Incidents of suicides committed by the farmers of Punjab, a region referred to as the bread basket of India, because of severe agricultural crises and heavy indebtedness, are all too familiar. But what about those - invariably women - left behind who have to pick up the reins of the family and steer it out of the crisis?
These women, who get no support from the government or any voluntary agency, have no choice but to keep the kitchen fires burning. Scores of widows and, in some cases, mothers, most of whom are unlettered or semi-literate, are repaying loans, running households and taking care of children, even as they deal with tragedy.
Kuldip Kaur's home, built by the edge of a field in Kot Shameer in Bathinda block, is a typical rural abode. While the buffaloes are tied to a post at one end of the courtyard, Kuldip, 43, sitting in the far corner, is busy on the loom, weaving a bedspread in magenta and white checks. "It takes me two days to make a sheet and I get Rs 50 (US$1=Rs 43) for it. The yarn is given to me by the customer," she reveals. Did she always know weaving? She answers, "One has to learn many things to survive."
Nine years ago, her husband Sukhminder Singh, who was 36 and owned four acres of land, committed suicide by drinking pesticide spray as he could not pay back the mounting debts. Kuldip never thought that she would be able to make ends meet or provide her daughter Mandeep, 9, and son Amandeep, 6, with an education. Some quick decisions had to be made. She sold off the tractor and two acres of land to pay off a chunk of the loan. The remaining two acres were rented out. Kuldip then bought a spinning wheel, yarn and learnt to weave. She also began rearing cattle. Today, Mandeep has completed Class XII, while Amandeep has passed Class X. Her daughter wants to study further, but Kuldip says she will not be able to educate her further because the loan her husband took from the 'arhtiyas' (traders who function as middle men) is still to be paid. Her husband had taken Rs 250,000 from the bank for a tractor and a similar amount from the 'arhtiyas' for other farm inputs. Crop failure led to non-payment of the loan and piling up of penal interest. Kuldip makes about Rs 6,000 per month and is paying Rs 2,000 to the 'arhtiyas'.
Kuldip is one of the many women in the state who have had to not only take hard decisions, but have had to work extremely hard - as weavers, cattle rearers and daily wagers - to provide for the family.
The largest number of suicides has been reported from the Malwa region, or the cotton belt of Punjab, with the districts of Bathinda, Barnala, Mansa and Sangrur being the worst hit. The reasons for this have ranged from lack of sufficient water to pest attacks - great damage has been done by the American Bollworm and the Mealy Bug.
Suicide figures in Punjab are misleading. While the government's status report listed 2,114 farmer suicides during 1988-2004, the Punjab Farmers' Commission 2006 claims that some 2,000 farmers end their lives every year. The Movement Against State Repression (MASR), a non-profit organisation, estimated the figures to be over 40,000. MASR convener Inderjit Singh Jaijee says, "Punjab has been projected as an agricultural success story. If the government admits that farmers in Punjab are distressed, it would mean agriculture in India is on the verge of collapse." Ironically, the Punjab Police Report 2007 listed only seven suicides in as many years, while the Punjab Revenue Report for 2007 conceded that 132 suicides took place in the last five years.
Misery sits at the doorstep of a poor Jat household in Chathewaal village, in the Talwandi block of Bathinda district. The last few years have been very difficult for Balvinder Kaur, 60, and her daughter-in-law, Ranjit Kaur, 27. Balvinder has had to reckon with the deaths of her husband, Kirpal Singh (he died due to natural causes), an older son, and a younger one, Daljit Singh. Daljit committed suicide by consuming pesticide spray five years ago. He has left behind a heartbroken mother, a wife, Ranjit, and two sons. The family has no means of survival. While they are receiving auction notices - the traders to whom they owe money are threatening to auction their land holding - there is no work for them this season, not even as farm labourers.
Balvinder says, "I earn a little from spinning yarn and then I go to the pond to fetch clay from which my daughter-in-law makes stoves that sell for Rs 25 each." Ranjit says, "My older son is 10 and the younger, eight. I have no money for their fees and notebooks. The school will throw them out." The two women have yet to even get the statuary widows' pension, as there is no one to plead their case. The government has sanctioned Rs 200 per month as widows pension but very few can avail of it as there is a lot of red tapism.
But they are not alone in their misery. In the last few years Chathewaal has witnessed 13 suicides - of eight farmers and five farm labourers.
Punjab lacks any organisation of single women like those in Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. The women's movement had bypassed Punjab. However, in Sangrur district, where 25 suicides have been reported over the last few years, there have been certain initiatives by MASR and by some concerned citizens. For instance, Kanwaljit Dhindsa, who runs the SEABA Public School, a private institution in Lehragaga block of Sangrur district, has sponsored the education of 14 students from affected families in the district.
Chotian village in Sangrur was home to Dullah and Bhatti, two brothers named after local heroes who supposedly fought the tyranny of the Mughals in West Punjab during the reign of Akbar. However, the namesakes were not as courageous. Elder brother, Dullah, committed suicide in 2000, and his fianc'e, Jaspal Kaur, was married to the younger Bhatti. But domestic bliss was not for the young woman, as even Bhatti ended his life in 2006. Mounting loans, the burden of the marriage of four sisters and the sale of the tractor caused the double tragedy.
Money has been hard to come by for the family left behind, but Bhatti and Jaspal Kaur's children - Jaspreet Kaur, 16, and Mahinder Singh, 13 - have managed to continue their education. While Jaspreet, who studies in Class X at SEABA School, gets support from the school, Mahinder goes to a private school near the village in exchange of half an acre of land to the school. Their grandmother, Kartar Kaur is now anxious that they complete their education soon, as much of family land is barren.
Education of her children is also the worry of Gurmel Kaur, the widow of Jagraj Singh, in Burj Hari village of Mansa district. Debt and the pending marriage of a daughter led Jagraj to take this drastic step. While the daughter has been married with help from relatives, Gurmel and her two sons, who have studied till Class X and VIII, live like paupers. "I did not have money to pay for their examination fees. My younger boy says, 'Let's die, too, as we cannot even afford 'chappals' (slippers). But I tell him, we will live no matter what happens," reveals Gurmel. And so she continues with her multi-tasking - rearing cattle for dairies at a small price and waiting for September when she can go out and pick cotton for a daily wage.
These are women who never ever say die.