The World

Farm Widows in India Fear Crop of Creditors

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

In the past three years, farmers in a central India region have committed suicide by the thousands following bad harvests. Now, their widows are left to grieve and worry about the arrival of moneylenders and debts they don't understand.

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Rekha Gurnule, left, and Chandrakala Meshram

NAGPUR, India (WOMENSENEWS)--A stuffed wildcat still hangs in the little verandah of Chadrakala Meshram's house.

Her late husband, who hanged himself on Oct. 2, 2006, killed and stuffed the animal himself for a local festival, she says, her eyes lighting up.

"He would perform at the festivals every year," she says. "He was a cheerful man. He loved to have fun; never one to brood or sit around sulking."

What could have made him commit suicide?

"I don't understand," says Chandrakala, her eyes clouding. "For the last three years the crops were bad. He looked very tired. He would not talk much. He stopped telling me where he got the money he was bringing into the house. Even today I don't know how much we owe, and to whom."

(First names are being used in the story to aid identification since many people live in tribal communities where a whole village or several villages may share the same clan name.)

Policy-makers, social activists and media commentators here have been grappling with an outbreak of more than 3,000 suicides in the past three years among male farmers of Vidarbha, a region in Maharashtra state.

But while onlookers wonder and debate how to stop the suicides, the steady pace continues with a new suicide tally beginning to build for 2007, a year that is only a couple of weeks old.

The crisis leaves women such as Chandrakala struggling to cope with serious financial uncertainties.

Second Growing Season

Kharif--the first crop after the monsoon season spanning from July to October--has mainly been harvested and the second crop is now coming along.

As many farm widows do what they can to keep up with these demands, they and their families are apprehensive about the debts their deceased relatives left behind. Many don't know the size of those debts or even who will come to collect or when.

"I will just accept what they say," says Chandrakala, referring to moneylenders. "The man is gone. How can I fight with anyone now?"

Chandrakala, who lives in a village in the region of Vidarbha--which has seen the largest number of farmers' suicides--says that her husband first borrowed about $300 from a cooperative bank, which typically charge annual interest rates of between 7 percent and 9 percent.

When repeated crop failures in the last four years made him unable to repay he started getting private loans from sources unknown to Chandrakala. She says she does not know either the amount of money he had borrowed, from whom or the rate of interest he negotiated. It is common for moneylenders in this region to charge around 10 percent a month or between 120 percent and 300 percent a year.

"Loans are nothing new to farmers," says elderly Bhagiratha Shende, another villager in the Yavatmal district of Vidarbha whose husband committed suicide several years ago. "We would take loans at the time of sowing and return them after crops as a matter of course. But the loans of today are not like those. They are jeevghenya (life takers)."

Bhagiratha's second son Anil Shende committed suicide in August. Vandana Shende, his 28-year-old widow, is also a farmer's daughter.

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