India: The farmer's unhappy wives

AMRAVATI, India — Once a month Ujwala Karmejh pulls together her savings and splurges on a 60-rupee ($1.30), round-trip bus ticket.

Wearing a sari and red bindi on her forehead, Ujwala takes the bus past the open fields growing cotton, soya beans and lentils; the baby goats grazing on the side of the road; the old men with deeply engraved wrinkles driving oxcarts; and the bright blue tents housing migrant workers who have traveled to central India to work in the fields. After 45 minutes, Ujwala reaches Shirasgaon village and her target: her 4-year-old daughter, Jagruti.

india farmer wife daughter
Ujwala Karmejh holds her daughter Jagruti at her parent's house in Shirasgaon village in Amravati, India.
(Hanna Ingber Winn/GlobalPost)

In 2007, Ujwala’s husband faced so much hardship and debt as a farmer that he committed suicide. Ujwala and her daughter, like thousands of families of farmer suicide victims in India each year, now struggle to manage in the shadow of his death. Life for them has only gotten harder.

While India’s urban centers have grown at remarkable speed over the past decade, millions of its farmers, who make up two-thirds of the population, have been left living in deplorable conditions with poverty rates comparable to sub-Saharan Africa.

Some farmers in Kashele in western Maharashtra state are so poor they have been forced to eat rats to survive, says Neelesh Kottary, a Mumbai-based writer who owns land in the area. Others in north India have resorted to selling their wives to get out of debt, according to various local reports.

The number of farmers who kill themselves to escape debt and depression varies, with estimates as high as 17,000 a year. More than 180,000 farmers committed suicide between 1997 and 2007, according to the Ministry of Home Affair’s National Crime Records Bureau.

For the first time in four years, the number of suicides in Vidarbha region, which stretches across central India and includes Amravati district where Ujwala lives, dropped below 1,000 in 2009, as reported in the Times of India.

That is still almost 1,000 unnecessary deaths, says Dr. Rajesh Parikh, the director of psychiatry research at Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital.

“Where else in the world do you get a headline that says, ‘This year there have been less than 1,000 people who killed themselves?’” he says. “I find it very disturbing.”

The farmers leave behind wives whose plights only worsen. As widows, they often face social stigma, often do not know their rights, lose their land, struggle financially and have even less control over their lives.

When Ujwala was 23, her parents arranged for her to marry a young man from a nearby village. Asked if she knew anything about her fiance, Ujwala laughs.

“No,” she says in Marathi. “If I had known something about my husband, I would have never married him.”

After the wedding, Ujwala moved to her husband’s village in Bhilapur and started a new life with him. From the beginning, she says, the marriage was difficult.

Her husband did not talk openly with her; he did not share his concerns or problems. Asked what the couple did together that brought her joy or laughter, Ujwala cannot recall a single thing.

“He looked sad at all times,” she says.

Ujwala and her husband farmed cotton and soya beans, like many in this region. Ujwala worked with her husband in the fields. Before and after the farming, she did the family’s cooking and cleaning. The couple had a baby, Jagruti, and Ujwala took care of her with virtually no help.

But her husband made all the decisions about the family’s farm and income. Ujwala never knew how much land her husband owned, how much he earned or how much he owed. She never had her own cash.

Three years into the marriage, Ujwala’s husband drank a chemical pesticide, killing himself.

The Vidarbha region has been hardest hit by farmer suicides. Many of the farmers there grow cotton, which is particularly vulnerable to pests, has high costs of production and is subject to the volatility of the international market. To cover production costs and obtain cash before the harvest, farmers take out loans from banks or moneylenders, who often charge exorbitant interest rates.

A cotton farmer in Ghodghwan village in Amravati, Rajendra Panja Kadu, told GlobalPost he had to borrow from moneylenders to pay for his cottonseeds and living expenses because the bank would not give him a new loan. The moneylender lent him 10,000 rupees a year and charged him 5 percent interest a month, or 60 percent a year.

When Ujwala’s husband killed himself, she was left with nothing. The land her husband owned went to his brother. According to Hindu marriage law, the land should have been divided between his relatives, and Ujwala should have been entitled to a share of it, says independent journalist and columnist Kalpana Sharma who covers developmental issues and gender. However, male relatives often deceive poor rural women and deny them their share of the land, she says.

“A lot of these women don’t even know the law and their rights,” Sharma says. “They are left without anything quite often.”

Ujwala now works as a laborer on other people’s fields. She earns 50 rupees a day working two shifts. On such meager earnings, she cannot afford to raise her daughter and must have her live at her parents’ home.

Furthermore, Ujwala has to live with her in-laws, whom she says she dislikes. In many parts of India, once a woman marries into a family, she becomes part of that family forever, Sharma says. The woman’s parents might view her as a burden and not want to take her back, or they might be superstitious and see widowhood as bringing bad luck to the family.

Women in rural areas often have few options or rights, Sharma says, “and when [a woman] becomes a widow, she has even less choices before her.”

Ujwala says that while she finds it painful to only see her daughter once a month, she knows her daughter will get a better education by attending the government school near her parents’ home. Asked what her dream is for her daughter, Ujwala’s face breaks out into a big smile, and she says in English: “Doctor.”