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Aftermath of farmer suicides: Voices of women survivors

Mar 05, 2013

Ranjana Padhi, author and activist, discusses one of India's most urgent issues: farmer suicides. Though Padhi takes it a bit further and investigates the impact of these suicides on the women who are left behind. She talks about 'the social side of the agrarian crisis' in an exclusive interview with Anubha Shukla of OneWorld South Asia.

Ranjana Padhi

OneWorld: Your book “Those Who Did Not Die” talks about the impact of the agrarian crisis on women in Punjab. Why did you choose the Malwa region of Punjab for your study and not southern states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh that have seen a much larger number of farmer suicides?

Ranjana Padhi: I wanted to investigate the whole idea of the Green Revolution (GR), the prosperity of Punjab and then farmers taking to the streets in Delhi with other peasant organisation on the issues like BT cotton. The Green Revolution had not escaped the tentacles of the acute agrarian crisis and the boast of prosperous Punjab with its highest-in-the country per capita income was clearly just part of the Green Revolution propaganda. It struck me that even in the agrarian community of Punjab, there is a distress. I realised, I did not have to go to Vidharbha region of Maharashtra when suicides were happening just six hours away from Delhi.

So, to unmask the impact of the Green Revolution in Punjab I selected the Malwa region. Feminist movements are very active in cities like Delhi but not in states like Punjab, Haryana and UP. So, the other reason was I wanted to look into the situation of women in Punjab. The intent of this book is to draw political and humanitarian attention to the aftermath of peasant suicides, particularly the coping strategies of women who are already marginalised in a deeply traditional and patriarchal society.

OW: According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics, every 12 hours one farmer commits suicide in India. The hardships faced by the families of the deceased are immense. What is happening to the families and how are they coping?

RP: My research is about this exactly. In Punjab, almost 89 per cent of the peasant community is in debt. A study done by the Punjab Agricultural University also supports this figure. As soon as they get into debt, the first thing that comes to their mind is how to repay that debt. They also have to think about how to run their families and what to do with the small piece of land they have. Generally, these farmers have small lands of 1 acre or 2 acre. So, they give this land on lease to bigger farmers or to someone who can give them the produce every year. They can’t manage their land themselves.

"The feminism that we are enjoying these days is largely by some amount of economic independence"

Then they have to look into their children’s’ education, how to meet daily expanses, medical bills and marriages for their children etc. For girls, they think about getting them married as soon as possible and for boys it is about getting work for them, because for the next generation agriculture is not working out. So, more and more people are stepping out of agriculture. Suicides are just the tip of the ice-berg and there are more people walking out of the agrarian economy.

There are some narratives in the book that highlight prevalent social taboos like dowry. It’s very heart-wrenching to see that this same old issue is trapping these peasants into more debt. In the women’s movement we are not looking at the dowry anymore. How the feminist movement started is different from what it is now. People are still not free from compulsive dowry demands of in-laws. For a Dalit labourer and even for the poorest one among them, the minimum amount of dowry spent on a daughter’s marriage is Rs 2 lakh, which is obviously a big amount for them and forces them into more debt. If you have an acre of land, you barely get Rs 10,000 to 15,000 twice a year.

Many suicides are done either in anticipation of a daughter's marriage or due to high demands of dowry. This is a harsh reality which the women’s movements need to look into. We are going higher in terms of our consciousness and ideas, but the kinds of oppression which young girls face are still the same as they were 30 or 50 years ago. And also, the peasant's movements need to look into what is causing distress in a peasant’s family. It’s not only about market prices, subsidy to agriculture, agricultural credit, but  also about the whole family involved in the peasant labour setup. This is about the social side of agrarian crisis.

OW: Even in the Budget 2013, the government has allocated Rs 270.49 crore for agriculture. How do you think this will this improve the situation at ground level?

RP: It really doesn’t come down to those who actually need it. Big farmers who have big land holdings get some relief from these government measures but it doesn’t percolate down to the small farmers. And in Punjab, the situation is very different. Even if there is suicide, there is no relief of compensation. So, what is needed is availability of small interest or low interest loans for these people.

OW: The theme for this year’s International Women’s day is ‘The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum’. Do you think rights of women farmers have progressed or are these campaigns confined to urban and middle-class women?

RP: These campaigns, from a feminist’s perspective, are confined to a certain section. On one side, these campaigns are confined to certain sections of the society, on the other hand there is a huge participation of women in mass movements. If you look at movements against Vedanta in Orissa, POSCO in Orissa or Jal Satyagrah in Madhya Pradesh, there is heavy participation of women. Even peasant rallies in Punjab are largely dominated by women. So, while they are participating, the issues that they are demanding for are different. These issues are valid and important but we need to see how we can enable more 'ordinary women' to step out for their freedom also.

"We are going higher in terms of our consciousness and ideas, but the kinds of oppression which young girls face are still the same as they were 30 or 50 years ago"

The feminism that we are enjoying these days is largely by some amount of economic independence and it is imagined as individual feminism. Even if women have the consciousness, the material conditions are not allowing them to realise their freedom. For instance, if there are any agricultural inputs coming from the government then it also has look at the education of children and healthcare of the family. It’s not just about growing paddy and wheat, it also about other basic rights and needs. Only then, we will be able to understand the working class and the peasantry. We are not reaching out to the working class and peasant women in real sense.

OW: How do you see the situation of women farmers in India?

RP: The situation is not very different, it is just that land ownership is a very vexed issue in case of women farmers. There was an amendment to the Hindu Succession Act 2005 and the right to own agricultural land was also made easy but it is not implemented properly. In the social sense, women continue to be dependent, and are not the decision makers unless under dire situations such as a husband committing suicide. Otherwise, decisions around the land, how to run a land, who to lease it out to and other things are not taken by the women. So, women farmers are struggling with such issues.

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