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Passing on the burden

By Jaideep Hardikar

Fifteen-year-old Deepak Bramhanwade was catapulted to the head of the family after his farmer father Devidas consumed pesticide and died. Devidas had debts to repay and was not eligible for the Centre's loan waiver scheme because he owned just half an acre more than the five-acre ceiling. Now his young son must bear all the responsibilities he was unable to cope with

It's only a few days into their mourning. Fifteen-year-old Deepak Bramhanwade still has to fully comprehend the tragedy that has befallen his family after the suicide of his farmer father, Devidas. Suddenly, the teenager finds himself the head of the family.

"I'll be looking after our farm henceforth," Deepak says in a somewhat reluctant voice, even as his mother Prabha sits engulfed in silence. Deepak's younger sister Gayatri holds his hand tight, in an indication of the sense of insecurity that surrounds the widow and her children. In a world of growing individualism, there is no one to fall back on.

"How do I take care of my daughter and grandchildren when I am in the same situation that my son-in-law was in," says Prabha's father Tularam Belkhade, a paddy farmer in eastern Vidarbha's Gondia district.

A month before he killed himself, Devidas sent Deepak to Tularam to try and get some money. Tularam says: "This boy had told me that his father was disturbed. When I asked him the reason, he revealed to me that he was in huge debt and had, of late, taken to drinking. I showed him my completely devastated farm; I could not have helped him at all," the old man laments. "This has been the worst year of drought."

Devidas' financial problems began when his youngest child, Gendlal, was diagnosed with a brain tumour five years ago. The boy was in the fourth standard when he died. "We spent over Rs 2 lakh, all borrowed from private sources, on his treatment, but we could not save him," says Prabha. "He (Devidas) took to drinking after that episode." Devidas' four brothers snapped all ties with him. "He would drink too much and then blame us for all his problems," says Bhagwant, youngest of the Bramhanwade siblings, who stays next door.

The Jain-Kalar community, to which the Bramhanwades belong, is among the forward castes; they traditionally deal in the liquor business. The family does farming and runs small village enterprises. Bhagwant started a small restaurant in Nandgaon town, a tehsil headquarters on the Amravati-Yavatmal state highway. "I have secondary sources of income," he says, "but Devidas did not have any allied sources to add to his income... We never realised that he had grown so desperate that he would take his own life," says Bhagwant, stopping short of accepting that the brothers failed to support Devidas in his time of need.

Meanwhile, Devidas' debts kept mounting as income from his farm dwindled dramatically. He had inherited his share of five-and-a-half acres of farmland from his father, all of it rain-fed. On it he grew cotton and soybean, says Prabha. "For two years, I've been farming with my father," Deepak says. "I learned a few basic things from him and tended to a pair of our bullocks."

But, explains Tularam who has spent half a century farming paddy, it's not easy doing agriculture. "I am now concerned about how this boy will till the land, do the weeding, look after the finances, and market his yield; all this needs training and backing. I am too old to teach or train him, and his father is no longer alive to back him," he says, holding Deepak's hand gently. "This is a big, big crisis."

The entire night running up to the early hours of December 31, 2008, Devidas stayed awake, though drunk, telling his wife and children that the coffers were empty and that his debtors were asking for their money back. At 6 am, the first day of the new year, Devidas took his own life by consuming a litre of deadly pesticide.

In a small suicide note, he wrote that he was in debt and was committing suicide because he could not repay the money. This year, the family is again staring at huge losses following crop failure and a drought-like situation in the region.

An eighth standard drop-out, Deepak has carefully preserved his father's suicide note and is aware of the financial problems that his family is grappling with. Devidas loved him and his sister, the 15-year-old says, but in his last few days, and because of the tension, he was a little rough on them.

Devidas has an unpaid personal loan of Rs 70,000 and an outstanding cooperative bank loan of Rs 37,000. Ironically, he could not avail of the benefits of the Centre's 2008 loan waiver scheme because of the five-acre ceiling. According to the scheme, he could have received a one-time settlement of up to Rs 20,000 had he paid Rs 17,000 in three instalments. Sadly, Devidas did not have Rs 3,700 to pay the first instalment, says Bhagwant.

Devidas Bramhanwade is a symbol of the Centre's discriminatory loan waiver policy that equates rain-dependent farmers with those who have irrigation. The five-acre ceiling excludes by a whisker (only half-an-acre more) crisis-ridden farmers like Devidas who have less than Rs 50,000 in outstanding loans, but waives, in the thousands, the loans of smallholding farmers with irrigation.

What's even more tragic than Devidas' outstanding loan burden is the legacy that Deepak has inherited: the gigantic responsibilities. He has to ensure that Gayatri continues her schooling, which, she says, she would like to. He has to take care of his mother who is still in deep shock. Deepak is aware of the uncertainties. He says he will overcome all the problems slowly.

"It would help," says his grandfather "if the government took a sympathetic view of suicide-affected families and waived their loans completely without discrimination." Otherwise how will this young boy ever be able to shoulder the burden that killed his father?

(Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur-based journalist. This series is the outcome of a study under the CRY national child rights fellowships)

InfoChange News & Features, March 2009