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India: The farmer's unhappy wives

Indian widows struggle mightily after a rash of farmer suicides.

A tribal farmer in the Koraput district, in the Indian state of Orissa, June 28, 2007. Thousands of farmers have committed suicide in recent years across India's sprawling western and southern plateau because they could not repay loans taken for their crops. (Desmond Boylan/Reuters)

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.