor.
It also meant he would have to pay two instalments together plus a penalty the next time. Perhaps Namdeo could have managed it if the tractor trolley had served its purpose.
Namdeo had bought it last October so Prakash could be self-employed, renting the vehicle out for transport and farm work rather than operate someone else’s machine. What he hadn’t realised was that there would hardly be any work going on in the neighbourhood, and that the vehicle would become a white elephant.
Namdeo had mortgaged his land and borrowed Rs 5.1 lakh from a private retail finance company after a down payment of Rs 1.4 lakh for the tractor.
The six-monthly instalments, over a 60-month tenure, were of Rs 75,995, which is more than what Namdeo earned from his farm in a year. He hoped the earnings from the tractor would make up the deficit.
In March, Namdeo skipped his first instalment. In September, he would have had to pay well over Rs 1.5 lakh.
Pethvadad’s main crop is cotton, grown in summer. Namdeo grew cotton and, once it was harvested, sowed wheat, chana and jowar in the winter.
There had been no question of growing winter crops for three to four years before 2013 because drought had dried up the village tank. But the monsoon was good last year, and the tank filled up after a long time. The summer crop too did well, the villagers say.
So Namdeo gambled with a winter crop, hoping it would help pay the loan instalments. Like the tractor, it too backfired.
Over 300,000 farmers have committed suicide in India between 1995 and 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Maharashtra accounts for over 50,000.
The recent hailstorms —there was a spell even this week — hit almost the whole of Maharashtra but most of the suicides happened on the debt-ridden farms of backward Marathwada and Vidarbha.
Conversations The Telegraph had with villagers in both these regions as well as northern Maharashtra over the past fortnight suggest that wherever the hailstorms hit, each affected household lost at least Rs 50,000.
The state government has announced a compensation package of over Rs 4,000 crore with central assistance, but it would take time for the money to reach the beneficiaries’ bank accounts.
Government officials estimate the compensation per family could at best be Rs 12,000-13,000 in Marathwada and Vidarbha.
Crops have been damaged across an estimated 15 lakh-odd hectares. The worst-hit are the growers of fruits such as oranges, grapes and bananas — considered cash crops here — because the production costs are higher.
“Apart from crop losses, there are also damages to property,” says Dhondiba Pawar, district president of peasants’ body Shetkari Sanghatna.
The farm suicides may not be a poll issue but the prolonged agricultural crisis is contributing to farmer anger against the state’s Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government.
Last month’s edition of the magazine Globalisation and Health carries an article linking farm suicides to a combination of three factors: cash-crop cultivation, marginal landholdings and indebtedness.
“The political economy of farmers’ suicides in India: indebted cash-crop farmers with marginal landholdings explain state-level variation in suicide rates” has been written by sociologists Jonathan Kennedy and Lawrence King.
They say that indebtedness makes marginal farmers extremely vulnerable to disruptions such as illness or crop failure from extreme weather or pests. Indebtedness is on the rise again in Maharashtra after a total loan waiver in 2008, and cash crop growers are highly susceptible to global price fluctuations.
“Namdeo could not have repaid his debt and he knew it,” says Datta Paratwad, a relative who lives a few huts away. “There was no other reason for him to take his life; he was a very decent man.”
Bharatbai dismisses the police’s “domestic quarrel” theory. “We never fought; I can swear on my children. You may ask anybody in the village.”
On April 3, a fortnight before Nanded voted on April 17, Namdeo told his wife he was going to the basti half a kilometre away, where most of the villagers lived. Next morning, he was found hanging at the end of his dhoti.
Prakash, catapulted as the household head, looks nervous. He has a younger brother who’s studying, a farm that is ravaged, and a loan he has no idea how to repay. What he doesn’t have is a house — “we never built one”, Bharatbai says.
“Will you vote?” this newspaper asks. “Yes,” says Bharatbai.
Namdeo would have, too, if he were alive. He never missed his vote, his wife says.
Nanded voted on April 17; voting in Marathwada ended on April 24