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A Day in the Land of Farmer’s Suicides, Vidarbha: Photostory

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By Avnish Gaurav: 

It was around 2000-2001, almost every newspaper was inundated with  the news of an alarming increase in the number of suicides in Vidarbha. Statistics showed that every 2 hours 15 minutes, one farmer was taking his life. It was then that the very first thought of visiting this region came to my mind.

21st March 2012, just another Wednesday, I was at a Rajasthani restaurant with my friends, munching the delicacies from the Land of Forts, when the idea of visiting Vidarbha the coming weekend struck. I could not muster the courage to share the idea with any of my friends not even my parents, I still don’t know why. Thursday night, I did some research over internet, jotted down a few pieces of information and finally booked the ticket at 4 am (the train was at 10 am the same day). Slept for a couple of hours (almost missed the train) and embarked on a trip to a completely unknown place without knowing where to stay, how to meet the villagers and whom to ask for help (which I obviously needed). The stars were probably aligned in the right places, and things fell in the right places, and within time and my decade-long dream finally came true.

The trip in short:

  • How I reached:

Hyderabad; Sevagram; Yavatmal; Pandharkawada (my destination). There is a shorter route, Hyderabad; Adilabad; Pandharkawada (came to know later).

  • Minimum temperature experienced: 15 deg celsius at 5 in the morning.
  • Maximum temperature experienced: 44 deg celsius around 3 in the afternoon (it’s only March).
  • Number of villages covered: 6; All in Yavatmal district.
  • Number of suicides reported in Vidarbha: 16,700 (According to local people).
  • Latest incident reported: 22nd March 2012 (Amravati)
  • Latest incident reported in Yavatmal: 8 days back according to locals (I visited on 24th March 2012)

The lady above is the widow of Ramdas Ambarwar, the first farmer to commit suicide in Vidarbha way back in 1998. Her youngest daughter Manju is pursuing her Bachelor’s in Journalism. She has featured in a number of international documentaries, and had also accompanied Aparna Malikar to KBC (she was in the audience section). Manju can write in English, but is not comfortable in speaking. She has promised that she will talk to me in English within 3 months. Finally, villagers will have someone who can communicate their grievances to international agencies without any interpreter.

The cute boy on the left is Parth. He studies in class 4 and wants to become a doctor. He did not reply, though, when I asked “Why Doctor?” He was leaving for a medical check-up when I arrived. Parth was 4 months old when his father (top left corner) consumed pesticide and by the time he was taken to hospital, it was too late. I probably got the answer to my question ‘Why Doctor?’

Thinking about the TV and Sewing machine? They have been gifted by aid agencies. The old lady on the left is mother-in-law of Bharti Pradeep Sia Pawar (Bhartiji). She (the mother in law) will retire on the 31st of March 2012. Even after 28 years of service, she is not entitled to pension or even a gratuity amount. She is still fighting. She proudly tells me that she has strong eyesight and can read and write without glasses even at this age. Bhartiji’s husband was being troubled by local moneylenders, and finally consumed 500 ml of pesticide. It was very late by the time Bhartiji found him lying near the Neem tree just next to her house. She ekes out a living by sewing clothes. Her son lives with his maternal grandparents, as she herself cannot afford his upbringing.

The conditions of roads and the dried vegetation speak a lot for themselves. The BT Cotton is said to consume a lot of water. After a decade of growing this genetically-modified variant of cotton, the farms have almost become devoid of moisture, and there is no alternate method of irrigation in the area. This results in crop failure almost every year and hence, suicides. Most of the people, being illiterate, borrow money from local moneylenders (Mahajans, as they are called), so even the relief packages announced by government fail to have any tangible affect.

This how this family prepares food every day. The sole bread earner of this family was already in agricultural debt and he had to marry his daughter off. He had been trying to sell his ox for quite some time to get some money for the marriage, failing which he decided to end his life. The villagers finally married his daughter off (why the hell did they not do it before?). His mother was lying on the ground nearby, probably counting her days. I could not take her picture (please do not ask me why).

These kids still have a smile on their face. They are probably too young to know what difference it makes to have a father in life. Call it a trend or anything, but the first thing that comes to a man’s mind in this area after being tortured mentally by moneylenders is the idea of ending one’s life. Their father committed suicide just 4 months ago. Her kaka (uncle) gifted her a frock. He loves her a lot. I still remember the smile on her face when she was saying this. The ill-fated lady (the kids’ mother) is still in a state of shock, and could hardly say anything.

You probably did not get it right. The one who looks younger is actually the elder brother. This is how the story goes. The elder brother fell sick about 6 years ago. The younger brother, who was already in debt, took another Rs. 30,000 for the medication but could not save his beloved brother’s life. Crops were failing almost every successive year and debt kept on mounting. One fine day, the younger brother decided to join his elder brother leaving the family to the mercy of the moneylender and fate’s cruel ways. The only male members left are their father, who can hardly move, and the younger brother’s son, who is too small to support the family. They are trying to apply for Old Age Pension Scheme, but are caught in red tapism. Will never forget the cool sherbet I was offered here.

The story is endless, literally endless. There were days when people used to return from a funeral, only to know that they have to go for yet another one. And this used to be an everyday story. There are many intriguing facts. There are places on earth more impoverished than Vidarbha, but why is suicide committed on such a large scale only in Vidarbha? Almost all the widows are in the age group 25-35. I came across an incident where the wife killed herself after her husband committed suicide. Many of my questions still remain unanswered. I cannot mention all of them here.

 

The above post was also published in the author’s personal blog, http://woutheyye.blogspot.in/.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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