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The misery bowl

Severe drought and debt trap forced farmers in the fertile belt of Burdwan to commit suicide last year. The deaths invited a flurry of promises from political parties. Several months later, their families are a forgotten lot. Ravik Bhattacharya reports.

india Updated: Apr 29, 2011 12:46 IST

Somewhere in the parched heartland of India, time was fast running out for Shambhu, a farmer, with only two bighas of land. He had 90 days to save Rs 235 and repay the zamindar. He took a train to Kolkata and became a rickshaw-puller. However, the land could not be saved and Sambhu, his wife, Parvati, and son, Kanhaiya, disappeared into a vortex of darkness.

That was the story of a farmer Bimal Roy narrated in his 1953 epic Do Bigha Zameen. On September 1, 2010, after a long spell of drought at Purbototipara village, Gosain Patra chose the easier way out of debt and despair.

Hours after his wife gave birth to a daughter, the 40-year-old hanged himself from a banyan tree. The sharecropper's only source of sustenance was a two-bigha plot that belonged to a fellow villager. With no savings and no crop, Patra did not know how to pay back Rs 26,000 to moneylenders.

Ironically, it happened in Ausgram block of Burdwan, Bengal's rice bowl and a safe haven of the CPI(M) for 34 years. Patra's widow envies her husband. "He was saved," says Champa as she sits with a helpless gaze, holding onto her three-year-old son and the daughter, who is now six months old. There is not a grain of rice in the kitchen and village grocers have refused any more credit.

Worse, the moneylenders are back, hounding the family day and night for the money Patra borrowed to buy seeds. As a family living below poverty line, 200 cc of kerosene oil a week and hollow promises is all Champa gets from the government as 'assistance'.

Patra's death literally turned Purbototipara into the sets of Pipli Live. An army of reporters and photographers descended upon the village as politicians made a beeline for the town. If the Marxists were desperate to salvage the situation, the Opposition could not afford to ignore a farmer's suicide in a Red bastion.

The reporters have left and so have political leaders, leaving the farmer's families to fend for themselves. "All I can do now is kill myself and the children. My husband had an easy escape. Now the moneylenders want their Rs 26,000 with 15% interest. My husband could not clear his debt because the crops failed. Now, these men will hound me till I pay up," said Champa, pulling her tattered sari to cover herself.

"By the time I was in my advanced stage of pregnancy we had lost everything. My husband sold both the cows and took me to Burdwan Medical College and Hospital where I gave birth to our daughter. After he took his life, political leaders came to our house and made many promises. But only the block development officer gave some clothes to my son out of pity," said Champa, tears rolling down her cheeks. "No CPI(M) leader bothered to visit us. However, Trinamool leaders came from Kolkata and made many promises. Several months have passed since then. Nobody remembers us now." Champa's house has no electricity. She does not get benefits enjoyed by those in the Below Poverty Line category. She has not received widow pension nor a house under Indira Awas Yojana.

A five km drive from Champa's home takes us to the doors of Rijia Bibi. Her husband, Sheikh Yunus, consumed pesticide last year to escape a debt of Rs 30,000. Rijia Bibi also receives unwanted visitors from a state-backed village co-operative. But she has worse nightmares to live with.

For the past five months, the widow is running from pillar to post at Burdwan Medical College and Hospital and the local police station for the post-mortem report. This is the only document that can prove that her husband committed suicide. "I did not get any money. No one from the government or any party ever came to me. The police are asking for bribe for the post-mortem report," said Rijia, who now labours on other people's fields for a daily wage of R60 and two kilos of rice. But there are few who need labourers and Rijia feels lucky if she gets to work two days a week.

"There is virtually no work. We had little rain and hence a very poor harvest. My hut badly needs a repair but who has the money," said Rijia, sitting beside a heap of mustard seeds she got as payment for working for two days. "There are so many mouths to feed. My daughter, Ismat Ara, has been abandoned by her husband and she lives with me with her two children. I appealed to the BDO and the panchayat for relief but they drove me away. Last year, I got work for only 10 days under the 100-day rural employment scheme. This year, there has been no work till now," she said, taking out the demand notice from Silut Baburbandh Co-operative Krishi Unnayan Samiti, a local state-backed co-operative, that asks for a repayment of a principal sum of Rs 3,000 and an interest of Rs 232.

At Korotia village lives Rupa Bagdi. Her husband, Jitu, committed suicide last year when he failed to repay a debt of Rs 32,000. "I filed applications for enlistment in the BPL category, a house under the Indira Awas Yojana and widow pension. Trinamool leaders and a few NGOs gave us money but it was used up for loan repayment. There are still some debts and the interest is mounting," said Rupa. The young widow and her son Srikanto live with Jitu's parents.

It is either money or paddy, which is given on loan to distressed farmers. Yunus took a loan at a rate of 10% interest while Jitu took money from six moneylenders at 15% interest per month. The farmers need cash for fertilisers, insecticides and even for paying

labourers. An aratdar or a big trader who buys the entire crop from farmers usually help farmers procure the loan. Sometimes, the aratdars give paddy to farmers without interest on condition that the farmers sell the entire harvest to them at a price 20% to 30% less than the prevailing market rate.

"Around 60 to 70 farmers in Ausgram owe money to me. Here, we are like gods. Many of them are defaulters. Some did not even pay any interest. We have to pressure them. We are doing business not charity. There are three to four aratdars, apart from moneylenders, in every village here," said Pradip Ghosh an aratdar at Basantapur.

It is a bleak story and not too different from what Mitra narrated half a century ago in black and white.