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Inheritors of debt and distress

By Jaideep Hardikar

With 40,000 farmer suicides in Maharashtra between 1995 and 2007, there are thousands of households where children have been forced out of school and into the fields to shoulder the family burden. Vidarbha is one of the worst-affected regions. This series of articles by Jaideep Hardikar reports on these children who have inherited debt and distress

children have been forced out of school and into the fields to shoulder the family burden

Four years ago when we first met Madhav Agose, a tribal child whose father had recently committed suicide because of his mounting debts, we were uncertain what the future would hold for the boy.

Indeed, the nervous 12-year-old was a shadow of himself, silent victim of a policy-driven deprivation that has assumed calamitous proportions across the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. We knew he was only one among thousands others who had lost their parents to the agrarian crisis that is being experienced all across the country.

National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures reveal that over 1.8 lakh farmers have committed suicide in India since 1997, most of them in the post-2002 period. Madhav isn't alone.

Digambar Rathod, 11, is on his way to joining Madhav. His father, Jaideep Rathod, a Banjara farmer, committed suicide last month in Tiwsala village of Yavatmal. A few miles away, farm widow Kavita Kudmethe's two daughters toil with her as farm labour. Thirteen-year-old Roshani Shete has been a big help to her mother since her landless father took his life after running up debts trying to farm on leased land.

Almost without exception, every child here looks desperately hungry. The girls look anaemic and are most vulnerable. In household after household, suicide has compounded the miseries of impoverishment. In Vidarbha, class and caste discrimination aggravates these problems.

Although we visited Madhav often after that, we rarely found him home. He was either tilling his fields or working the farm of the lender to whom his family owed money.

At an age when most children in urban India are playing with toys, Madhav sets off to work in order to repay his father's debts. He cultivates his three-acre patch much the same way his father did when he was alive. Would the boy meet the same fate as his father?

Being a school dropout, the child-farmer has no skills in the vocation that has become a dreaded nightmare for over 60% of Indians, particularly those who practise subsistence, rain-dependent, farming. Most children from Vidarbha's suicide-ravaged households are forced to take up farming at a young age, embracing the very system that swallowed up their parents.

What, then, is the future of Vidarbha? Indeed, the whole of rural India?

Bleak, very bleak, if we go by the experiences of thousands of children in India's countryside. While they ensure that we get food on our plates, most farmers can barely afford a meal for their own children. Girls are the worst sufferers; many live with the guilt that one of the factors that contribute to their father's woes is their marriage. Either apprehension about it or the huge burden of debt they incur when it is done. In rural Amravati, an 18-year-old girl committed suicide in 2005. Why? Because, as she explained in neat handwriting in her suicide note, if it wasn't her it would most certainly be her father who took the tragic step. She knew she was attaining marriageable age and her parents were already worrying about it. And she had two younger sisters.

As poet-farmer Srikrishna Kalamb, who killed himself in 2007 in his village in Akola, wrote: "Amhi vasare vasare, muki upasi vasare (we are calves, dumb hungry calves), gaya panhavato amhi, chor kalatat dhar (we tend to the cows, thieves walk away with the milk and cream), tapa tapa gham unarato, unarato bhuivar (we sweat and sweat in our fields), moti pikavato amhi, tari upasi lekare (we cultivate pearls, but our children remain hungry)..."

With several political and social initiatives coming to naught, the past decade has seen Vidarbha's farmers slide from bad to worse on every count: income, farm techniques, diversity, food security, healthcare, social status, etc. The past four years have seen close to 5,000 farmer suicides in Vidarbha; those holding on have very little hope of surviving the tragedy. As farmer leader and agriculture expert Vijay Jawandhia puts it: "The farmers who are living are living only because they are not dying."

And the situation is worsening, with a majority of the region's 3 million farmers in severe debt, input costs soaring, state intervention steadily declining, and patience waning. Till 2003, suicides were reported from the state's cotton belt; today, even farmers in paddy-producing areas are following the trend that reflects the past decade's policy of liberalisation.

Despite some government interventions, in the form of relief packages, the structural and policy anomalies have never been addressed. Nor have the human dimensions of the agrarian crisis been properly understood. Among these is what is happening to the children in households where there have been suicides, particularly farming households.

NCRB data shows that Maharashtra witnessed over 40,000 farmer suicides between 1995 and 2007. This means that the number of children affected could easily run into a few thousands.

Across Vidarbha, the birth weight of children is falling sharply as women eat less and become physically weaker. Declining food intake among farmer families impacts women especially. Young mothers who are physically underweight often deliver babies that weigh less than 2 kg. This is not limited to tribal families; malnutrition cuts across every strata of society.

"Dropping birth weight should be a big concern as it has ramifications for future generations," says Dr Satish Gogulwar of the NGO Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi in Gadchiroli. "There is a sharp decline in the birth weight of children in the region. This could be due to a sustained fall in the income standards of farmers." Further, countless children are dropping out of school, many migrating with their parents to escape the distress back home.

Seen in the context of child rights, the tragedy unfolding among children in Vidarbha's dusty countryside begs the question: How do you uphold a child's right to survival, protection, development and participation when the problem has not even been acknowledged? When Rahul Gandhi toured Vidarbha for a day, he asked a boy about his dreams. A farmer standing nearby told him: "Don't ask them to dream, ask them to confront reality. They have no right to dream." A stunned Gandhi politely suggested that the farmer not be so pessimistic. The farmer insisted it was better to confront reality than to dream, as the former would help one understand and eventually overcome the problems.

(Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur-based journalist. He won a 2005 scholarship to research the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha from the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust, New Delhi. He is a recipient of several national media fellowships and was the winner of the 2003 Sanskriti award from Sanskriti Foundation, New Delhi. This series is the outcome of a study under CRY national child rights fellowships. Hardikar was CRY fellow 2008)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009