Finally, there was some rain to save the third sowing. And Sumitra Matte’s face bore signs of some relief. “It’s not been the best of the times for us,” she says, squatting on the floor of her dilapidated hut that stands on the land they encroached years ago.

Sumitra’s husband, Ganesh ended himself in this Bhambraja village of Yavatmal in early August, a week after his neighbour, also a farmer, had ended himself. Both the farmers consumed Endosulphan, a poisonous insecticide. The seemingly endless burden of debt and long spells of drought, the widows say, caught up with their men.

Vidarbha is the eastern region of Maharashtra, spanning 11 districts. Six western districts are known for cotton and the five eastern districts including Nagpur, for paddy. Nagpur is also famous for its orange production.
“My husband would never tell us about the borrowings, but we could see tension on his face. He would talk very little with us,” Sumitra says, with her eyes set on the floor. A number of women from the neighbourhood surround her. Ganesh’s suicide was in the news before the 2004 assembly election. It had drawn the attention of the BJP-Sena Opposition in Maharashtra. A bandwagon of the Shiv Sena and BJP leaders descended on this village to visit Sumitra soon after Ganesh ended his life. They promised to give her Rs 25,000 in aid, and help her two daughters and son get back to education. Sumitra hasn’t got anything till date. But that’s a different story. On the other hand, the Government of Maharashtra does not count Ganesh’s suicide as one out of distress.

Meanwhile, Sumitra’s problems have only just begun. Ganesh has left behind for her: two unmarried daughters, a young son, a dilapidated hut and loans. The Matte’s belong to the Maratha ‘Kunbi’ community, which means Sumitra is not eligible for a slew of government schemes that benefit the Dalits and tribals of the region. And being poor does not help her, since the saffron-coloured ration card that the family possesses means nothing. The food prices in the fair price shop here are compatible with the private shops. “That’s why I prefer to purchase the ration from a private shop, because it’s good in quality, cheap and the shop keeper gives us credit,” she adds.

Sumitra says she has no knowledge of bank transactions, no idea of loans that she has to repay to the ‘unknown’ lenders from whom Ganesh borrowed money. She has no other source of income apart from her three-acre land. After the death of her husband, she was helped by the neighbours to procure the seeds, and pesticides for the third sowing from a seed-dealer in the village. The bill was Rs 10,000. And she’s yet to repay that. But the total sum of capital and interest by the end of December had become Rs 12,500. The yield has not been good. And this family is now set to be doomed. She and her children have already begun working on other farms on daily wages of Rs 20 a day.

But why did Ganesh end his life? A landless labourer, he purchased three-acres of land about four years ago. And from the first agriculture season on his land, he could never recover from the loans. First he defaulted on the payment to the village credit cooperative society, then a cooperative bank, followed by private usurers. Coupled with that, he had borrowed huge sums for the marriage of his two elder daughters, Sumitra reveals.

In 2004, Ganesh borrowed money for sowing in May end. “It must be at an interest of Rs 25 per Rs 100 borrowed,” says Jaimala Gomase, the loquacious neighbour of Sumitra who’s been helping her run the show since the tragedy struck her. The first sowing failed; there were no rains till the first fortnight of June. He went in for the loans again, for the second sowing. That too failed. By that time the entire region looked headed for a drought. Several farmers from the surrounding villages and districts had begun taking the extreme steps. In this village, Ganesh saw his neighbour end his life by consuming pesticide.

By the first week of July, things had come to a boil. Two failed sowings and outstanding loans; there was no way he could have obtained money for the third sowing. There were still no signs of any rain, or government declaring any help to the farmers then. He had run out of his patience.

With the things having gone wrong on agriculture and financial fronts, Ganesh could no more bear the guilt of keeping the family starving. His daughters and son had to drop out of the school in 2004. And that proved the last straw. The “simple man” silently walked out of his hut that fateful day, went to the backyard and consumed the pesticide in the veil of darkness.

* * *

Around the same time, in a distant village of Jhatala in Ghatanji tehsil of Yavatmal, a Gond farmer of big land holding was also grappling with his finances. Babji Maruti Masram was in the midst of a crisis never seen before by the family that once owned vast stretches of agriculture land in and around the village. Babji himself was known to be a seasoned farmer, and was the Sarpanch of this village for a long time. He had relinquished the post only six months before his death. His father was known popularly as Maruti Mahajan, who owned about 100 acres of land even after much was procured by the government under the Land Ceiling Act. Babji was the key man in his family. He cultivated all his family’s land, including the share that went to his brother.

Babji was known for introducing high-yielding varieties of cotton and soyabean seeds in his farm and the use of latest and costlier pesticides. But he never built up his own water resources.


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Babji ended his life by jumping into the well. The government has not yet accepted that his was a suicide driven by agricultural distress. After all, how could a farmer of such a big land holding end his life? But Babji’s son, Arvind, insists the reason for his father ending himself is nothing but agriculture. “He was under huge debt,” he says. “Some of his lenders are from this very village,” he reveals.

In the early nineties, Babji decided to shift completely to the cash crops – cotton, followed by soyabean. The family cultivated cotton always, but not on the entire stretch of land. Babji’s father also cultivated jowar and pulses besides cotton in his time. “May be this complete shift from the food crops to the cash crops proved suicidal for him,” his old mother Zamrabai feels. “I used to tell him don’t invest huge money on hybrid seeds, pesticides, but he would not listen,” she cries. Amazingly, Zamrabai understands agro-economics better than most of the new generation farmers of this village do. And she makes no secret of the fact that it was Babji’s foolish run for the costlier inputs than threw the things awry. “In older days, we paid more attention to the pulses and food crops for household needs,” she tells me. Even in the worst years of drought, this family never faced any major problem, as it did in good years of monsoon in the recent times.

A gap between generations: Zamrabai, the grief-stricken mother of Babji Maruti Mesram, a farmer of Jhatala who ended his life following huge debts, sits with her grandson Arvind. Pic: Jaideep Hardikar.

Babji was known for introducing high-yielding varieties of cotton and soyabean seeds in his farm and the use of latest and costlier pesticides. But he never built up his own water resources. After the division of the land, he tilled the lands of his two brothers as well, but the farms remained – and still remain – parched. He never addressed the basic issue – water scarcity. So, much though he tried improving his land, it remained rain-fed. It still does. On the one hand he exhausted his finances on seeds, pesticides and chemicals, and on the other he slowly delineated himself from the traditional ways of farming. He had to purchase seeds every year, a shift from his father’s way of farming.

"Maruti Mahajan supplied seeds to the entire village once from the stocks that he saved from his own produce every year," informs Kisan Belabe, a villager and close friend of Babji. Thus while his father never spent on seeds or pesticides, Babji not only purchased seeds and pesticides every year, but also spent heavily on the inputs. The more the land, more were the inputs required. In the mid-nineties, when the state run Monopoly Cotton Procurement Scheme went into a mess, Babji’s financial problems soared. Cotton prices crashed around the same time. So with huge input costs and less produce prices, Babji plunged into huge losses. The losses only soared in the years to come because he stuck to the cash crops, and could never take up a second crop due to lack of water. The wages that Babji paid to the farm-labourers also added to the big input costs, Belabe says.

In 1997-1998, Babji had to borrow money, perhaps for the first time. That was also the year when the region faced its worst drought. The dwindling yield pushed him further, as his loans and interests added to his losses. In the last five years, his loans from the private usurers and interests on it compounded his problems. Babji had to sell his produce in open markets twice in distress, informs Belabe. That year – the 2001-2002 season – Babji piled up unprecedented losses.

In 2004, his sowing failed completely in June. He went for a re-sowing on the huge area of land that he cultivated. Which meant he needed to borrow money for seeds, again. He did, and sowed seeds a second time. But when the monsoon failed to smile on the region, the seeds failed to germinate once more. Babji needed to purchase seeds again, this time for the third sowing. The lenders played their part in fueling the situation. They demanded the reimbursement of previous loans. Since that day, Babji never recovered from the tension, his mother says. On July 8, when the things looked bleak on the agricultural front, he took the extreme step.

* * *

In Sonbuldi village near Pandharkawda, Devidas Lengure was perturbed when his sister Nirmala called on him in August 2004. His brother-in-law Atmaram Shende had been in distress a month ago. This time, it was Nirmala. Would the ‘Sahukar’ help once more in less than a month, he thought. He gave it a try, and got some money from the Sahukar for Nirmala.

Within 15 days of her husband committing suicide in village Pada in the crisis-ridden Yavatmal district, Nirmala had landed into the same trap that saw her distressed husband committing suicide. Two failed sowings and private borrowings that kept mounting with compound interest had driven a tense and broken Atmaram to end his life. The banks offered no loans to those who didn’t have an account. So bank aid for the Shendes was out of question. The owner of the village seed and fertilizer shop wouldn’t have helped for the second or third time; he had lent the seeds and chemicals to Atmaram on credit for the first two sowings. So he too was out of question. Nirmala desperately wanted money to perform the last rites of her husband, and then purchase the seeds for the third time.

Devidas knew of only one person who could help the bereaved family once again. He had no alternative but to get money from a private lender for his sister. The interest could have been a whopping 50% for three months. But that was the only option.

It was just the beginning of Nirmala’s multiple woes. She sold the bullocks and the cart, went in for fresh borrowings. The liabilities had soared to Rs 50,000 in all. She had become a victim of the agriculture crisis within a week of her husband’s death. “After the death of their husbands, the burden of debt from private moneylenders, the village cooperative societies and other sources is catching up with their widows now,” says Ritesh Parchake, a stringer with a vernacular newspaper in Pandharkawda.

Nirmala’s son Satish has, in the meantime, taken up a small job. He herds the goats of the villagers. He earns Re 1 per goat every day. “I’ve about 15 to look after, so I earn Rs 15 a day,” he says. “It’s too little, but still better. I could be of some help to my mother in repaying the debts of my father,” he says. He and his three sisters have dropped out of school. But at 13, Satish has matured fast. He knows he’s already a debtor by inheritance.

Next: Across Vidarbha, the suicide toll crossed 70 since the agriculture season began in June 2004. Hardikar reports on developments in the region's state managed agricultural history that may be at the root of the suicides. Click here.