: Mahbubnagar, Medak, Nalgonda and Anantapur (ANDHRA PRADESH), AUG. 1. The creditors arrived the moment we did. They did not describe themselves that way, but hovered around Bhagawantamma. Even trying to answer some of the questions we asked her. Maybe we were Government officials giving her some money. If so, they would take it from her the moment we left. Her husband, Tanki Balappa, committed suicide just days ago. At least a couple of the men present had lent him money. They are also amongst the bigger landowners here in Rakonda village, Mahbubnagar.

Balappa's crops had failed ? on the one-and-a-half acres he owned and on the three he had taken on lease. Bhagawantamma is not clear on how much he had borrowed, as he never consulted her. It could be around Rs. 85,000 or upwards of Rs. 1 lakh. Now she has to look after two sons and a daughter while running the farm. And cope with the creditors. Including some who might have no proof that her husband owed them anything.

Suicides amongst their own numbers are not the only way women farmers are hit by the ongoing crisis. Suicides by their husbands leave many in a predatory world. There is a high risk of losing the family's land. And of facing extreme pressure, including sexual harassment, from creditors and others.

Creditors swoop in

Claims by moneylenders, real and fake, swiftly follow the husbands' suicide. This was evident in all six districts where we surveyed such households. In many cases, the widows had little or no idea of the extent of their husbands' debts. "That's men's business," as one villager told me sternly.

Right now, it is the woman's business whether she likes it or not, as Yadamma of G. Edavalli village, in Nalgonda district, is finding out. The widow of Korvi Salaiah has just begun to gauge the scale of her husband's borrowings. Each day brings a fresh demand. "He never told me anything about what he was doing," she said. There are many who will be telling her about it soon. And forcefully.

The field is also open for fraud in societies that go largely by trust and the spoken word. More so, when many widows feel responsible for their husbands' dues, even if never consulted by them. For Kamalamma, whose husband Pamul Reddy took his life this year in Mushampalli, Nalgonda, "the issue is not a legal one. It is my moral duty to clear my husband's debts."

Imambi in Rayalappadhodi, Anantapur, is one woman who does dispute a creditor's claims. It has not stopped him from grabbing five acres of her land, though. Imambi's husband, Razaksaab, committed suicide in March 2003. Local journalists say that the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, met and helped her when on a visit to Anantapur. But Imambi's 15 minutes of fame did not help get back the land.

There are other dangers too. Children becoming bonded labourers is one of them. All three sons of Lakshmamma in Munnanuru village, Mahbubnagar, are bonded. "What choice do we have? Just look at our condition," she says. Her husband, Pedda Bhimaiah, a farmer with just one acre, took his life in despair eight months ago.

Picture: A family where suicide struck twice. Gunnala Narayana, husband of Lakshmi (right), committed suicide last August. This June, less than a year later, her son, Gunnala Kumar, also took his own life. Lakshmi, with her daughter (centre) and daughter-in-law (left), is in dire straits. (Courtesy: The Hindu; picture by P.Sainath)

The fortunes of already indebted families sink faster after the suicide. And sometimes, that causes a second one. In Mirdhoddhi, Medak district, Gunnala Narayana took his life last August after yet another crop failure. This June, less than a year later, his son Kumar did the same, unable to face his creditors. Kumar's wife, mother and sister are in dire straits.

Assets diminish

Within months of the suicide, many widows and families are left with no assets whatsoever. And no prospect of acquiring any. Among those left behind by the suicide of Dhomala Srinivas in Suranpalli in Medak are his ailing mother, Lakshmi, his handicapped sister, Satyalakshmi and his father, Narasaiah, who suffers from paralysis. The family had sold all cattle and some land to keep afloat. Their debts and health expenditures mount in tandem.

Drought makes the unbearable impossible. More so, when male members of the household migrate in search of work. A rural woman could spend up to eight hours a day on just three chores: fetching water, firewood and fodder. That is, a third of her life. This is apart from cooking, washing and looking after the children. When drought strikes, she could be walking twice the `normal' distance in search of water. The hunt for fodder becomes more urgent as the condition of livestock begins to deteriorate. The absence of any support at home makes things worse.

In Jambuladhine, Anantapur, Lakshmi Devi has lost both husband and sanity. P. Nagireddy was a farmer and a marriage broker hit on both fronts. Crop failure ruined many like him. The crisis also put off countless weddings and thus ruined his marriage broker business as well. The delay in his own daughter's wedding crushed Nagireddy, who committed suicide in April last year. Sick with worry about her debts and her daughters, Lakshmi Devi went out of her mind.

Education, a casualty

The farm crisis has also wrecked the education of many girls. In Kurugunta in Anantapur, the bright younger daughter of G. Hanumantha Reddy has had to quit school. Her family cannot afford it. This district has seen some young girls committing suicide after being pulled out of school.

The world the `suicide widows' face is a daunting one. To run the farm, face the creditors, bring up the children and earn a living is not easy. Nor is having to pay off debts they did nothing to incur. Yet, some of them try. Like Parvati who, having studied till the 10th class, is one of the most educated young women in Chinna Mushtiuru, Anantapur.

Parvati counselled her husband, Duggala Mallappa, against despair. She pointed out to him that the whole village was in the same state of debt. And asked him not to give in to the pressures of moneylenders. He did. And Parvati tries today to run the farm while bringing up three young daughters aged 6, 4 and 10 months. The odds are stacked against her. But there is no trace of self-pity in her words. Just a calm determination to see that her girls get some education, like her. "Somehow," as she says, "we have to pull on." (Courtesy: The Hindu)