Latur: Bhaurao Limbaji Raut, a farmer from Gangapur village in Latur district, was an unassuming man. The 39-year-old farmer had a family of 10 to support. Since income from agriculture was meagre, he had started a small side business of selling milk. He owned 1.5 acres of land. But, like with most farmers in Marathwada, three years of drought had taken a toll.
His father and brother were diagnosed with cancer, his niece was of marriageable age and the day-to-day expenses were increasing. He took loans to pay the bills, but was unable to repay them. He never told anyone about his financial worries: not family, nor friends. No one had a clue. Neither his body language nor speech betrayed to anyone in the close-knit village community the psychological impact of his financial liabilities.
On the morning of 14 October, 2015, Bhaurao walked to his farm before the crack of dawn, threw a noose around a branch and hung himself.
In a note that he left behind, he wrote: I am committing suicide, please don’t blame anyone for it. My debts have become too much for me to bear. I am going, please take care of my family.
Farmer-activist Sudhakar Shinde, who lives in the same village, got to know about the suicide shortly after dawn and rushed to the spot. But it was too late. “I never saw it coming. I talked to him every day, but never knew he was in so much trouble,” Shinde said in an interview with Firstpost in the fourth week of March in Latur.
Latur district has nearly 1,000 villages. In 2015, there were 106 farmer suicides spread across 100 villages. Most of the victims were male, small farmers (with less than 5 acres of land) who have taken small loans (Rs 50,000-Rs 1,50,000).
But that’s not all.
Mohini Bhise, was a 21-year-old woman from Bhisewagholi village. Her father was a commission agent for a local bank. Business was lean and commissions were drying up. Although he owned 1.5 acres of land, money was scarce. Mohini’s education was stopped after Class 12. Her elder sister was married and the parents were thinking of finding a match for her. Apart from the wedding expenses, there was also the dowry to think of.
Her parents started thinking of selling the land for Rs 8-9 lakh to pay for the wedding expenses of around Rs 5 lakh and buying a smaller parcel of land with the rest of the money. Mohini started blaming herself for the family’s plight. She had a younger sister and brother who had to be educated. The parents were arguing about whether to sell the land or not.
One morning in January 2016, Bhise fixed a rope to the ceiling of her home and hung herself.
In her suicide note, she wrote: Pappa, don’t drink. Pappa, I did this because of the dowry. I never thought I would take this step, but I saved the money you would have spent on my dowry. I am happy that I saved the money for the family. This dowry system should end. Why do they ask for dowry? After my death, don’t spend any money on rituals. You do these rituals for giving peace to souls. But my soul will be in peace if you don’t conduct any rituals. Take care of my younger siblings, take care of mother.
No one knew Mohini would take this drastic step, because she didn’t show any sign of distress. She felt the only way to save her family was by ending her life.
Marathwada has seen a rise in farmer suicides due to a combination of shrinking agricultural income and an inability to repay loans. Reported suicides in the eight districts comprising Marathwada jumped 570 per cent between 2012 and 2015, according to state government figures. There has been a corresponding rise in social and medical interventions to help farmers.
Sudhakar Shinde, who is conducting a survey on suicides in Latur district, revealed that not even close family members or friends are able to tell beforehand whether a person will take his or her life. The outwardly signs of mental turmoil or depression are so deeply concealed that people who interact with the eventual victims have no inkling of their state of mind.
“Not everyone who is depressed will commit suicide, and everyone who commits suicide is not necessarily depressed,” Shinde said in an interview in Latur. “No one knows what the line is when a person decides to take his own life, and no one knows when someone will cross that line.”
Shinde said it’s important to have a support structure in place, a network of people at the grassroots to talk to, who proactively reach out and talk about debt, depression and the importance of not taking one’s own life. But who to reach out to, if no one knows who the next person to take his life will be? Shinde and his team of ten visit each and every house and spend time talking to the family, friends and visitors.
Meanwhile, a pilot project in neighbouring Osmanabad district seeks to train “barefoot psychiatrists” to provide palliative medical treatment to people who are psychologically distressed. The project, which is a collaboration between two local NGOs, is training people in basic mental health concepts. They will in turn fan out in the villages, meet families and assess their distress levels on a “depression scale” that stretches from mild to severe. If a person is on the lower end of the scale they can be provided counselling by the barefoot psychiatrists. If assessed as “severe”, they will be referred to the nearest professional psychiatrist.
One of the NGOs, Society for Wellbeing Awareness and Rehabilitation (SWAR) has also started a helpline (1800 233 1434) for people who are depressed. In the last two and a half months, they have received 750 calls.
In Parbhani, Vasantrao Naik Marathwada Agricultural University attempts to provide assistance to farmers with its initiative ‘Umed’. University staff, along with local school children and volunteers, go to the worst-affected villages across Marathwada and counsel farmers about social-psychological issues like depression, water management and effective farming techniques.
Umed, which means hope in Marathi, aims to convince farmers that suicide is not the only option to escape misery. The spouses and relatives of farmers are advised to alert the university via a helpline if they sense suicidal tendencies. Over 10,000 farmers and their families have been counselled in almost 283 villages.
Not everyone is convinced. Kusumavati from Babalgaon village in Parbhani said, “These initiatives are like temporary painkillers. I lost my nephew to drought last year, despite being counselled. Counsellors don’t repay farmer’s debt. The farmer has to do it himself.”
With inputs from Shraddha Ghatge
This is the seventh segment of a 13-part series on Marathwada’s drought.
Part 8: Lack of legal framework governing water and irrigation prompts mismanagement
Read the previous parts of the series here:
Part 1: Region is parched, impoverished and desperate, but it's a crisis of its own making
Part 2: In the midst of severe economic downturn, private water sellers reap profits in Latur
Part 3: Drought has brought the economy down and is forcing farmers to leave the region
Part 4: Water scarcity has created a region where trust has eroded and left the social fabric frayed
Part 5: Maha has the most dams in the country, but the least effective irrigation network
Part 6: A surveyor of suicides tells the story behind the statistics and the lonely struggle of Indian farmers