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A bitter harvest for the women of Punjab

Dec 18, 2009

The ubiquitous picture of the smiling Punjabi farmer, seen on calendars and hoardings, presents itself like a cruel joke to those women whose farmer husbands committed suicides. It is these women who have come to bear a huge burden of managing the fatherless families, writes Ranjana Padhi.

Bhatinda: For the wives and mothers of farmers of Punjab who took their lives when caught in the vicious cycle of agrarian debt and misery, the ubiquitous picture of the content and smiling Punjabi farmer, seen on many a calendar, seems like a cruel joke. The ground reality reveals depression, alienation and suicide.

Measures undertaken to shore up the production of foodgrain during the Green Revolution have now led to the deterioration of the soil, an increased demand for expensive pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and a network of institutional funding that has spread its tentacles to non-institutional sources too, putting the farming community in the vicious grip of indebtedness.

A study by Punjab Agricultural University in the districts of Bhatinda and Sangrur indicates 2,890 suicides between 2000 and 2008. The figure for the entire state would obviously be much higher.

Each peasant suicide in the state, known for its 'prosperity', is an indicator of the plight of millions of the rural poor. And it is the peasant women who suffer the most from the grave situation threatening to engulf their lives, as the preliminary findings of the study reveal.

According to the 125 interviews conducted between November 2008 and July 2009 with peasant women of affected families in 47 villages across 10 districts - Ferozepur, Muktsar, Bhatinda, Moga, Mansa, Sangrur, Patiala, Ludhiana, Barnala and Faridkot - 80% of those who committed suicide were between 21 and 50 years of age.

Approximately 40% of the victims were dalit  landless agricultural labourers. There were also four suicide cases involving women. In some instances there were two or three suicide occurrences on a single day. In 70% of the cases, consumption of pesticide emerged as the mode of suicide.

Since agriculture is based on family labour with household labour being an integral part of the agricultural economy, the total number of those affected by these suicides would be around five times their number, with dependents - those below 18 and above 60 - comprising 55% of the affected.

It is the adult women who have to bear the huge burden of managing the demands of fatherless families. The price they pay is immense and takes the form of depression and other health problems caused by the overwhelming psychological pressure of grinding poverty. Even the paltry widow's pension of Rs 250 per month given by the Punjab government does not reach many on time.

Housework, childcare and nursing of the elderly become more arduous in this context, as women are left with the traditional responsibilities of marriage and family without a semblance of the protection that these institutions may bring them. Yet, sadly, women's economic activities in tending to livestock, collecting fodder, and doing all kinds of work within the home to make ends meet, are still not accorded the status of 'labour' by society.

Traditional restrictions on women's mobility make it impossible for Jat Sikh women to take up wage labour. It is only women from the dalit  castes - like Majhabi, Ramdasia and Ravidasia Sikhs - who largely work on daily wages and even seem proud of doing so. As one Jat Sikh woman in Mansa district observed, "The day I step out to work, no one will talk to me in the village.

Even if we have 'namak' (salt) and chutney with 'roti', we cannot do wage work." But there were instances of women forced by circumstance to defy caste norms. For instance a 65-year-old Jat Sikh woman resorted to picking cow dung for Rs 450 a month, but only when there was no earning member left in her family. While seasonal labour like picking potatoes, carrots and radish or cotton does fetch around Rs 50 a day, such work is available for just two or three months a year.

So what do the women do to make ends meet? Over 65% women in the sample interviews are engaged in maintaining livestock and fodder collection with household expenses met by the sale of milk to local shops or to large dairy concerns like Nestle or Verka in some areas. These women are able to make Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 a month. Over 94% of the women are engaged in intense domestic labour and 54% in caring and nursing of the elderly. A 35-year-old woman in Bhatinda district revealed that she could barely visit her mother to gain some comfort and relief from grief. "I look after the house, my mother-in-law, the children and the buffaloes too. I help my father-in-law with agricultural work. How can I ever travel to my mother in Sangrur district?" she said with sadness.

When the men fail their families, it is the labour of women that keeps home fires burning. And that's when a huge paradox presents itself: Despite the vital contribution of women to the family, the social devaluation of women in Punjab remains. Nothing symbolises this more than the declining sex ratio in Punjab, which is 876 females per 1,000 males according to the 2001 census, against a national average of 933:1000.

The sex ratio indicates a strong son preference and, of course, the fact that girls are viewed as a liability because of the dowry system - which is, incidentally, another factor for suicides.

Tragically, even families in which suicides have occurred are not spared the custom of dowry. The minimum dowry expectation is Rs 2,00,000 among Jat Sikhs; and over Rs 60,000 amongst landless dalits.

The cruel patriarchal practice of dowry places the heaviest burden on the most vulnerable sections with 89% of the 46% of families who resorted to loans for dowry and marriage, being either landless labourers or small and marginal farmers.

The future appears bleak for great many in Punjab today. Drug addiction is rampant among the male youth and the rigid caste structure, characterised by the overweening pride of being from the landowning Jat Sikh community, prevents many young adults from stepping out of agriculture for a livelihood, despite agricultural incomes being on the decline. If agriculture is not flourishing, there not been much growth in the secondary and tertiary sectors of the state either.

The burden of these realities end up ultimately on the women of the household, especially those left behind to fend for themselves and their families after their husbands have died or committed suicide. A 55-year-old woman in Sangrur district eloquently summed up the stress that women in such situations routinely experience, "The doctor tells me not to worry and sleep more. But how can I? I worry through the night, every night."

Ranjana Padhi is a feminist activist based in Delhi. She appreciates the active support and co-operation of BKU Ekta (Ugrahan), Punjab Kisan Union and BKU Ekta, Dakonda, in conducting the survey.

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