Marathwada’s drought: A surveyor of suicides tells the story behind the statistics and the lonely struggle of Indian farmers
Why are Marathwada’s farmers committing suicide? Is it crop failure, mounting debt or alcoholism? To find answers to these questions, Aurangabad-based organisation Swami Ramanand Tirth Sanshodhan Sansthan is doing a survey in Marathwada.
Latur: Why are Marathwada’s farmers committing suicide? Is it crop failure, mounting debt or alcoholism? To find answers to these questions, Aurangabad-based organisation Swami Ramanand Tirth Sanshodhan Sansthan is doing a survey in Marathwada. The aim is to document the socio-economic reasons that compelled farmers to end their lives and bring out the truth behind the shocking statistics. The survey, which started in March, is being conducted by 30 surveyors in the eight districts of Marathwada.
In the fourth week of March, Firstpost spent a day with farmer-activist Sudhakar Shinde, the lead surveyor in Latur. He will meet the families of every farmer in Latur district – 106 of them – who committed suicide in 2015 (more details about the survey at the end).
This is his story, in his own words.
“My name is Sudhakar Shinde and I am 53 years old. I am a farmer myself and an activist with the All India Kisan Sabha. We have had a drought for the last three years, which has taken a toll on agriculture. I used to think that Marathwada farmers will not commit suicide because they are tough. How wrong was I? In December, we started a movement to raise awareness about the issue. We visited villages and talked to people about suicide, drought and agriculture. We told them about what the government should be giving farmers during drought, about debt and how they could avail of state benefits.
We did this in order to file a PIL in the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court to direct the Maharashtra government to act as per the rules governing the declaration of drought, which is writing off farm loans, foregoing land revenue, giving Rs 50,000 per hectare towards crop losses and providing farmers a pension of at least Rs 5,000 per month. Farmers also work for the nation, they grow food. They should be eligible for pensions, just like government servants and soldiers.
The Ramanand Tirth Sansthan, a social organization based in Aurangabad, decided to do a survey on farmers’ suicides in Marathwada. I head the survey in Latur district. There were 106 cases in 2015 and I will visit each family. The objective is to build a comprehensive socio-economic profile.
I meet around 8-10 families everyday and administer a basic survey of four pages to them. The survey has questions pertaining to social and economic indicators: amount of land owned, debt owed, other sources of income, caste, occupation, number of family members, whether the house has a toilet etc. The survey takes about 15-20 minutes to fill and I spend 30-40 minutes talking to the family.
I agreed to do the survey because I want to try and find a solution to stop farmers’ suicides. So far I’ve found that most of the victims were small farmers (less than 5 acres of land) who had small loans (Rs 50,000-Rs 1,50,000) and were predominantly male. Further, they didn’t tell anyone about their intention before taking their lives. No one, neither family nor friends, had a clue. I used to talk to a person in my village and he gave no indication that he would become a statistic. Eight days later, he hung himself from a tree on his farm.
While I am on the survey, I try not to be emotional. I set aside empathy or compassion. I am here to do a professional survey, so that we can better understand the reasons prompting people to take their lives. Maybe that will help us understand how to prevent it. I talk to the family and try to cheer them up. My tone is jovial and I crack jokes, where appropriate.
But it’s tough being unemotional. Separating my feelings from my intellect is difficult. At times, I have had to take a break during an interview to step out because I felt my eyes moisten. I find it difficult to sleep some nights. Often, after going on survey rounds for two days, I take a break to regain my composure. At such times, I have existential doubts: What am I doing? Why am I doing it? What is the point of all this?
I still haven’t understood at what point a person decides to take the extreme step. Psychiatrists claim that they can decipher a person’s state of mind, but I am sceptical. Indian society's image of farmers is not good, certainly not the image that soldiers, engineers and doctors enjoy in the general perception. The common view is that a farmer is a poor person, of not much productive use to society and prone to vices like drinking and wife beating.
I think this is a reason why farmers don’t share their state of mind with anybody. They are afraid of being judged. This also means that they will not share suicidal thoughts with anybody. And that’s why no one knows who will be next. It could be your best friend, or someone in your family.
Further, a farmer is a person with a sense of self-respect. Social occasions, family obligations and caste and religious occasions have to be observed, even if there is no money. The farmer will borrow money because he dare not risk scorn. Then there is expenditure on health, education and day-to-day needs. In an environment where agricultural yields have collapsed, there is no option but to borrow money. I am trying to understand the social psyche of people with financial liabilities through the survey.”
What is the survey about?
Bhau Shinde, an Aurangabad-based member of the Sansthan who is coordinating the survey, said that farmer suicides are treated with extreme callousness and disregard. There are some who say alcohol addiction and lavish weddings are the reasons that push farmers to borrow. An inability to repay this “vice money” is the reason for suicides. Others reject this explanation vehemently. The purpose of the survey is to shed light on the reasons behind farmer suicides.
“Either way, the truth needs to come out. If alcohol and weddings are the reasons, let that become clear,” Shinde said in an interview.
With inputs from Neerad Pandaripande
This is the sixth segment of a 13-part series on Marathwada’s drought.
Part 7: Social and medical interventions on the rise in Marathwada to provide a healing touch and stop farmer suicides
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
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