Debt and Death in the Indian Hinterland

In the last nine years, Gangabai has lost both her husband and her son to suicide; her son, despondent and desperate, took his life on Dec 8th, 2014. Tears in her eyes, she described the difficulties of life on the cotton farms. Behind her, Yogita, 25, a new widow, tends to her son Kanhanniya, 1. He has a fever today but is happily running around; he is too young to know that he is suddenly fatherless. Yogita’s movements are a bit deliberate- she is to deliver her second child in 3 months. She has a tough life ahead.

Moreshwar Chaudhary, 32, killed himself around 3pm on Dec 8th by imbibing insecticide.  A small scale cotton farmer with 3 acres to cultivate, Moreshwar was indebted to banks, private lenders, and to a microcredit facility and could not meet the payments. The family mortgaged everything including Yogita’s wedding jewelry. Gangabai, his frail sixty-something mother, went back to work as a day laborer to make some money but still they could not manage to make their payments. Moreshwar really wanted to get Yogita’s jewelry out of hawk but could not find the money. And the fields did not help. This year, the drought conditions are the worst in decades and the cotton is sparse. Meanwhile the price of these commodities has come down and the input costs have gone up. This cruel hat-trick connived to make cultivation an economically detrimental activity and further immiserated the family; bereft of income and hope, Moreshwar could no longer take the enormous stress and pain and chose to commit suicide.

Huddled in their modest home, we saw Moreshwar’s wedding picture.  He looked peaceful and proud. His older sister sat stoically, supporting Gangabai.  A friend of the family, a young man, played with Kanhanniya while telling us about the state of life in the village right now.  Others huddled inside and outside the home.  Yogita’s parents have come from their village to be with her.  In this sense, Gangabai and Yogita are lucky- they have a community; this is not always the case given that the traditional social bonds in villages have been rent by a variety of factors that can together be called “modernity.”  Veteran journalist Jaideep Hardikar, who arranged our visit to Gangabai’s village, put it best- “there is nothing to romanticize about the village.”

Moreshwar’ s death does not mean the erasure of debt.  The debt that plagued the family and ultimately led to Moreshwar’s suicide, is also in Gangabai’s name. The path ahead is painful- and lonely. Lonely especially for Yogita who at 25 will now be consigned to a life of difficulty; in her community widow remarriage is proscribed. She might stay with Gangabai or might move back in with her parents, also desperate small-holding farmers. Right now, it’s too early.  Moreshwar has only been gone a few days.

Shyamrap Bhoyar of Anji village is feeling the same hollowness that Gangabai feels.  On Dec 8th, his younger son Suraj, 29, called his older son Swapnil, 33, at about 3pm.  “I’ve swallowed poison, now you take care of things please.  I won’t be able to speak to you again” he said as he lay dying.

Shyamrap and Swapnil sit on a cot in their small house staring blankly and speaking haltingly.  Suraj had many things on his mind during the last few days before his suicide. The agricultural distress in Vidharbha continues and the cycle of poverty-debt-destitution caught up with him. Add to that two other factors:  some serious medical bills (at usurious rates) and the prospect of an already-delayed marriage- with its attendant costs- were too much for this young man to take.

The Bhoyar family has 12 acres of land which they cultivate. While that is 4 times as much as Gangabai’s family has, the results are not much better. 12 acres of largely unproductive land, with the linear rise in input costs and labor, put the family in further losses this year.

A tall, lean, polite, and soft-spoken man, Swapnil fights back tears; his eyes are red and watery. “I have lost a brother and a partner” he says in Marathi (translated for me by Jaideep). He has a young daughter who gestures to us lovingly.  “Say bye to Uncle” says Swapnil.  She says “bye, bye, bye.”  I am sure she will miss her uncle.

These are two suffering families out of hundreds of thousands who have lost loved-ones to suicide. These are two suffering families out of millions of farmers whose lives are getting increasingly desperate by the day.

Award-winning journalist P. Sainath has documented these stories and provided  a deep structural explanation of agrarian distress. The important things to understand are that these stories of despondency and destitution are neither isolated nor are they disconnected from global and domestic processes that favor speculation over agricultural production and subsidize swollen urban areas over the rural hinterlands of India. Added to that are pricing and IP-based regimes promoted by MNCs that not only destroy local methods of sustainable agricultural but create a cost structure that is not paid-off by prices received in the marketplace.

Gangabai and Shyamrap have lost their children to these processes. The least the rest of us can do is re-examine our faith in the economic system we’re pursuing and avoid glib recitations that suggest that we are all “growing,” “shining,” “vibrant” and “incredible.”

Far from it. Ask Gangabai. Ask Shyamrap.

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