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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'Resowing Such a Horror'

"Resowing is such a horror these days," the young widow says and talks about the $25 cost of a small bag of seeds. "My husband had to take too much loan this year because our crops got washed away by rain twice. Earlier it was not like that."

She says the cost of supplies has risen to such an extent that they barely covered what they sell from their cotton harvest.

Unlike many widows, she at least has a sense of what she owes. Anil, who was farming three acres of land, owed about $300 to a cooperative bank and another $1,200 or so to private moneylenders.

More farm widows are like Rekha Gurnule, who doesn't know the scale of the debts her husband acquired before his death. "Earlier my husband would discuss every loan he was contemplating with me," she says. "But in the last five or six years things began to go bad."

She says the rising costs of seeds and the onset of droughts and floods drove her husband to make deals that he didn't talk about. "He started getting haphazard and unplanned loans to meet farming expenses. Around that time he stopped telling me where he was getting the money, how much he was borrowing."

Silence Sounds the Alarm

"Among us farmers, men do not believe in troubling their families with painful things," says Urkuda Bai Atram, an elderly suicide widow. "Men may discuss finances with their families in peace time, but when the pressure mounts they clam up. Then you know it is time to worry."

While women have the legal right to own property, the common practice among older widows is to simply hand over their land to their sons and become farm laborers.

Some, like Bhagiratha Bai, have divided the land among the sons, keeping one share for themselves.

Very young widows, especially those with no children, can be compelled to return to their parental homes. About 30 percent of all the widows in the Vidarbha region have lost their land, according to the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a group that has been collecting information on the region's suicides.

For the younger widows with small children, the problem of keeping their farms going is overwhelming.

"I will have to employ a gadi, won't I?" says Chandrakala, referring to a contract farm manager. "That will be expensive. I will have to pay a big sum to him every year, which will add to my expenses."

Aparna Pallavi is a freelance writer in India specializing in development issues.

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