No livelihood and under burden of debt: The tragic tales of Tamil Nadu’s farm widows

Trained only to take care of their households, the women find it difficult to manage after the death of their husband.
No livelihood and under burden of debt: The tragic tales of Tamil Nadu’s farm widows
No livelihood and under burden of debt: The tragic tales of Tamil Nadu’s farm widows
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Arivin Kodi, a resident of Orikudi village in Nagapattinam, is a brave woman. She believes she can overcome any adversity that life forces on her. Every time her husband Kaliyaperumal sowed maize in the three acres of land they owned and waited endlessly for the rains, it was Arivin Kodi who offered him words of comfort.

It was no different that day. Kaliyaperumal had returned with a broken heart and Kodi did her best to console him. Let us find another job if there is no yield, she said. But for Kaliyaperumal, his land was what he had pinned his hopes on. He had incurred debts cultivating the land and had sown not just maize but his last piece of hope too. Unfortunately for him, both the southwest and northeast seasonal rains failed.

For Kaliyaperumal, the world stopped with that. It dawned as usual on the morning of December 31, 2010 and he left for the field. Arivin Kodi was waiting for him to come back. “Suddenly I saw people running towards the field. They told me someone had fallen unconscious. I was scared but it was the last thing I had expected – seeing my husband lifeless,” Kodi says.

Kaliyaperumal’s is not an isolated case. Farmers dying at the sight of their failed crops keeps happening in Tamil Nadu. Much as we are aware of the plight of farmers in the state, it remains an unwritten episode, something that has failed to touch our senses. Worse still is the plight of farm widows – there have hardly been any discussions on their lives after losing their husbands, or the struggles that they are forced to face.

Women have no say in agriculture

Agriculture remains predominantly a rural preoccupation. Patriarchy continues to thrive in rural India, where women have no say in agriculture. Even in families that have lands, the participation of women is confined to being of some help. Trained only to take care of their households, the women find it difficult to manage after the death of their husbands.

Arivin Kodi was one such woman. Having gotten both her daughters married, she was forced to live with her brother. “My husband took complete care of the cultivation. I always stayed at home. I was not used to working in the field. After he passed away, everything turned dark. I had to struggle even for a meal. I cleared all the debts from the relief fund I got after my husband’s death and from the money from selling our land. If he failed to raise crops, how could I? Some well-wishers gifted me five goats on seeing my plight. I rear them. I am now dependent on them,” she explains.

The story of women who have lost their husbands in Indian society is gut-wrenchingly tragic. They have to bear the burden of debts and, in most cases, are left directionless. They have to work harder and face more insults when they attempt to fill the void left by their husbands. Women are neither paid on par with men nor given work on par with men in agriculture. Decisions related to farming – from what to cultivate to how to improve yield, from where to buy to where to sell – are taken only by men.

So when the husband suddenly dies, it becomes even more difficult for women to carry on with farming. “It is possible if there is a male heir. If not, selling the land is the only option,” says Devika.

Devika is from Musiriyam village in Tiruvarur district. Her husband, Sekhar, killed himself on November 30, 2016. “We lived in a house that was almost falling apart. My husband took a loan of Rs 5 lakh to repair the house and to cultivate our lands. Without water, the crops withered. Our son was looking for a job in Chennai but could not find a suitable one,” Devika says.

“My husband was distressed over the fact that our house will be confiscated if do not repay the loan. One day he went to the field and called us over phone and said that he was going to drink poison and die. We ran towards the land. He was there, lying unconscious. But he was still alive. We rushed him to hospital where he died within a week,” Devika recounts. Eight years after he passed away, Devika still fights back her tears while narrating the ordeal.

Devika got Rs 3 lakh from the state and a cow from some good Samaritans living abroad. Not accustomed to farm work, Devika continues to struggle. “I cannot do farming alone. The input price is staggeringly high. My son has finished his ITI and is working in Chennai. The younger one, who has done his Diploma, supports me here. Those who can, use a borewell in their lands. If I could afford that, my younger son can do farming. But now we only have two cows. Our two acres of land remain idle,” she says.

Alarming incidence of farmer suicides

Government statistics indicate that from the late 90s till 2011, a farmer committed suicide every half an hour in the country. The scenario has not changed much in the years after that. As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, one can draw parallels with Vidarbha in Maharashtra when it comes to farmer suicides. In 2016, both rainfall and Cauvery River failed. TN farmers never had it worse. In that year from October to December alone, 144 farmers died – many of them from suicide, according to government data.

The tragedy lasted for over a year. Even as several movements began to work in support of farmers, the state thought it fit to stop with announcing Rs 3 lakh as relief. The funds do not suffice to clear the debts left behind by the husband, leave alone taking care of educational and wedding expenses. Soon enough, the families begin to starve.

In Pathur of Tiruvarur district, Navaseelan began farming on leased land. He took a loan to meet expenses, from the lease on the land to the cost of input materials. With crops affected due to drought, he could neither pay the loans nor give paddy in exchange for the partial lease amount as agreed. The situation pushed him into depression.

“He had a tailoring shop, but was interested in farming. He had approached big farmers who had borewell facility and paid them to use it in his land. It was still not very helpful. He was shattered. One day, he went to the land, came back and went to sleep. When I tried waking him up, he didn’t respond. That is when I realised he had passed away. The world under me slipped. I have not stepped out of the house for anything. I had no idea how much money he owed people,” says his wife Usha. Navaseelan had not discussed the debt or farming with Usha.

Since the land was leased, Navaseelan was not entitled to government compensation. This forced Usha to borrow Rs 25,000 to clear the current lease dues of the land. She was forced to take her child, who was in Class 7, out of school. Educated up to Class 12, Usha has now joined a small firm for a monthly salary of Rs 3,000. Her son has rejoined school, thanks to help from some good Samaritans.

Struggles of Dalit women

While agriculture continues to be a traditional job, women are not involved in it. Women can never be landowners in rural areas.  Men never discuss anything related to land, debts, crops insurance, etc. with the women of their households. It is only when the husbands pass away, the women come to know the seriousness of the issue. Out of ignorance and low on confidence, the women decide to either sell or lease whatever land they have.

Unable to clear debts, Durairaj – a farmer from Ovarcheri in Tiruvarur – hanged himself to death on October 9, 2017 on the very farm land that had failed him. His wife Vyjayanthi Mala has been struggling to bring up her four children.

“I have pledged the land and have some cows. We managed to clear some debts because of the relief money. I have also leased 1.5 acres of land. I cannot do farming, but these help me sustain. At least for now,” she says.

Ironically, Vyjayanthi now works as an agricultural labourer. Every morning dawns with a new set of challenges for an illiterate Vyjayanthi. She has to wake up at four to do her work. She also has to take care of her cows and domestic work in the family. She feels relieved that both her daughters are married. But her grownup sons are yet to share her responsibilities.

As a widowed Dalit woman, Vyjayanthi Mala’s struggles multiply. “As an agricultural labourer, I have no dignity or respect. The income too is meagre. But I have no other choice. Agricultural labourers do not get the same benefits or grants from the government that landed farmers get. We are Dalits and whatever land we own is our strength. We face all kinds of discriminations and atrocities even when we own land. The upper caste farmers could get bore water from their community lands. But we could not. Though we can pay, they won’t agree,” she rues.

Discussions around agriculture are mostly about fixing the prices, procurement by the government and price rise during emergency situations. But no steps have been taken to feminise agriculture. Experts feel steps need to be taken to make women landowners, help them get loans, train them in handling farming equipment and so on. Farming equipment is designed heavy to be handled by men. When the men pass away, most women have no bond with the lands. They are too overburdened by issues that arise out of death to think of anything else.

It was women who invented agriculture. But they have been made to cut off from the very lands that they began cultivating on. Those struggling to save agriculture should also think about bringing in gender equality in that domain.

(Translated from Tamil by Kaviya Uma Maheshwaran)

The story is part of GAATW fellowship on women and labour.

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