Widows of Vidarbha, Marathwada farmers discuss their inheritance of loss at Mumbai protest meet

Nilima’s husband committed suicide in 2015. The land he tilled belonged to his father and it was a battle to get his share transferred to her name. With no support from her in-laws, Nilima lives separately near her marital home and cannot even share the electricity. “I took a line for my house but they stopped me from using it and now I live in darkness,” she said.

Nilima and women like her have been able to articulate their problems in public after years of mobilising efforts by the Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM).

On 21 November, MAKAAM organised a symbolic agitation for these women at Azad Maidan, Mumbai. It was planned as a condolence meeting for women farmers, to narrate their tribulations after their husbands committed suicide; the meeting brought over 50 women from the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions to the city.

Among them was Archana, 22, who was pregnant with her second daughter when her husband killed himself in Brahmachi wadi in Osmanabad district in 2012. She works as a daily wage labourer to support her family and both her daughters are in school now. However, her husband’s suicide was not eligible for compensation of Rs 1 lakh ex gratia given by the state government. She had to repay a loan of Rs 50,000 and there was no help from either the government or her in-laws. “My main worry was how would I survive? What about my two little daughters? How would we manage?” she said, at the meeting.

 Widows of Vidarbha, Marathwada farmers discuss their inheritance of loss at Mumbai protest meet

Bereaved women farmers have been able to articulate their problems in public after years of mobilising efforts by the Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM). Image for representation only. REUTERS

She gets Rs 100 as daily wages but due to poor rains, there is little or no work and she didn’t plant anything on her land. There was a lot of opposition to the land being transferred in her name and it took six years for that to be done. “I have another house to live in, but I feel the government should give us our rights and what we are entitled to,” she said.

MAKAAM conducted a survey of 505 women in suicide-affected households in 11 districts of Vidarbha and Marathwada in Maharashtra over September and October 2018. The results indicated just how much needs to be done:

It was found that 33 percent of the women had not submitted applications for the widows' pension scheme, 26 per cent had submitted the forms but the pension was not approved, and only 34 percent of the women got regular pension. The results provided a startling account of how many of the women were denied their rightful entitlements including pensions. It was not easy for the women to get the husband’s land or transfer his share in their name. Of the women surveyed, 29 percent were unable to get the land transferred in their name while 43 percent couldn’t get the houses registered under their name.

Only 52 percent of the women had ration cards in their names. In terms of children’s education, of the 355 children enrolled in Class 1 to 12, only 43 (12 percent) were able to get fee concessions and only 88 (or 24 percent) received any help in the form of books, uniforms or stationery.

Some were not aware of the government’s health scheme, the Mahatma Phule Jevandayi Arogya Yojana, and some had to bribe officials to get the benefits. Even the Prerna mental health scheme, under which people in need of counselling are identified and can go to designated government hospitals for help, was not known to more than 15 percent of those surveyed. From 2015 onwards, 137 households had mental health patients but 83 didn’t go for treatment. About 23 patients went to government hospitals and many of them ended up paying for treatment.

Seema Kulkarni of MAKAAM says that there is a range of difficulties in getting recognition for women as farmers; the main hurdle remains whether or not the husband's suicide was eligible for compensation. Farmers who committed suicide had to have land in their name, loans from an institution, and crop failure — if their families had to qualify for compensation, Kulkarni points out. If there is deviation from this criteria, women aren't entitled to the Rs 1 lakh compensation.

Based on their survey, MAKAAM said that the criteria for eligibility for a farm suicide should be changed and the ex gratia should be increased by five times. The amount of pension for widows should be doubled, and remitted on time. Children must be given free education, and free healthcare made available in areas where farm suicides were rampant. Some of the women farmers demanded a health card that would entitle them to cashless and free services in public health care centers.

MAKAAM's other demands: Apart from facilitating easy registration of heirs, especially the wives of the farmers who have committed suicide, the women should also get assistance in employment and sustainable agriculture. And a Kisan Mitra (friend of the farmer) helpline should be started in all suicide-affected districts.

Maharashtra has the highest number of farm suicides in the country and since 2015, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has ceased updating this data on its website. Of the 3,21, 428 farm suicides recorded by NCRB from 1995 to 2015, 69,045 are from Maharashtra. Yet the government remains insensitive to improving conditions in these two regions where the suicides are taking place.

Earlier studies have shown that it is not only for crops but also health reasons, apart from weddings and festivals, that farmers take loans — often from money-lenders at very high rates. Credit is still hard to come by, and the government has done precious little to improve the infrastructure, either for rural banking or health in these regions. Existing welfare schemes are not reaching many people and their implementation is fraught with red tape.

Saraswati’s husband had borrowed Rs 4-5 lakhs for their daughter’s wedding. Unable to repay the loan later, he killed himself in 2016. Her two younger sons had to drop out of school and like others in her position, Saraswati had to resort to agricultural labour. Most of the women have little option but to find daily work, which is dwindling due to poor rains and the drought situation.

Manda said that even after her husband’s death she would be pestered by banks to repay his loan and they would cut Rs 600 every month from her ex gratia payment as loan repayment. Finally, when Manda met the chief minister along with a delegation of other women, and informed him of her situation, the "repayment" cuts stopped. “My courage has increased after that and I want to give some of my courage to other women in a similar predicament,” she said at the Mumbai meeting on Wednesday.

The women are plagued by thoughts of how they will educate their children, repay loans and survive with very little support from the state or the community. As part of MAKAAM, they seem to have gained some strength and the conviction that they can get their rights.

Updated Date: Nov 25, 2018 10:11:58 IST