When Babasaheb Mhaske hanged himself from the ceiling fan of his one-room thatched-roof hut in Gawalwadi village on June 29, rains had already begun to fail in Maharashtra’s Beed district. After two consecutive years of drought, burdened by a loan he had taken for his elder daughter’s wedding a year earlier and two bank loans for his four-acre farm, the portent of yet another year of scarce rainfall was too much for Mhaske to bear.
Around 130km away, in the adjoining district of Osmanabad, farmer Bhagwan Baburao Tambare hanged himself in similar circumstances on August 8. By then, it was dreadfully apparent that the monsoon had almost completely bypassed Osmanabad, and Tambhare’s two acres of cotton and soyabean were headed for ruin. He hanged himself from a tree after visiting his married daughter in the adjoining taluka of Vashi. His family, comprising six dependents – his wife, two young sons, another daughter and two aging parents – was informed of his death five days later.
Mhaske and Tambare are just two of the 294 farmers who have committed suicide this year in two districts – Beed and Osmanabad – which account for almost half of the 628 farmer suicides across Marathwada since January. Figures from the district collectorate show that 187 farmers have committed suicide in Beed while 107 have killed themselves in Osmanabad since the start of the year. That’s a nearly 50% rise in suicides in Osmanabad and a 23% increase in Beed from the whole of 2014.
Read | Marathwada drought triggers spate of farmer suicides
A farm labourer cuts Mosambi tree at a farm which is merely 9km away from Jayakwadi Dam at Paithan, the main water source in Marathwada region. (Santosh Harhare/ HT Photo)
Behind each of these grim numbers is a heart-rending tale of a family that has fallen into destitution, almost untouched by any government scheme. The state’s compensation to ‘eligible’ families ripped apart by the suicide of primary earner is Rs 1 lakh. Even to be eligible for this partly sum, the family must own land and have a loan in the deceased’s name from a nationalised bank or a registered money lender. District administration officials admit that at least one in three families is denied compensation on grounds of eligibility. Even those that are eligible are unable to escape the cycle of debt with such a measly amount.
Tambhare’s wife Savita and younger daughter Geeta, who is in Class 10, will now inherit his Rs-1.38 lakh debt. With their farm failing them, Savita is making do as an agricultural labourer, but there’s little work available in their village of Andora.
Similarly, Mhaske’s loans, totaling Rs 1.77 lakh (from banks and informal sources), are now on the shoulders of his 17 year-old-son Neelesh, who recently got a first-class in his Class 12 exams. Neelesh has already started to work, helping his mother Rajshree by working as a daily-wage labourer whenever such work is available. His younger brother Tushar, who is in Class 10, is also unlikely to go to college.
“If I study further, who will take care of my family? We got compensation from the government but in another four months I’ll have a queue of people who my father owed money to standing at my door. It’s that debt – from loans he took from people he knew – that killed him,” said Neelesh. He would have liked to do a course at the local Industrial Training Institute, but that’s just one of the dreams he will have to give up. His mother Rajashree hopes to survive by doing odd jobs but admits that she may have no choice but to sell her four acres of land.
“They are still checking whether my husband’s suicide is eligible for government compensation. We have received some assistance from some organisations but I have no idea how I will care for my two younger sons and get my second daughter married now,” Savita told HT.
Read | Marathwada-like crisis is not new to India
Machchindra Jhingore, a farmer, carries a water tank on a bullock cart from this almost dried up Domri Lake in Beed District. (Santosh Harhare/ HT Photo)
The state government has now promised to pay fees for professional courses for children of farmers but so far it is not clear how or when this scheme will be rolled out. The much-promised Employment Guarantee Scheme has not yet reached full strength in either of these districts.
“How much can compensation help? These families, especially the widows, need jobs. Their children’s fees should be paid on a priority basis. For starters, the government needs to start the Employment Guarantee Scheme in a big way or introduce food-for-work schemes to ensure that such families get paid working on their own farms this year,’’ said Dr Dwarkadas Lohiya of Manavlok, an NGO that works with the rural poor in Beed.
Officials admit that farmer suicides have taken root in Marathwada over the past decade, and that there has been little help for their families. In both Beed and Osmanabad, efforts are now being made to identify vulnerable families and intervene with assistance before tragedy strikes.
In Beed, 1,058 families of farmers who committed suicide between 2005 and 2014 will now get direct assistance through several schemes, including priority for building farm ponds, irrigation wells, horticulture plants and more.
Read | Renewed hope: Rain hits Marathwada after month-long dry spell