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Ganesh, the big small farmer of Ralegaon

By Jaideep Hardikar

Ganesh Kale was just eight when his father committed suicide. Now 11, Ganesh is one of a growing tribe of Vidarbha’s baccha-kisans (child farmers) who are tilling their fields, taking their crops to market, and grappling with their family’s finances and needs

Vidarbha baccha-kisans
Ganesh Kale with his mother and sister

Ganesh Diliprao Kale whips out his cellphone and dials his friend to confirm their meeting at the local market. “We’ve to meet at 2,” he reminds his buddy.

It is harvest time, and Ganesh does not have much time for himself these days. You can make that out from his brisk walk and hectic conversations on the phone.

There are just too many things to be done, he explains, smiling wryly: the crop must be cut and stocked before it’s taken to the market; the fields have to be prepared for the next crop; the cows have to be fed… The list seems endless.

Then there are social obligations too. He has to accompany his friend to the cotton procurement centre where he might have to spend the night. It takes 24 hours at least for the traders to procure the cotton. Good friends, he says, help each other in times of need. “He’ll help me when I bring my crop to the market. It’s a mutual understanding.”

That’s not all. Ganesh has to tend to the domestic chores as well, from bringing in the daily ration to helping his mother tidy the house. He does it all uncomplainingly.

In between all of this, if he finds the time, he has to be in school. Ganesh is an eighth standard student, and a diligent one.

At 13, the thin but energetic Ganesh is one of a growing tribe of Vidarbha’s baccha-kisans (child farmers), akin to an early maturing variety of crop.

From the sheltered cocoon of early childhood, Ganesh and his younger sibling Ashwini are suddenly in the midst of huge responsibilities.

Around 11 years old, Ashwini is already her mother’s helper in the kitchen, looking after the family’s domestic needs. No time for the make-believe world of dolls for her; instead, a real list of everyday chores. “I’ve learnt to cook food on my own,” she says proudly.

Their septuagenarian grandmother Sumanbai says: “There has been a big fall in our status in the last five decades. Today, we are unable to provide for even the basic needs of our grandchildren: either for body or for mind.”

Five years ago, when Ganesh was barely eight years old, his father took his own life by consuming pesticide. “My father was a farmer,” he says, before falling into a brooding silence.

Dilip Kale’s debts kept mounting year after year, but his seven-acre land yielded no income for three successive years due to drought and crop failure. In October 2003, his fields bare after the loss of a costly Bt cotton crop, Dilip committed suicide out of desperation, says his widow Shalini.

That was also the year when the state government withdrew the monopoly cotton procurement scheme, taking away the last remaining cushion against global price volatilities. This, and massive cotton imports, caused local prices to crash and the farmers’ debt burden to shoot up. Meanwhile, incomes dwindled. Needless to say, the suicide rate among Vidarbha’s farmers rose dramatically that year.

“The day he committed suicide, I had gone to my parental home with the children for a function. He finally wilted under the burden of debt,” says Shalini. “He loved the children so much that it’s difficult for me to believe that he could leave them like this. It has taken time for us to come to terms with the grim reality.”

There was no time for the two siblings to mourn their father’s death. Ganesh had to immediately take up the plough and till the fields. He did so unflinchingly, even as his mother grappled with the family finances.

It’s a similar scenario in almost every household in Vidarbha that has witnessed a suicide. Most of the 10,000-odd children from western Vidarbha’s 5,000 suicide-ravaged farm households, like Ganesh, inherit a legacy of debt and distress. Yet they remain the unseen faces of an agrarian tragedy that threatens to engulf entire generations.

“My father could not repay his loans and meet our domestic needs,” says Ganesh chewing pan-masala and belying the fact that he’s only in his early teens.

Although the worry and the tension haven’t started showing on his face yet, the innocence of childhood has long faded away. “Farming is not easy,” he says and goes on to list the problems like a seasoned elder. “It is not only physically demanding, it’s also very risky.”

No wonder his mother calls him the “big man of the house”. She says: “He’s not demanding like a child but sometimes he regrets the fact that his father is not alive to stand by him, to buy him clothes, to tell him stories, to celebrate Diwali with him, or to teach him the nuances of farming.”

That’s the only time the family realises that Ganesh is still a child.

“Last month, when some 40 children had assembled at a seven-day educational camp at Sevagram in Wardha, Ganesh called his mother on his cellphone and grilled her: Had she fed the cows? What wages had she paid the helper?” remembers Charusheela Thakre, a field volunteer with the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation’s Wardha project. Indeed, Ganesh is more concerned about his farm than his studies, she says. “If I am not, who’ll feed us,” he retorts.

“He does all the work in the fields. Yes, we can now say he’s a farmer,” says his mother.

The family has seen its full share of tragedy. A year before his father’s suicide, Ganesh’s uncle Ashok killed himself. His wife has since moved in with her parents. Then, Ganesh’s last surviving uncle and the youngest of the three brothers, Suresh, committed suicide in 2007.

“He was tense and could not sleep because of his debts,” says his widow, Anita, who has very little formal education. She has two children, Akanksha, 3, and Nitin, a little over a year old. Ganesh’s mother supports Anita who is not strong enough to work on the farm.

Sumanbai has no idea why all her sons killed themselves. “My husband was a very good farmer and he imparted the basic training to all his children. God knows what has gone wrong.” Worried about her favourite grandson, she regrets the fact that Ganesh is left with no mentor for farming.

Ganesh appears unperturbed. “I’ve got an extended family now,” smiles the ‘big man of the house’, referring to his aunt and two younger cousins.

(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