Where Farmers Are Taking Lives, Women Refuse To Die


The large swathes of cotton farms in Central India have been the epicenter of a global crisis that has gripped the rural population in crippling debts and has driven thousands of them to suicide. But the great news is women in this region have creatively and doggedly used the power of hope to reemerge form the ruins. This new hope comes in the form of women collectives comprising    farm widows who are pooling their tenacity and   frugal resources   to rebuild their families and provide role models for others so that they overcome the despair and hopelessness that  comes in powerful periodical waves. it is not just that the farms are sick but the owners of these farms have lost grip of their minds and senses.

Haven’t we all seen story after story running the same script: the gaunt, grizzled faces of the cotton farmers of Vidarbha and those in Andhra Pradesh staring out of their marriage portraits, or ration card images, as the restless eye of the electronic age ranges over their grieving families and politicians swoop down with a consolatory dole as they become another statistic of rural despair? The most recent addition after the highly popular Pipli Live is a film evocatively titled Cotton for my Shroud two years ago, detailing the plight of Vidarbha farmers.

While handling microfinance operations in Maharashtra’s eastern belt of Vidarbha for several institutions, I could observe an excellent credit culture among poor women, several of them farm widows, who have bonded themselves in the form of small clusters or collectives of women that are known as self-help groups. These groups are locally known as bachat gats because their primary objective is promotion of savings. The sorority has enabled farm widows to light up the embers and repair their broken lives. If one lives in a compact, serried group, as bees and sheep do in winter, there are advantages; one can defend oneself better from the cold and from attacks.Together they create a critical mass and change the perception of what women can do. They tap the only thing village women are rich in: a deep sense of community.

I recall the horrific days of the agrarian crises in Yavatmal district in central India, where mass suicides by   Dozens of journalists from all over the world would drive into the dusty hinterlands almost on daily basis hunting desperately from new stories on suicides.  This was preceded by spectacular boom in growth of self help groups of women particularly in Yavatmal district which was the epicenter of suicides. These self help groups withstood the tempest   and their members demonstrated remarkable tenacity and fortitude to rebuild their financial lives and in the process built remarkable credit histories. Yavatmal district gave birth to highly refined and innovative microfinance model that won plaudits and accolades from the government.

Self help groups have   helped women reweave their lives; they are also galvanising the moribund rural economy.  It needs great emotional intensity to break through age old barriers. This can possible only through groups who share the same emotional values and are driven by   strong impulses of mutual goals.  .  These community groups have also produced social capital in the form of various catalysts for change in different spheres. Best practitioners in communities become community professionals (CPs) for mobilization, leadership, financial management, agriculture, livestock health, literacy, and more.

Farmers borrow loans from moneylenders at insane rates of interest. The peasants hope for a better yield in times to come, but this never happens, and they find themselves in a debt trap. Unable to pay the interest, let alone the principal, they borrow more get onto a treadmill   recklessly driven by the cruel money-lenders, who are no better than sharks. Shylock demanded only a pound of flesh. But the moneylenders bay for blood.  Crushing debts are pushing farmers into the darkest of pits.

There is a story that has now become a farmland fable. A man ploughing the field was so distressed that at first he sold his kidney to an organ mafia — which included doctors and hospitals and which sold the organ to a desperate patient for an insane amount. When the farmer found that the price of his kidney could take him only this far, he had no choice but to tie a noose around his neck.

Within the self-perpetuating cycle of debt which offers little apparent escape, wrapping a noose around the neck are all-too-friendly exits for men. While their deaths might bring personal escape, these men leave behind crippling emotional, financial and physical burdens, inherited by those left to farm the dust: the women who did not die.

In Pandharkawda you can find women who have summoned the last ounce of their    innate strength to weather the storms of their   life.

If you want to see the credibility of poor women borrowers, you must visit villages in this belt where banks had to plough dud agricultural loans of farmers like a mountain of rotten potatoes. The farmlands which have claimed the lives of the men have been kind to womenfolk who have given up traditional high cost farming and have undertaken collective farming of safer stable crops. My experiences during the last few years in Yavatmal given me great hopes of a rebound in the suicide trap.

In Sakhra, deep into the forest belt infested by tigers and other wildlife in Pandharkavda taluqa, lies an island of incredible honesty. Sakhra is a unique example of totally illiterate backward women ensuring the rights they have been guaranteed by the law by virtue of their being forest tribals and also the protection under the laws for displaced people. Sakhra is a resettlement village in which villagers uprooted by a development project have been rehabilitated. Seventy households led by Anusaya, lovingly called Amma, have fought their way on their own. They demonstrated before the local administration for days to get a barely motorable road constructed. Each family owns six acres of irrigated land, and at least a pair of bullocks, two cows and a few goats. Six enterprising young boys own premium brand motorcycle. These women are now star clients, who can make the best of financial intuitions blush. They make up one of the rare islands of honesty in a country where honesty has to be located under a microscope.

In women like Amma  could sense the determination the women have  to keep to hold themselves  together for their  children’s sake to put together their lives as   best as they  could. They have  used the  courage of womanhood  to reinvent themselves and    acquired skills that they  need to survive to stand in as both father and mother for  their children   when they would miss a father the most to take care of and support cantankerous aging in-laws who were often hostile to her and critical of them.

In the lives of these tenacious women I found the story not of a country’s doom but a story of a country’s will to survive.

This may not be a revolution but at the very least this is a revolution in the making.

Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and Islamic researcher .He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He was Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He has authored several books on religion, rural finance, culture and handicrafts. He is author of the bestselling book Village Diary of a Development Banker. He is also a recipient of UNESCO World Politics Essay Gold Medal and Rotary International’s Vocational Excellence Award. He is based in Nagpur and can be reached at [email protected]


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