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Impact Of Peasant Suicides On Women

By Ranjana Padhi

13 October, 2009

The havoc caused by capitalist-intensive agriculture in a deeply traditional and feudal society is borne out in the daily lives of women, dalits, children, youth and the elderly. This study addresses the social implications of the agrarian crisis and shows how the economic and social realms are inextricably linked in the lived reality of peasant women. The picture of the grinning Punjabi farmer in calendars was mere propaganda of the Green Revolution as there’s depression, alienation and suicide written on many young faces today. In this article, I share some preliminary findings of a survey of women of 125 families across 10 districts of the Malwa region – the region most affected by the agrarian crisis in Punjab. This survey has been made possible with the active support and co-operation of BKU Ekta (Ugrahan), Punjab Kisan Union and BKU Ekta (Dakonda).

The findings will show the aftermath of farmer suicides triggered by indebtedness and other related reasons. Interviews have been held in 47 villages across the districts of Ferozepur, Muktsar, Bhatinda, Moga, Mansa, Sangrur, Patiala, Ludhiana, Barnala and Faridkot. Approximately 40% of the sample is of dalit landless agricultural labourers while the rest are largely small and marginal peasants. 80% of those who committed suicide are between age 21 and 50 – the most productive years in a person’s life. There are also 4 suicides of women; and a number of cases where double or even triple suicides have happened in a single day. The mode of suicide is consumption of pesticide in 70% case. Since agriculture is per se based on family labour with the household economy being an integral part of the agricultural economy, these interviews of mothers, wives and other female relatives reveals the total number of affected people to be 595 i.e., five times the number of suicides. Of this total, the percentage of dependents (below 18 and above 60) forms 55%.

The sheer burden of managing the needs and demands of fatherless families takes its toll on women in the form of depression and other health problems caused by the overwhelming psychological pressure of grinding poverty. And most importantly, women’s economic activities in tending to livestock, fodder collection, and doing all kinds of work within the house to make ends met are still not accorded the status of labour. Housework, childcare and nursing of the elderly become more arduous and uphill in the face of an agrarian crisis that has finally left women with all the traditional responsibilities in families without any semblance of protection.

The restriction on women’s mobility restricts almost all Jat Sikh women from taking on wage work. It is the Majhabi, Ramdasia and Ravidasia Sikh women who work on daily wages largely and seem proud of it too. A 65 year-old Jat Sikh woman who has nobody to look after her has defied caste norms and resorted to wage work by picking cowdung for Rs 450 per month. Seasonal labour like picking gaajar and muli or cotton picking fetches Rs 50-60 per day. Most get such work for a maximum of two to three months a year. The widow’s pension of Rs 250/- per month given by the Punjab government seems a mockery in today’s times and even this paltry amount does not reach many for months on end! Over 65% women are engaged in work pertaining to livestock and fodder collection. Household expenses are met by selling milk to local shops or collected by Nestle or Verka agents in some areas. They are able to make Rs 1000 to Rs 2000 per month. Even while in deep anxiety to make ends meet through any other work available like tailoring and weaving, 94% of the women are engaged in intense domestic labour and 54% in caring and nursing the elderly. It is women who are somehow running these fatherless families against all odds as the institutions of marriage and family seem unable to offer even the semblance of support it is traditionally meant to.

The devaluation of women in Punjab is most evident in its declining sex ratio. As per the 2001 census data, it is 876 females per 1,000 males while the national average is 933. The poor in Punjab are paying a heavy price in the form of dowry; many suicides are related either directly or indirectly to increased indebtedness because of dowry. Even families where suicides have taken place, the minimum expectation of dowry was Rs 2 lakhs among Jat Sikhs while amongst the landless it was over Rs 60,000. While 74% of families in the sample are in debt for agricultural or housebuilding purposes, these debts are often related to social practices like dowry or health care and surgeries. Of the 46% of families who have used loans for dowry and marriage, 89% are landless labourers and small and marginal farmers.

Of the 36% families who have used loan money for health reasons, 82% have resorted to private health care for surgeries involving stones in the gall bladder or kidney, accidents, hysterectomies, eye surgeries, hernia – what should be available in public hospitals as a basic right to any citizen. Incidences of stomach cancer -caused by the heavy presence of pesticides in the ground water and on cotton crops - and heart problems caused by intense mental stress involve huge expenses exceeding 1 or 2 lakhs at times. Most people resort to traveling to Bikaner for free cancer treatment by traveling in a local train, which is now popularly called Cancer Train.

While 14% women agreed they get some sort of support from their mother’s families or in-laws, a clear 86% said there’s no support from anywhere. Lack of sleep is faced by 47% women in the sample while anxiety with or without reason is experienced by 67%. Fear and nervousness accompanied by palpitations in the chest is experienced by 16% while 35% complained of fatigue and intense physical weakness.

The biggest concern of most women is the future of the children. Women are entering fresh loans to somehow provide a decent education to children while the even poorer families see a higher rate of school drop outs. A rigid caste structure characterized by an invincible pride of being landowning Jat Sikhs prevents many young people from stepping out of agriculture while the prospects of employment seem bleak because there has been little or no growth in the secondary and tertiary sectors in Punjab. A majority of the youth in villages visited suffer from drug addiction, helping themselves to dubious supplies of allopathic drugs. Young girls are seen a responsibility by mothers and brothers – whose marriage often entails sale of land or fresh debts even after a suicide has taken place in the family. For mothers who are barely in control of their own lives, a decent marriage of a daughter is the only aspiration. Internalizing and living the ramifications of patriarchal ideology thus leads to the reproduction of subordination in the next generation of women. At times of such economic crisis, the devaluation of women and women’s labour is further worsened as daring to dream beyond the existing reality becomes impossible when mass suicides are happening.

Ranjana Padhi is a feminist activist based in Delhi.
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