More than 300,000 peasants have committed suicide in India between 1995 and 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Among the big five states with a high incidence of peasant suicides is Maharashtra, where over 50,000 of the total suicides are reported. Within the state, the eastern region of Vidarbha remains notorious for the continuing spell of tragic suicides, mostly by cotton growers.
As a growing number of peasant-farmers take their own lives, their widows and children grapple with life and an unending crisis in agriculture. Many of them farm alone; several of them are denied land rights by in-laws; many children have taken to farming at a tender age, when they should be in school. Farm suicide households suffer from hunger, destitution and a kind of social taboo.
Yet, some farm widows have rebuilt their lives resolutely braving all the odds. Among many such struggling women in a nondescript village of Yavatmal district, infamous as the suicide capital of the cotton belt, is Annapoorna Suroshe. Her husband, Rameshwar, ended his life on February 2, 2006, after suffering years of losses in farming and with unpaid debts.
Decade Decoder is an occasional election feature that seeks to bring out through a question-and-answer session whether lives have changed for the better or the worse in the past 10 years
Name: Annapoorna Rameshwar Suroshe, 43
Profession: Farming. She owns four acres. The land was
transferred in her name after the death of her husband in 2006
Education: Class VII
Family: Two sons, daughter and mother-in-law
Place: Nageshwadi village, Umarkhed tehsil, Yavatmal district, 280km from Nagpur, Maharashtra
Do you earn more or less, compared with 2004?
Relatively more, my elder son now works at a cloth retail shop. He gets a monthly salary of Rs 4,000 and I get a bit more wages than I did 10 years ago. In 2004, we could hardly earn Rs 10,000 from our farm annually. I’ve leased my four acres of farm for four years at Rs 10,000 per acre per year. That was to raise money for my daughter’s marriage. There’s no income from the farm until the lease ends
Do you save more or less, compared with 2004?
I can’t save anything. Our expenses have also increased. The government had given me Rs 1 lakh in compensation for my husband’s suicide, Rs 30,000 in cash and Rs 70,000 were deposited in a bank in my daughter’s name. We used that money for her wedding. That was the only saving we had
Do you still have unpaid debts?
Yes, about Rs 3 lakh. When my husband committed suicide in 2006, he had unpaid debts of Rs 1.5 lakh, mostly from private sources. I repaid all that slowly. I had to borrow money for my daughter’s wedding. (Families in this part pay up to Rs 2 lakh in cash in dowry and at least Rs 1 lakh in gold ornaments. That is in addition to the wedding costs)
What things does your house now have that it did not in 2004?
We have electricity now, a fan and bulbs. We used to live in a hut made of mud and had no electricity. We built this house (a two-room brick structure) with help from generous donors who supported us financially after the death of my husband; I also put some money from my earnings. (She still cooks on a chulha, with firewood collected from the farm; the village has more brick homes than it did 10 years ago; it has also got a few more tractor-trolleys and two-wheelers than it had in 2004)
How did you travel then, how do you travel now?
(Looks at her son and smiles) I hardly travel. But when I go to visit my daughter in the neighbouring town, I take a bus or a shared auto that stops at our village
Which cities have you seen so far?
Haven’t travelled beyond Yavatmal town (smiles embarrassingly); it’s been really a long, long time since I have gone outside my village. I’ve only heard about cities like Nagpur and Mumbai
What’s your entertainment?
Kahich nahi (Nothing really); gappa marachya bayanshi (gossip with women). I am at work mostly. Get no time to do any other thing
Do you own a bicycle or a cart, or any cows or bullocks?
No, where will we get the money from? Mangesh (son) wants to buy a bicycle this year. We had a cow but sold it last year. My mother-in-law was unwell. I needed the money to pay for treatment
Do you have a ration card?
Yes, we have a ration card. We get 30kg a month, wheat and rice and sometimes a few kilos of sugar. We get that for Rs 100 a month. I am able to save a lot of money on food items, but oil, dal (pulses) and vegetables are unaffordable. We require Rs 4,000 worth of groceries every month. Mangesh’s salary goes into buying that. My wages pay other bills
Do you celebrate any festival?
We celebrate, but very, very modestly. Cook some sweets at home, like Puran Poli (a Maharashtrian delicacy). First few years after my husband’s death, I had virtually no money or enthusiasm to celebrate anything. My children were too young. The biggest celebration in our house was the wedding of Archana (daughter)
Has MGNREGA (the job scheme) made any difference to your life?
No. I’ve never got any work. (Maharashtra is among the poorest performers under MGNREGA; the Vidarbha region is even worse within the state)
Did your children go to school?
All three dropped out of school very early. I wanted them to study. We have a primary and middle school. A private school has recently opened. All schools have good pucca buildings and full-time teachers. Many children of the village go to school regularly these days. But these three did not want to study. (She looks at Mangesh, who turns his eyes away from her in embarrassment)
Is there any difference in the food you can afford now and what you could 10 years ago?
Our condition was very bad 10 years ago. But when I got married, we bought only salt from the market. Clothes, too. Vegetables were cheap, mostly from our own farm. We can afford to eat relatively well today. No one stays hungry today. We still can’t buy fruits; we don’t still buy milk every day
Have you got an Aadhaar card?
Yes. It hasn’t been of much help so far
Do you encounter more corruption or less in your daily life?
No, I don’t. (Mangesh chips in: We hardly ever go to the government office for anything; the only time we go to a tehsil office is when we require farmland documents. The process has become easier)
Did you get anything from a special package meant for the farmers’ widows?
I heard the government gave a package to farm widows but I did not get anything. I did not demand. I got Rs 1 lakh in compensation in 2006 after my husband’s suicide
What was the last movie you have seen and when?
I’ve never been to any theatre; very rarely do I get to watch even TV. My children sometimes go to their friends’ home to watch TV. A few people in our village have TV
Do you have a cellphone?
I don’t have one but my son has. (Mangesh has a basic Nokia cellphone without camera or FM radio; he bought it about two years ago)
What do you do with the cellphone?
Mangesh: I use it only for making calls. I want to buy a new phone that has a camera and a radio
Do you run out of money to buy food towards the end of the month?
No. But we can’t buy anything else. And with unpaid debts, money crunch is always a pain
Do you have more or less pairs of clothes compared with 2004?
I hardly buy a new sari. Mangesh buys new clothes for himself and his brother. You tell him that he should also look after my needs (smiles)
Describe the biggest changes in your life since 2004
It was very difficult to cope with my husband’s suicide. There was no one to support initially. My kids were very young. To raise them was a challenge; I worked hard on my farm and at others’. There were days when I could not feed my children properly. But what could I have done? I am relieved now; my daughter is married into a good home. Her husband takes good care of her
What is your biggest achievement in the past 10 years?
Jasabi karta ala, bhagavla (however I could, I managed); poranna jagavla (I raised my children); ektya bai la jagna, avghad (life for a single woman isn’t easy)
Are you happier or sadder now? Why?
Happier; children are on their own and bad time is gone
What is your biggest regret in the past 10 years?
(After a pause) Hyanni, asa mala sodun jayayla nako hota (My husband should not have left me alone, like this.)