| (From left) Samaganji’s daughter Sujata, son Ramesh, husband Sailu and son Narasimhlu in front of their house
Singarayapalli (Andhra Pradesh), June 7: Samaganji Balava got up quietly, tiptoed back inside, locked herself in the room, poured kerosene from a bottle and lit her sari with a torch.
It was the night of May 27, some time after 11. The family was sleeping in cots outside the hut. Ramesh, 23, her second of three sons, smelt the oil first, and then the smoke. He thought the house was on fire and shouted the alarm.
By the time they took her to Kamareddy Government Hospital, some 20 km away, Samaganji was in the throes of death. By first light of the 28th, she was dead. When the news reached the local district press, she was a statistic. Machareddy mandal’s 55th farmer suicide since May 17, 1999, and the only woman in the gory toll.
Andhra’s desperate farmers commit suicide and they are nearly all men.
But then Samaganji Balava, 45, was the man in the family.
Inside her stone-and-mud hut, the walls of the inner room are charred. All about the house there is a smell of kerosene. The kerosene with which she doused herself in Nizamabad’s Singarayapalli village.
“Not only farming men,” reported the Telugu daily Andhra Bhoomi “but also their wives have begun killing themselves. In Singarayapalli village Sailu’s wife Samaganji Balava poured kerosene on herself in the night after everyone in the family had gone to sleep. Husband Sailu told police that for four months they have had no work.
‘“She borrowed money to sink borewells but did not strike water. There has been no rain. How do we survive'’ her husband said in a statement to the police. ‘She killed herself because there was no way we could return the money she had borrowed.’ The police are investigating the case based on Sailu’s statement.”
Sailu is mentally deficient, an emaciated man who is immature, he cannot speak coherently. Nor does he have the psychological or physical resources to do any worthwhile work for the family.
But desperation can shake the mad into sanity. Sailu falls at the feet of anyone who will pass by the hut, pleading for help. He is ignored as he always has been. His children keep a hold on him as his wife did when she was alive.
Samaganji and Sailu have three sons — Narasimhlu, 25, Ramesh, 23 and Suresh, 20, and a daughter, Sujata, 18. Samaganji was the one with spine. For as long as she could, saddled with a husband like Sailu and four children, she worked on their one acre of dryland to grow maize. Monsoons have failed year after year in Telangana and there is no irrigation. Till three years ago, she still managed to keep the family going.
Then she decided she must sink a borewell.
“Behind every farmer suicide is a borewell story,” says Kodanda Rama Reddy, academic and human rights activist in Hyderabad.
Groundwater is practically non-existent in these parts. So farmers have to dig deep. The deeper they dig, the more money they sink, the more indebted they become. Then there are the electricity charges. The previous . Chandrababu Naidu government imposed “user charges”, as the World Bank had recommended. Lesser the water, deeper the digging, more the consumption of power. Indebtedness is a bottomless pit.
So Samaganji borrowed first to meet the cost of digging the borewell. When she finally gave up, it was to earn something — anything — as an agricultural labourer. When she found work in a neighbour’s field or in a neighbouring village, she was lucky.
She borrowed from several people. One of them is Padigela Lakshmana who lives in the same village. Padigela Lakshmana is now in Samaganji’s house, mourning with the family. She does not fit the definition of a usurious moneylender. She is poor herself and needs the money.
“Samaganji borrowed Rs 20,000 from me at an interest rate of Rs 2.50 per Rs 100 per month three years ago,” she says. Samaganji’s sons are listening and they nod in agreement. The money was taken ostensibly for eldest son Narasimhlu’s wedding.
“She also borrowed an additional Rs 10,000 from someone else for the wedding,” says Ramesh.
Narasimhlu works in a roadside eaterie in Kamareddy town on the National Highway from Hyderabad. “She also borrowed Rs 50,000 from my seth (eaterie owner),” adds Narasimhlu.
Some of the money was used to buy Suresh, the third son, an auto-rickshaw.
“But she rarely told us about all that she was doing. In fact, she had stopped eating for some time. I do not think she ate anything for three days before she died. That day (May 27) I asked her if she had eaten and she replied ‘Don’t worry son, I have, you go to sleep’.”
The family will still have to pay up. She has left behind one old black-and-white passport-sized photograph and a mountain of debt.
When Samaganji finally went into the hut and set herself ablaze, Ramesh says, she also sent some money up in smoke. He holds up a 10-rupee note that is half-burnt.