Rising debt, no widow pension: COVID-19 crisis brings Maharashtra's vulnerable women farmers to the brink

Meena Menon
·7-min read

Rani More from Osmanabad works on an acre of land but has little income. She makes a brave attempt to record her woes into a camera, for a recent webinar on women farmers. She has to borrow money to meet her children's educational expenses. At times she is close to ending her life. Her husband borrowed from one person to repay his loans to another, and his debts kept mounting. He wanted the entire family to kill themselves but Rani thought of the children and did not agree to the pact. She had no one to turn to for help and seven months after her husband's suicide, his family threw her out. She had no option but to put her young children to work, even though she knows it is illegal. She cannot afford a bullock cart and walks for long distances to sell the produce from her farm.

A survey of 940 single women farmers exposed their increased vulnerability during the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown in Maharashtra. The women did not get their widow pensions of Rs 1,100 or Rs 1,200; there was no access to employment guarantee schemes; and their debt increased. This survey by MAKAAM or Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch (Forum For Women Farmers' Rights) is not the first to identify intervention areas for women farmers. Since a while, it has been working to sensitise the government to formulate measures to help them and in 2018, MAKAAM had held two consultations with women farmers. It conducted a survey of 505 women in 11 districts of Vidarbha and Marathwada. The survey showed that only 34 percent of them got the widow's pension; only 52 percent had ration cards in their name; and 60 percent of them did not have land transferred in their names after the death of their husbands. It also calculated (based on revenue records from the districts) that from 2001 to 2018, there were 19,313 suicides in Maharashtra in the regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada, and 20 percent of the cases were not eligible for compensation on various grounds.

Neelima Renge from Ralegaon, Yavatmal, was pregnant when her husband died by suicide. His parents refused to transfer the five acres he owned to her name. Eventually, she defied them and cultivated cotton and pulses. In 2020, she suffered as there was no transport due to the national lockdown. It is a 15-km commute from her home to the farm at her husband's house and soon she became the focus of much malicious gossip. Her neighbours said that as a woman it was wrong of her to commute alone, often hitching rides on motorbikes or in some odd vehicle. Her son could not go to school as there was no transport. She demanded a refund of the school fees but did not receive it.

Women farmers whose land is not in their names find it difficult to sell their produce. Often, they get low prices as they go through a middleman. Many of the farm widows have stopped cultivation and prefer to work for daily wages. They are not able to access government schemes and there is hardly any work in these areas. Even if they struggle and grow cotton, they find it difficult to take it to the market as it is costly to hire transport. Sangeeta Kamble took a loan for her daughter's marriage but is unable to repay it as she cannot find work, and cannot sell her cotton. The women are drawn into the same cycle of debt which killed their husbands and finally resort to borrowing from money lenders. Many do not have proper homes to live in and cannot pay their children's school fees. In one case, in Haatgaon, Akola, the school is not releasing the marksheet of a child as the fees are unpaid.

On 18 June 2019, the Maharashtra state had issued a government resolution (GR) setting out steps to help farm widows. It was an unprecedented move, which came about after a concerted effort by MAKAAM. However, two years later, with little work on the ground and no appreciable change in the plight of farm widows, Seema Kulkarni from MAKAAM asked for details of how the GR was implemented, using the Right to Information Act on 7 March 2021. A month later, the department for relief and rehabilitation (in the Maharashtra government) replied saying the GR was passed with a view to helping the wives for farmers who had died by suicide, and the government had made sufficient provisions, and got the necessary approvals and funding allocations. The reply said that the applicant would have to approach the different concerned departments for detailed information on each of the areas in question.

For every reluctant bureaucratic step forward, there are several steps backwards. This GR was hailed as progressive but even accounting for the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has done precious little to address the core issues for the women. The women farmers, even before COVID, were on the brink of survival, but the pandemic has made it that much worse.

After the earlier survey findings were released in 2018, there was pressure on the government to address the lacunae, notably in transferring the land to the women. MAKAAM had asked for a district- level cell to monitor and support the women in distress on a monthly basis (not formed till date); an education policy for children; health cards for women and their families and a Kisan Mitra helpline; houses under the Gharkul scheme; and priority implementation of rural employment schemes in suicide affected areas. A Kisan Mitra helpline was started only in Wardha district for six months to help farmers, and then discontinued amid lack of adequate funding and after the collector changed. In meetings with the government, it was agreed that the women would get a Praman Patra or an identity card, to enable them to easily access government schemes. Many of the women move houses after the death of their husbands, they cannot often live with their in- laws. A lot of directives were needed to implement the GR, and MAKAAM made a detailed presentation in August 2019 to the then Relief and Rehabilitation minister Chandrakant Patil, on the steps to be taken.

States like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are paying Rs 3-6 lakh as ex gratia to families after a farm suicide, MAKAAM contended, while submitting a presentation to hike the widows' pension to Rs 3,000 as a national policy, and other proposals to Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar and finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on 31 January. However, when a question was asked in the Rajya Sabha on 12 February 2021, if civil society groups like MAKAAM had asked for "debt liberation" for women farmers and a separate policy for them, Tomar in his reply denied that such a demand was received.

Maharashtra has the highest farm suicides in the country and according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), from 1995 to 2019, over 83,000 farmers have died by suicide in the state. This figure may not be reliable as since 2014, NCRB has introduced new categories to calculate farm suicides and excludes agricultural labourers who now form a separate category. Even then, the total for the country as a whole has crossed 3,64,092 for the same period. While there are discrepancies in reporting deaths and variations between the NCRB and state data, the total number of farm widows is not more than 20,000 in Maharashtra, mainly in Vidarbha and Marathwada regions, according to MAKAAM. This was based on an analysis of district-wise data from the revenue department. It is inexplicable how the government finds it difficult make a special budgetary allocation or formulate a plan of action for this number when it seems to generously fund temple repairs and memorials. Way back in 2006, in the six districts of Vidarbha, a government survey identified 1,226,559 families of the total 1,764,438 in 8,351 villages as being in distress due to crop failure and debt. There was some follow up to aid these families, but no long- term plans.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the women's tribulations and the government continues with its time-honoured apathy. It is little wonder that ending one's life seems to be a better alternative than living it.

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