Farmer suicides: Spare a thought for the tragic lives of women left behind | columns | Hindustan Times
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Farmer suicides: Spare a thought for the tragic lives of women left behind

How little we hear of the women left behind when farmers commit suicide. Perhaps it’s time to put in place a policy to help widows navigate the aftermath, both socially and economically.

columns Updated: Jun 17, 2017 23:10 IST
Lalita Panicker
Dhonda Bai, widow of Shriram Pandu Pawar, a farmer who committed suicide, at Chaklamba village in Beed, in March 2016.
Dhonda Bai, widow of Shriram Pandu Pawar, a farmer who committed suicide, at Chaklamba village in Beed, in March 2016. (Arijit Sen/ Hindustan Times)

It would have been farcical if it had not been in the backdrop of such an appalling tragedy. The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh could think of nothing more constructive than a fast for peace to calm agitating farmers after the police killed six of them. Not once did he think of saying a word about the families of the dead men beyond an offer of money. No, he sought to make the most of the photo-ops by announcing a grand deprivation on his own part. But then this is par for the course. I won’t go into how many farmers have killed themselves this past decade. The number will have gone up before this goes to print.

But how little we hear about the women they leave behind, and how they do or do not patch together their shattered lives. In the first place, becoming a widow comes with huge psychological baggage and an immediate lowering of social status. Now that she has lost her husband and source of income, her value is diminished. She is also seen as having brought bad luck when it is the government’s negligence and apathy that has caused the suicide.

The debt the dead man leaves behind goes to the woman who has no means of income and no skills to earn one. She or her relatives have to prove that the death was indeed due to debt. If she does succeed then she may or may not get the Rs 1 lakh compensation, though when the cases get press attention the amount goes up. But then again, she has to prove that there are no other claimants to the land that her husband left behind.

If she is fortunate enough to get the money, she then has to deal with hostile in-laws and money lenders and the vicious cycle of pain and suffering goes on for her. And we are not even looking at how she will provide for her children. The much-touted loan waiver only applies to those given by the government, but the woman may still have to face the local loan shark.

The government ought to be looking at schemes to enable these widows to stand on their own feet. Farming is not an option and maybe not desirable in a place where she is vulnerable to predatory relatives and money lenders. The plight of these widows is mentioned in the national policy for women but much of its remains on paper. I wonder, has anyone of any significance from the government, gone and asked even 100 widows what it can do for them. Giving them a paltry amount of money is simply not the answer. Could it not, for example, use the vast battery of lawyers at its disposal to ensure that the deeds of the land left behind are registered in their names.

This would be much more useful that hotfooting it to the site of farmers’ agitations and announcing fasts. Give them a home, if possible, howsoever modest, and a fixed sum to educate their children. How hypocritical it is to come on national television, tears in your eyes and talk about the sacrifices of the doughty farmer who puts food on your table when you couldn’t be bothered to spare a thought for the widow and her children who have to live lives of deprivation.

Here and there, I hear positive news that some widows with the aid of NGOs have organised themselves into self-help groups. Suicides are so commonplace now that a policy to help widows of dead farmers has to be put in place. It can no longer be part of a larger programme or scheme because the needs of these women are specific.

Today, widows of farmers are also killing themselves, leaving behind orphaned children. But it would seem that the political utility of the symbol of the farmer ends with his death. The State feels no compulsion to look after his destitute family. This might have been prevented if the many steps to improve farm output, increase market access and prices and improve technology had been undertaken. But to sound utterly cruel, in the absence of all this, the deaths will continue. We cannot pretend otherwise. The government has to come up with a plan to deal with its tragic outcome on the women left behind.

@LalitaPanicker