In last November, when All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, an umbrella organisation of around 190 farmer groups from across the country, organised a Kisan Mukti Sansad in Delhi, there was one event that moved almost everyone of thousands present there. About two dozens children of those farmers who had committed suicide in Maharashtra performed a skit that had a message for all farmers in the country: “Whatever be your problem, please don’t take your lives. Your children need you.”

As the saying goes: “When people kill themselves, they think they’re ending the pain, but all they’re doing is passing it on to those they leave behind.” Nothing can’t be more apt in describing the plight of hapless dependents of farmers who commit suicide on the spur of the moment as they get overwhelmed by the futileness of their lives.

Killing fields

Every year, for the last so many years, over 10,000 farmers in the country have been taking their lives. But why do farmers take their lives? Studies of rural distress point to some deep-rooted issues that have made farming unviable for small and marginal farmers. More often than not, farmers lose their moorings because of repeated crop failures that result in mounting debts, inability to pay back loans and humiliation at the hands of recovery agents.

Ironically, Maharashtra, said to be one of the most industrialised States of India, accounts for more than a third of such farmer suicides year after year. In Maharashtra too, farmers resorting to such a drastic step is more widespread in districts that fall under the Vidarbha region, known as the cotton belt of Maharashtra.

The numbers are too high to be ignored, despite the pernicious designs of the authorities to hush up the numbers. Ever looking for ways to please their political masters, the officialdom has always found a way to get around the uncomfortable truth. Since 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau has been separating death into different categories such as farmers, cultivators and agricultural labourers.

What is often lost in all this statistical jugglery is the predicament of the family that the farmer has left behind. Widows of Vidarbha: Making of Shadows , a book by journalist-turned-author Kota Neelima, takes the readers through the travails of 18 families, particularly the wives of those farmers who committed suicides in Vidarbha region. The author rightly chooses all her case studies from Amravati and Yavatmal districts — two regions that have reported the maximum number of suicides in the country in the last two decades.

Cases that matter

The 18 suicides that the book explores took place between 2002 and 2014. While a representative number of cases from earlier years helped the author to get an insight into how widows and their families fared over a decade since the breadwinner’s death, those from recent years, which are more in number, helped in getting a sense of contemporary problems.

The author explains the logic behind selecting these 18 cases from over 3,000 suicides that each of these districts witnessed since 2001. Picking them from the list of farmer suicides prepared by the administration helped her assess the impact of the state’s intervention on the lives of the wives.

The book captures life stories of these families in disturbingly vivid details with the author taking pains to visit each of these households more than once. These multiple visits not only made her more familiar to these families, helping them to open up more to her, but also aided in tracking the progress made by each of these families finding their feet back on the ground. The author makes it a point to share their joys and sorrows in such a manner that the reader engrosses even a casual reader. In the book, Neelima makes it a point to question the government’s intention behind sub-classify the suicides as that of farmers and farm labourers saying “the increasing number of farmer suicides in the villages of Vidarbha and the resulting increase in the number of widows cannot be hidden by any methodological sleight of hand.”

Any attempt by the state to brush them aside statistically or reorganise them into categories of obscurity, she says, would not serve to diminish the problem, but only reveal the states motives to cover up its guilt in the creation and neglect of the farm crisis.

Fear of humiliation

What is sad to know that all those 18 farmers whose suicides are recorded through this book had on an average defaulted on bank loans of approximately ₹67,000 and had owned a stretch of land ranged from 2 acres to 12 acres. In all cases, farmers, the author finds out, farmers were extremely anxious about the unpaid loan and wanted to avoid the humiliation of the recovery process. The same lending and repayment rules that allowed the wealthy and influential to flout, are strictly followed in the case of these farmers and thus denied them a change to get these unpaid loans restructured for an ease of repayment.

Each chapter in this book is a real story of gritty women who made all sincere efforts to bring up their children and provide them with education to the extend possible despite all odds in life and limitations imposed on them by the society. With the compensation given by the state was barely enough and earning from farming dwindling, these widows who are not educated enough to quality for either welfare schemes or employment opportunities, often worked as farm hands to support their children.




Kota Neelima has been a journalist for over 22 years. She was Senior Research Fellow, South Asia Studies at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. She was political editor of The Sunday Guardian and principal correspondent for The Indian Express