Where farmers are committing suicide, a lesson in what women can do

If you want to see the credibility of poor women borrowers, you must visit villages in the suicide-prone Yavatmal district of Maharashtra.

 |  6-minute read |   29-11-2016
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The large swathes of cotton farms in central India have been the epicentre of a global crisis that has gripped the rural population in crippling debts and has driven thousands of them to suicide. But the great news is that villages in this very area have demonstrated the power of hope.

It comes in the form of women collectives, comprising mostly of farm widows, who are pooling their tenacity and bare money to rebuild their families and weave a society resilient to the mental blows of these tragedies.

Haven't we all seen story after story running the same script: the gaunt, grizzled faces of cotton farmers of Vidarbha and those in Andhra Pradesh staring out of their marriage portraits, or ration cards, as the restless eye of the electronic age ranges over their grieving families and politicians swoop down with a consolatory dole as they become another statistic of rural despair?

While handling microfinance operations in Vidarbha for several institutions over four decades, I could observe an excellent credit culture among poor women, several of them farm widows, who have bonded themselves in the form of small clusters or collectives of women that are known as Self-Help Groups.

These groups are locally known as "bachat gats" because their primary objective is promotion of savings. The sorority has enabled farm widows to light up the embers and repair their broken lives. If one lives in a compact, serried group, as bees and sheep do in the winter, there are advantages; one can defend oneself better from the cold and from attacks. Together they create a critical mass and change the perception of what women can do. They tap the only thing village women are rich in: a deep sense of community.

I recall the horrific days of the agrarian crises in Yavatmal district in central India - a time of mass suicides by farmers on account of the so-called dead burden of financial institutions. Dozens of journalists from all over the world would drive into the dusty hinterlands almost on a daily basis hunting desperately for new stories on suicides. 

This was preceded by a spectacular boom in growth of self-help groups of women, particularly in Yavatmal district. These groups withstood the fury of the agrarian crises and demonstrated remarkable tenacity and fortitude by repaying bank loans in time and without much follow ups with lending agencies. Yavatmal district gave birth to a highly refined and innovative microfinance model that won accolades from the government.

"We hear the saddest, most incredible stories when it comes to land and property: parents turning against children, children turning against parents," said Saumya Roy at the Vandana Foundation which helps widows in Vidarbha. "The widows are the most vulnerable, as their position in the family, the community is so tenuous."

women-embed_112916023232.jpg Together they create a critical mass and change the perception of what women can do.

When a farmer dies, a police case is filed to determine the cause of death. If it is ruled a suicide due to the farm crisis or indebtedness, the widow or the family gets Rs 100,000 ($1,500) as compensation by the state government. Of this amount, Rs 30,000 ($625) is paid in cash, and the rest is kept in a fixed deposit in the bank for future use by the family.

The cash compensation does help them tide over the immediate problem of feeding the family. But the compensation can be denied, if ownership of land is disputed or if the death is not judged to be linked to indebtedness or the farm crisis. After receiving the money, a widow often has to fend off claims from her husband's family and creditors. Widows forced to repay loans can be caught in a vicious cycle of debt bondage.

I found that the new generation of farmers has lost the spirit of austerity and the changing lifestyle has inflated their debt requirements. Conversely poor remain unsullied by the stains of modern vices. The old maxim which says that if you are a good saver, you will be a good borrower still holds true.

Self-help groups have not just helped reweave their lives, they are also galvanising the moribund rural economy. It needs great emotional intensity to break through age old barriers. This can be possible only through groups which share the same emotional values and are driven by strong impulses of mutual goals.

One of the primary objectives is of course to avail loans which the women access by cross-guaranteeing each other’s liability. These loans are part of a financial philosophy called microfinance. These community groups have also produced social capital in the form of various catalysts for change in different spheres. Best practitioners in communities become community professionals (CPs) for mobilisation, leadership, financial management, agriculture, livestock, health, literacy, and more.   

If you want to see the credibility of poor women borrowers, you must visit villages in the suicide-prone Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, where banks had to plough dud agricultural loans like a mountain of rotten potatoes. My experiences during the last few years in Yavatmal have made these convictions indelible.   

In Sakhra, deep into the forest belt infested by tigers and other wildlife in Pandharkavda taluqa, lies an island of incredible honesty. Sakhra is a unique example of totally illiterate backward women ensuring the rights they have been guaranteed by law by virtue of their being forest tribals and also protection under the laws for displaced people.

Sakhra is a resettlement village in which villagers uprooted by a development project have been rehabilitated. Seventy households led by Anusaya, lovingly called Amma, have fought their way on their own. They demonstrated before the local administration for days to get a barely motorable road constructed. Each family owns six acres of irrigated land, and at least a pair of bullocks, two cows and a few goats. Six enterprising young boys own premium brand motorcycles. These women are now star clients, who can make the best of financial institutions blush.

Poor people show inspirational courage and the ability to transform the little that the deck has dealt them into livelihoods for their families and communities. They already have skills, are politically conscious, and are aware of the need for schooling their children and taking care of their health.

But their lack of income makes using what skills they have impossible. Providing investment capital for additional income generation can unlock the capacity of the poor to solve many, if not all, of the manifestations of poverty that affect their lives.

In the lives of these tenacious women I found the story not of a country’s doom but a story of a country’s will to survive.

This may not be a revolution but at the very least this is a revolution in the making.

Also read: Women are better than men when it comes to money, this is how they should manage finances

Also read: Demonetisation has hit microfinance hard (and no one's talking about it)


Moin Qazi Moin Qazi @moinqazi123

The writer is a researcher and development professional who has spent four decades in the development sector. He holds doctorates in economics and english, and has authored books on religion, rural finance, culture and handicrafts.

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