At 28, Rekha looks pale and thin, her lost eyes speaking volumes about the void and struggle in her life. She was barely 20 when her debt-ridden husband immolated himself.
Rekha has managed to secure a teacher’s job at an anganwadi school. Until last year, she was earning Rs1,600 a month, the pay has gone up to Rs4,000 this year. Her family farm hardly yields Rs10,000 a year.
“The money is not sufficient. I have to take care of my son, daughter and in-laws,” says Rekha, fighting back tears. “He should have thought about us before leaving us to fend for ourselves.”
Rekha is one of the thousands of Vidarbha farm widows, who are picking up the pieces of their lives thrown off gear by debt suicides. The numbers peaked in 2006, when 1,886 farmers committed.
Her village, Saikheda, and surrounding areas of Yavatmal district have seen over 300 debt suicides in past decade.
A farm widow is given Rs1 lakh from the relief fund of the PMO, of which Rs30,000 is paid in cash. The rest is kept in a fixed deposit.
However, the scheme is grossly lacking in its implementation. Official data shows that of the 2.96 lakh farm widows in the country so far, only 32,000 have been declared eligible for the benefit.
Activist Kishore Tiwari, who has been working with these widows for the past 20 years, says most programmes have failed to make a positive impact in their lives.
“Majority of the widows are declared ineligible for various reasons, including their inability to prove that the suicide was due to agrarian crises, farm registered in another family member’s name,” he said.
Lack of education limits the scope of earning for these women, often forcing them to toil day and night as they juggle between repaying debt and managing the family.
It’s been eight years since Indira Kelkar’s husband Manohar hanged himself, but no assistance has reached her. Visits to the authorities have made no difference. “They say that the farm is registered in my father-in-law’s name, so I am not eligible for compensation.”
Indira still has to clear a loan of Rs1 lakh passed on to her and take care of her two sons. She too got sucked into the vicious circle when she borrowed money to marry off her daughters.
“My husband always persuaded others not to kill themselves. I never thought he would end his life this way,” says Indira, preparing rotis at her run-down hut in Dahegaon. She now works in brick kilns or farms for Rs100 a day.
Tiwari, who led a demonstration on Women’s Day to press his demands for better rights for the Vidarbha widows, says, “Of the Rs1 lakh assistance, Rs30,000 is spent on last rites. The deposit earns Rs440 as interest. How is it possible to run a family with that amount?”
He said the government has not implemented the recommendations of the Narendra Jadhav Committee on food and health security and family pension for farm widows.
Despite government and societal failure, the lives of Vidarbha widows are no less than lessons in resilience – unlike their husbands, they just don’t give up.
Like Rekha and Indira, Chandrakala Meshram’s world turned upside down when her husband took his life by drinking poison in 2006. The brave woman from Saikheda soon took charge of the family and ensured that her daughters did not drop out of school. “It was difficult, but I kept working.”
The perseverance paid off for Chandrakala. She has found a suitable groom for her elder daughter, Payal, who will be getting married in April.
Sonal, her 16-year-old younger daughter, wants to become a police officer after completing her studies. “I still have to pay off Rs60,000. I hope I will be able to do it soon.”
Most of these women, who got married as teenagers, were widowed before they turned 25. Second marriage? They say they can’t even think of it.
Unlike Rekha, some have forgiven their husbands. Meshram pauses for a second to say ‘yes’, Indira lets go of her tears: “I often think about him. Life was much easier with him around.”