The half-sickle women of Maharashtra

When their farmer husbands take their own lives — up to 7,766 have from 2014 — wives become widows, but must still clear debts, bring up children, and live with many layers of stigma

Updated - March 25, 2023 01:00 pm IST

Published - March 24, 2023 01:32 am IST

Arthi Namdev Jadhav, 28, holds a framed photograph of her farmer husband who died by suicide, in Hingangaon village in Maharashtra’s Beed district.

Arthi Namdev Jadhav, 28, holds a framed photograph of her farmer husband who died by suicide, in Hingangaon village in Maharashtra’s Beed district. | Photo Credit: Abhinay Deshpande

Trigger warning: the following article contains references to suicide; please avoid reading if you are disturbed by the subject.

Last year, in May, when mangoes were at their most fragrant, Renuka’s husband took some home. He asked his wife, 30, whom he had married when she was 12 and he 15, to prepare his favourite treat in the evening: roti and aamras (sweet mango pulp). She didn’t know it would be his last meal.

That night, just a few metres away from their tribal hamlet, Hardala Tanda, in Majalgaon taluka in Maharashtra’s Beed district, Keshav Rathod took his life. “He had gone to meet his aunt who lives close by. Then he said he’ll visit the farm to check if the motor was turned off,” Ms. Renuka recalls. When he didn’t return, she went in search of him with their 13-year-old daughter. Her great regret is that her daughter has to live with the horror of seeing her father’s body.

Rathod’s is not an isolated story. Over the past two months, 22 farmers in Beed district have ended their lives when the burden of debt grew too heavy to bear. The district is in Marathwada, the State’s worst drought-affected region. “Our loans were adding up to nearly ₹5 lakh,” says Ms. Renuka, adding that he had taken these over five years to grow cotton and bajri (pearl millet) on their one-acre farmland. Ms. Renuka breaks down, thinking of her daughter and seven-year-old son, worrying about how she will repay the loan and fund daily life.

Watch | Why are farmers in Maharashtra taking their own lives?

As many as 1,023 farmers have ended their lives in the last seven months (between July 2022 and January 2023), as per State government data.

Debt and death traps

Beed district in the Marathwada region has infamously been touted as the suicide capital of the State. It has had drought for almost 10 years now, seeds drying up on parched land.

Small, marginal farmers dominate Indian agriculture, with 86% of the total holdings being less than two hectares, and 68.5% less than a hectare: classified as marginal, says Prem Chand, a senior scientist at ICAR-National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, New Delhi. The average size of a holding in the country is just 1.08 hectares and for an average marginal farmer, it is 0.38 hectares. The average outstanding loan amount per agricultural household is ₹74,000.

While 70% of farmers borrow from institutional sources such as scheduled commercial banks, regional rural banks, cooperative banks and societies, self-help groups (SHGs), and non-banking financial companies (NBFCs), many marginal farmers still rely on non-institutional sources for credit, mainly moneylenders, because they offer quick and easy loans.

Reetika Revathy Subramanian, a PhD candidate and Gates Cambridge scholar at the University of Cambridge studying the links between child marriage and drought in Marathwada, says the absence of collateral and documents means farmers are unable to access loans from banks. “Instead, they approach informal mechanisms, like sahukars (moneylenders). Here, they take very-high-interest loans, at 30-40%. The money is used to repay existing loans or fund family expenses, which often do not offer immediate earnings,” she says, adding that repeated droughts and agricultural failures make it impossible for them to repay in time. They are caught in a cycle of debt and distress.

But it wasn’t just that their own crop failed. Every year, lakhs of villagers from Beed migrate to the western region of the State or neighbouring Karnataka to cut sugarcane.

“Last year our mukadam (contractor) paid only ₹40,000 after we worked for more than seven months. Here, there was no profitable produce,” says Ms. Renuka, crying.

Her problems have now compounded. In addition to repaying the loan, she has to pluck cotton for ₹200 a day to make ends meet. Her mukadam won’t employ her to cut sugarcane as she is a single woman, an ardha koyta or half a sickle. A couple is called a purna koyta (a sickle), and earns between ₹300 and ₹500 a day.

Arundhati Patil, coordinator at Marathwada Navnirmal Lokayat, an Ambajogai-based organisation working for the betterment of farmers, says that more than 50% of farmers who died by suicide are in the age group of 31-40 years, while 30% are between 20 and 30 years.

In Maharashtra, up to 1,660 farmers died by suicide from 2019 to June 2022, and 5,061 ended their lives between 2014 and 2019, as per State data. For the last five years, the State has had the most number of farmer suicides, followed by Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, according to the National Crime Records Bureau data.

Sakarbai Raghunath Padghan with her widowed daughter-in-law and two grandchildren at their residence in Pathrud, Dharashiv district.

Sakarbai Raghunath Padghan with her widowed daughter-in-law and two grandchildren at their residence in Pathrud, Dharashiv district. | Photo Credit: Abhinay Deshpande

Eroded by life’s challenges

While the eastern and southern sides of Beed have seen crop failure, farmers in the north of the district see overproduction of sugarcane and the subsequent crash in prices.

A dirt track through large cotton and sugarcane fields leads to 28-year-old Arthi Namdev Jadhav’s home, constructed with corrugated metal sheets — a 10x10 foot structure in Hingangaon village of Georai taluka in Beed. Sitting on the cement floor, Ms. Jadhav fondly recalls her 12 years of marriage. A minute later, she is crying inconsolably, cursing Namdev for leaving her and their two children, aged 10 and four, with a debt of about ₹3 lakh.

Last May, Namdev left for his sugarcane farm, called his cousin to tell him of his extreme step, and set the crop on fire. Then, he took his life. In Namdev’s case, there was no shortage of water or failing crop: Hingangaon is on the banks of the Godavari. The overproduction of sugarcane meant factories didn’t take the produce, not just from him but also from several other farmers. As prices crashed, and private moneylenders returned to ask for cash, Namdev grew desperate.

“No politician, government, administration or even nature is on the farmers’ side. They are left alone with mounting debts,” says Pooja More, State president (youth wing) of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, a regional political party. She believes that proper implementation of government policies (such as those giving crop loans), uninterrupted supply of power and water, proper roads, and minimum support price for all crops can abate farmer suicides not just in Maharashtra but across the country.

“These days the annadatha (food giver) is not even treated as a second-class citizen. No family wants to marry their daughter to farmers, and girls whose parents are farmers are not getting married as they can’t give dowry,” Ms. More says.

Ms. Subramanian says behind the debt are deeper problems of extractive or crony capitalism, government apathy, and resource inequity. “There’s a need for a multi-sectoral policy response, which looks at farmer suicides as a part of larger systemic problems,” she says. Unbridled sugarcane cultivation has fuelled bigger structural divides, as the crop is cultivated mainly by upper caste, rural elites. “This in turn has turned groundwater from a communal resource to an individual one,” she says.

The farmers have so little they take loans even for non-farm related necessities. Kajal, 23, still cannot speak about her 27-year-old husband, Vittal Raghunath Padghan’s death by suicide in Pathrud, Dharashiv district. The family had borrowed about ₹4 lakh for the medical treatment of his father, from both moneylenders and relatives. “The money was also used for our black gram crop, but it got submerged in water, and we were hardly left with anything to harvest,” says Sakarbai, Padghan’s mother.

She adds that moneylenders would call him every day. Four months before her son’s death, her husband died. Now, she works for ₹300 a day. “As my daughter-in-law is a widow and has no experience in farm work, no one wants to employ her. I’m forced to work every day to provide food for my grandchildren and their mother and repay the loans,” she says. Her grandchildren play in the neighbourhood for the entire day and come home to eat food and sleep. There’s no hope or thought of school.

The suicides reported are only of men, but this doesn’t mean women are not succumbing. The reason these are not reported is a two-pronged problem: “There is non-recognition of women as workers and landowners, which has led to the gross underestimation of women farmers who’ve died by suicide,” says Ms. Subramanian.

“Among many families I met in Beed, the reason for their untimely deaths was often noted as domestic violence or other social pressures; almost never were they recognised as farm suicides. This has long-term implications on the family, which is not able to access compensation from the State,” Ms. Subramanian says.

Renuka and her father-in-law, Bhima Pandu Rathod, with a photograph of Keshav Rathod, who died by suicide, at Hardala Tanda, in Majalgaon taluka in Maharashtra’s Beed district.

Renuka and her father-in-law, Bhima Pandu Rathod, with a photograph of Keshav Rathod, who died by suicide, at Hardala Tanda, in Majalgaon taluka in Maharashtra’s Beed district. | Photo Credit: Abhinay Deshpande

Dreams abandoned

Last year, Ganesh Asaram Sangle, now 20, was preparing to join the police force. Hailing from Devadi village in Wadwani taluka of Beed district, he started rigorous physical training to qualify for the fitness test.

Then his father, a farmer, killed himself. Today, Mr. Sangle carries a heavy plough rather than a lathi. “My dream has been shattered. Now I’m working day and night to make ends meet, to repay the loan,” he says, while looking at his widowed mother and 15-year-old brother. Their 3.5-acre farm and ₹4 lakh debt seem very small numbers to pay for with a life and the hopes of a young man shattered.

If you are in distress, please call Aasra: 022-27546669,or the Vandrevala Foundation: 18602662345/18002333330.

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