When asked if something was troubling her husband, Rukmini Bhargande laments that their problems had become far too recurrent with every passing year, for her to notice anything amiss in the deplorable status quo. “There hasn’t been adequate rainfall in our village for the past 2-3 years, loan waivers seldom come through and we are always under debt,” she says as she wells up, reminiscing the night her husband committed suicide.
It was past midnight and Bhargande, her husband and their two children were fast asleep. Her husband woke up and unlatched the front door, the creaking sound waking her up. When she enquired where he was going, he replied that he was going to relieve himself out in the bushes. It would be six in the morning when she would venture out of the house and find him with a tightrope around his neck, hanging from the tall tamarind tree in front of their house. “I locked the front door from outside and stood there, crying but trying not to make a sound for that would wake up my children,” says Bhargande who removed the body from the tree, with the help of a neighbour, before her children would wake up.
Bhargande was one amongst several women who were present at Azad Maidan for a rally organised by the Mahila Kisaan Adhikaar Manch (MAKAAM). Their demands included an increment in the compensation amount of Rs 1 lakh ex gratia given by the state government, better pensions and an independent ration card for widows.
The rally which assumed the form of a condolence meeting saw participation by farm widows from the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions of Maharashtra. The regions are reeling under a renewed cycle of drought, which seems likely to be more severe than the one in 2015-16. A sense of despair laced the accounts being recounted by the women who were present at the rally, many of whom have been denied the compensation amount while others are seldom paid in full.
The government maintains that those who haven’t received the compensation amount of Rs 1 lakh ex gratia, don’t satisfy the criteria which have been laid down by the government. As per the criteria, farmers who have committed suicide must have land in their name, loans from an institution and crop failure, for their families to qualify for compensation.
Many of these widows don’t receive their pension because their farmland wasn’t registered in their husband’s name. “I was denied pension because our land was in the name of my mother-in-law who refused to register it in my name,” says Tanuja Praveen Patel from Lohara village in Osmanabad district, whose husband committed suicide five years ago. “I can’t till my land anymore, so I have to work as a labourer on a daily wage of Rs 200.”
In fact, as per a survey conducted by MAKAAM, the social boycott of farm widows by their in-laws remains a worrying trend. “After the demise of their husbands, the widows are often disowned by their in-laws. They often blame them for their husband committing suicide and refuse to transfer the land in their name,” says Preeti Suresh Guneshwar of Grameen Vikas Sanstha, an NGO which primarily works in the talukas of Kinwat and Mahul in the Nanded district, which lies in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, and was one amongst 19 NGO’s which conducted the survey on behalf of MAKAAM.
The findings of the survey highlight the plight of these farm widows. Of all the respondents, only 34% got a regular pension. While 33% hadn’t submitted applications for the widow pension scheme, 26 percent had submitted the form but their application wasn’t approved. That a similar protest by farmers, on a much larger scale, took place in the city last year, would evidence to most, that the State Government has yet to come good on the promises it made then. The farm widows present at the rally held at Azad Maidan are in many ways, the ignored by-products of the persistent agrarian distress in Maharashtra.
“The media has glossed over the agrarian distress in Maharashtra. Even when they do talk it about, the coverage is limited to the statistics of farmer suicides. What about their spouses who are left to pick up the pieces?” asks Seema Kulkarni of MAKAAM. “It is indeed a shame how our system persecutes women who are trying to make ends meet. The government must facilitate these women in the process of getting the land transferred in their name and getting independent ration cards.”
In the midst of a crisis, which has assumed a gargantuan proportion, owing to years of neglect by the authorities, the sentiment which is echoed by the farm widows present at the rally is not one of seeking mercy but empowerment. Hence, official recognition as women farmers has been listed as one of the demands. “I continue to till the land my husband used to work on but I still don’t have a ration card,” says Vijayshree Prashantbhagat whose husband committed suicide two years ago. Prashantbhagat has had it tough since her husband’s demise. It was only after she paid a sum of Rs 2500 to an ‘agent’ that she was able to get ownership of her land. However, the income from agriculture remains dismal owing to the drought. Further, she lacks an independent ration card which means that her monthly expenses are inflated, putting a strain on her finances.
“It is when the government recognises these widows as farmers that we’ll start arriving at a consensus as to what should constitute an adequate redressal mechanism,” says Nikita Osawar of the Grameen Vikas Sanstha. “That recognition will pave the way for access to facilities which might go a long way in helping these women become self-sustaining agriculturists.” The other demands which were stated at the rally included free education for the children of these farm widows, a monthly pension of Rs 2000 which will bring the state at par with states like Goa and Karnataka. Also, free health care for their families, an increase in the compensation amount, from Rs 1 lakh to 5 lakh, bringing it at par with states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat among others, an independent ration card to be issued to these farm widows and better irrigation facilities.
At closer perusal, the demands are reflective of how Maharashtra, despite being the state with the highest GDP in India – which according to figures is around Rs 28 lakh crores – abstains from bringing about a corresponding increase in its expenditure on social sector schemes. Only 48% of the allocated funds for social sector schemes are actually spent, while only 11% of the GDP is taxed. Tax-GDP ratio needs to be increased to around 20-25%, which can be achieved by levying a higher tax on goods like alcohol. This needs to be done, taking cognizance of the entrenched rural-urban divide.
Hence, urban areas where the per capita income is much higher than that in rural areas, need to be taxed more. Further, better irrigation facilities would go a long way in mitigating these man-made droughts which are brought on by an excess reliance on adequate rainfall for crop production.
For many of these widowed farmers, who are faced with the responsibility of educating their children, and paying off their husbands’ debt, the circumstances have thrust them into a male-dominated workforce where harassment is rampant and goes unchecked. Their hostile work environment has compelled them to keep their toe rings – called Jodhwi in Marathi – which are a symbol of a woman’s married state, and still wear Sindoor. “It’s a means to convey that there’s a man who’s looking out for us,” says Bhargande. “It makes me feel safe somehow, that I’ll be okay and reach home safe.”