As debt grows, more Indian women farmers taking their lives
By Kunal Purohit
Published: 5 Nov, 2019
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On January 7 last year, Rekha Kadu [in picture] set herself ablaze and died from the burns [Kunal Rajnikant Purohit/Al Jazeera]
Amravati, India - More female farmers are committing suicide in the western Indian state of Maharashtra where a decades-long agrarian crisis has reportedly driven more than 30,000 farmers to end their lives.
Al Jazeera managed to access government data collated by local authorities that shows that in the Amravati district alone, since 2018, 22 female farmers have ended their lives, with an average of one suicide a month.
But, experts and advocacy activists in the field believe the situation is far worse and the Indian government's policies to withhold data about it might only be complicating the situation.
At the state level, across the other 35 districts of Maharashtra, authorities told Al Jazeera that there was no gender-segregated data available. The western state saw the number of farmers' suicides doubled to 11,995 in the last four years, according to a government figure revealed in a Right to Information query.
Federally, the Indian government, till 2015, used to publish annual statistics of farmer suicides in the country. But, for the last four years, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has blocked its release and publicly said that it does not maintain this data any more.
"...Women commit suicide only when they have exhausted every option available, in absolute despair."
DR SWATI SONUNE, A PSYCHIATRIST
As a result, experts believe the actual number of female farmer suicides is increasing as a result of women being pushed into the agrarian distress that engulfs the region. This is driven by various reasons - from being forced to take on the mantle of a breadwinner without adequate government support to heavy farm debts incurred due to losses.
In the case of Rekha Kadu, from Amravati's Kawtha Kadu village, the reasons were a mix of all these.
In 2013, Kadu borrowed approximately $2,200 to irrigate her farm. Starting that year, the region saw severe droughts almost every year.
"Each year, we would invest around $1,500 to sow crops, but we would earn only half that cost back," explained her son, Ashish.
At the family home, Shilpa Mamankar's in-laws stand in the kitchen where Mamankar cooked them a meal just hours before she took her own life [Kunal Rajnikant Purohit/Al Jazeera]
The debt was piling up and so were familial responsibilities - she had two children, the oldest being 36, who were yet to be married off - most families did not want their children marrying into her debt-laden home.
Last year, the debt reached over $7,000 and Kadu grew increasingly anxious.
"She had always been reticent. But, when the debt piled up, all she said kept saying was, 'How will we manage?'," recounted Ashish.
On January 7 last year, Kadu set herself ablaze and died from the burns.
Kadu's death represents a disturbing trend that is coming to light in this region - of women stepping in to stem the agrarian distress but ending up with heavy debt, enough to push many of them to take their own lives.
The extent of the problem not known
Advocacy experts believe that the actual number might be a lot higher.
Seema Kulkarni, the national facilitation member of Forum for Women Farmers' Rights (MAKAAM in Hindi), an organisation that works with different groups focused on the rights of female farmers across Maharashtra, said the lack of data was worsening the situation because the extent of the problem was not known.
But she said her organisation's groundwork points to an alarming trend. "Despite the lack of official data, we do suspect that the number of female farmer suicides has increased in the last two years," Kulkarni said.
Dr Swati Sonune, a psychiatrist in-charge of Prerana (meaning inspiration), Amravati's state-run mental health programme for distressed farmers, believes that the trend represents a grim turn. "This is a new trend that has taken shape.
"Suicides by male farmers are often under the influence of intoxicants and hence, impulsive. But women commit suicide only when they have exhausted every option available, in absolute despair."
Amravati lies at the epicentre of India's agrarian crisis, which has seen more than 180,000 farmers take their lives over the last two decades to break out of a vicious debt cycle caused by erratic weather conditions, rising farming costs and low remuneration for farm produce.
Last month, Maharashtra, ruled by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), went to the polls to elect a regional government but issues of agrarian distress were largely absent from the campaigning narrative, which was dominated by issues of nationalism and India's muscular attitude towards rival neighbour, Pakistan.
But the election results showed that voters seem to have registered their anger, with the ruling coalition losing seats in the Vidarbha region, which has been facing an agrarian crisis for decades.
Rise of microfinance institutions
A 2018 study by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development showed that 52.5 percent of all the agricultural households were indebted with an average debt of $1,470.
Banking rules do not allow farmers who have running loans to borrow more credit. Hence, indebted families in need of credit often push female farmers to take loans, pushing them deeper into the vicious debt cycle that is now so common across this western Indian region.
The rapid rise of microfinance institutions in India has made this possible. Data released earlier this year showed that India had 93 million microfinance accounts, most of whom were women in self-help groups, a rise of 22 percent from the previous year. Microfinance lending rates are much lesser than those quoted by private money lenders, who thrive in these areas.
The local head of government, Amravati's collector, Shailesh Nawal, said that they have contributed to indebtedness in the region. "Since microfinance loans are easily available, these loans are spent on non-productive usage, like domestic expenses or repayment of other loans. As a result, they don’t lead to income-generation and hence, don't help in the long run."
Kulkarni, from MAKAAM, agrees. "Microfinance institutions have been aggressively targeting women in the most vulnerable regions of the state and often encourage women to make multiple borrowings. What makes women even more vulnerable is that they have very little state support on healthcare, food security and pension."
More than the loan, how it is structured can be problematic for many, said Aarti Bais, of Swarajya Mitra, a grassroots organisation that works with widowed and single women in the region.
Members of the women in the self-help group stand as guarantors for loans issued by microcredit companies. So, when borrowers start defaulting on loans, companies ask these guarantors to pay up instead.
"These guarantors are also women from the same village. So, this acts as a pressure tactic on defaulters," said Bais. For many women, though, this tactic often ends up in humiliation and the indebtedness is turning out to be fatal in some cases.
"There are villages where every woman has loans against her name. The borrowing is pushing women deeper into the debt trap in a way that we might soon see more women killing themselves in the future than men," said Bais.
Things only got worse
One such tale unfolded about 40km (24 miles) from Kadu's village in Ajni, a remote village consisting mainly of the tribal Gond Gowari community.
When 19-year-old Shilpa Mamankar married local man Nilesh, she soon realised that the income from the family's four-acre farm barely met the 11-member family's needs. Mamankar decided to take a $5,500 loan from the bank to buy a pick-up truck that the family could rent out.
The truck helped make some money but the crops kept failing and losses piled up. Mamankar then took two more loans from microfinance companies.
"Even if they don't want to, sometimes women are forced to borrow loans by the family," her sister-in-law Alka says, gently, sitting on a pile of clothes along a wall of exposed brick.
The loans did not offer much relief; the family started defaulting on the truck loan and three months later, bank officials had confiscated the truck.
Things only got worse. "When the weather did not fail our crops, the government did by offering us such low prices that we barely recovered the costs," explained her father-in-law, Panjabrao.
In India, the government buys crops from farmers at a price called the minimum support price (MSP) when market prices slump.
The family could now no longer pay even the microfinance instalments. The companies started approaching the self-help groups for money. Mamankar, her family says, felt humiliated by this.
Amid these struggles, Mamankar started having mental health issues - her family does not know what but only remembers that she was on medication.
Mamankar's worries were compounded by the growing losses. "She would never be convinced when we told her that we would find a way out," says Alka.
On October 14 last year, Mamankar cooked the family's Sunday lunch, as she always did for her family that included her two daughters - aged nine and five.
The family bonded over lunch and then went on to enjoy a lazy Sunday siesta.
A couple of hours later, Panjabrao, wanting a cup of tea, called out for Mamankar. He received no response; his daughter-in-law was missing from home.
A few hours later, he found Mamankar floating in a well behind the house.
A year later, the family's struggles continue, with debt hanging over their head.