‘Government should focus on agrarian crisis’
Vaishnavi Divakar Bhomle, 20, was in the ninth standard when her father, a farmer of cotton in the village of Ashta in Maharashtra’s Wardha district, committed suicide in 2014. He owed Rs 1 lakh to a finance company, a loan he was unable to pay back after the first five installments. He had further loans of Rs 92,000 to an agri-business centre, Rs 82,000 to the local bank, Rs 50,000 to money lenders, and Rs 50,000 to relatives. Not mentioning his growing burden to anyone in his family, he kept going to his field where one day he consumed poison. He walked back home at lunch time and died, leaving his wife, Savita, to care for Vaishnavi, a younger daughter and an older son.
Vaishnavi feared it was the end of her education. But it was her father’s dream that she become a doctor. She had won the best-student award in the seventh standard at her high school in Wardha. In the eighth, she had even won a study trip to Bangalore funded by a rotary club. Savita was determined to see the dream through. Vaishnavi’s uncle took her in for the tenth boards in which she scored 84%. Then they threw her out, asking her family to fend for itself. At the time Savita was working from 7am to 7pm on two acres of land yielding barely 4 quintals of cotton and an income of Rs 35,000-40,000 a year. Savita handed over the family moped to Vaishnavi and made her commute 15km from Ashta to her school every morning. Vaishnavi passed her 12th with 61%.
Unaware of how to apply for the common medical entrance exam, she missed the deadline and ended up pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Science (biology and zoology) at a college in Wardha, and rented the cheapest available room at Rs 1,500 a month. That has now gone up to Rs 2,000. Even though Vaishnavi shares the space with a classmate, she lives in constant fear of not being able to pay the rent. She plans to complete a PhD in Science and write the entrance test for the Maharashtra Public Service Commission as well as take the Thalathi Bharti exam for an administrative post in the zilla parishad. She finds it hard to negotiate the scholarship applications, however, without the access to a mobile phone on which to receive the OTP. She can’t even apply for an Aadhaar card for the same reason. “There are many like me who don’t have phones, what are we supposed to do?” she asks.
The scholarship forms can’t be submitted until payment is made through an ATM within the college or over the internet. She does not have access to either. To open an account that is eligible for an ATM card she needs a minimum of 1,000, but she can’t spare that much money. “I feel this is where the Modi government has complicated even the good things they have done,” she said, referring to the central government’s digital push in rural areas. The application fees add up, costing Rs 250 to Rs 500 in stamp duty. It leaves her constantly asking others for help. Some oblige, but occasionally people get annoyed with her neediness. To make matters worse, her state government scholarship endowment for Class 11 and 12 still hasn’t arrived.
Her encouragement comes from the teachers. Even though she joined college two and a half months late, she was among the students who passed all term exams at first attempt. She is also a poet and includes spontaneously composed Marathi poetry with every submitted essay.
Prayatna sodun man -- doosre kahi sure kare -- ashach ya dukhya kahi -- avadhe ayushya nighun zaye
Athaparyanth shiklelya ya shithhalalya Kay arthh paoon hoi-- rozgar namiloo denari -- kashi hi berozgaari tai? ... she writes.
My mind says I should stop trying -- and try something else -- in such sorrow -- my whole life will pass me by
Till now all that/ the balm that I have gained from what I have studied -- what meaning will it have then -- it won’t even allow us our daily wages -- what kind of unemployment is this, sister?
She would have liked to get a part-time job using her typing or computer skills, or worked at a store, but her hectic course schedule doesn’t allow for that. “Every moment counts. The exams I am attempting are all highly competitive. It’s all on me. It’s what my father died for; it’s what my mother lives for.”
She thinks about her father a lot. “When I’m happy I wish he was here to see it. When I am sad I think if he hadn’t done what he had, we could all have been happier. Either way his suicide is always with me,” she says.
Her mother is now a woman farmer, and she the daughter of a farmer who committed suicide. Political promises don’t match up to their lived realities. She was too young to understand what the Congress was like when it was in power at the time her father died, she says. But now that she has seen what the BJP is like, she would like to give the Congress a chance. “I like Rahul Gandhi and his mother. I feel like they try to understand farmers. I feel Narendra Modi spent his tenure going to foreign countries and establishing rapport there. If he had spent that time strengthening the farmers’ community, we would be much stronger now. We are a krishikshetra, the land of farmers. The government’s focus should be on us.”
Still, she does admit that some of the ruling government’s initiatives have improved lives in her village. Thanks to the Swachh Bharat campaign, families now have toilets. “Women sat in ghunghat inside homes and were fully exposed on the streets. I am thankful that has stopped because of this,” she says. The gas cylinder scheme has allowed her family to own a cylinder but they only use it when there is money to spare. Her mother still relies on the chulha largely. A cylinder is a must for her in the city, though, and takes 1,000 out of her budget. To survive, she cooks two meals at once and uses one cylinder for 7-8 months.
And her preference for the Congress doesn’t translate into complete belief in the party’s promises.
“When we hear promises like ‘6,000 will be given we think these are just words. We don’t believe it will actually happen because they don’t explain where the money will come from. How will they give it to so many people?” she said about the Congress party’s election promise of minimum income guarantee to the poorest 20% families.
Among the things her family and farming community need is an affordable solution for watering their fields and options for vocational work women can do from home. “Schemes that offer jobs in cities are of no use because again we have to struggle to commute or to pay rent. Also, remember that agriculture offers a certain level of income that’s why we keep at it. This is what we know to do, this is convenient to do, and this is what gives us returns. Provide us jobs that offer comparable returns, then only women like my mother will choose that over farming.”
She pointed out that for women who study and work in cities or in semi-urban areas, the government needs to provide affordable hostels. “I need the government to bring out schemes that help me to keep studying while I work and also to live affordably because these are my obstacles.”
Her struggles have increased her knowledge and curiosity about politics, society, and the economy, she says. “For women of my generation we are living through circumstances that are making us participate very thinkingly in this politics and this society. I value my vote because I know what it means now. I know what employment means to people, what a loan waiver can mean for a family on the brink of life and death. These are not just words or assurances.”