Kishore Tiwari has made a full-time job of raising awareness of the cotton farmers’ plight and the agrarian distress in Vidarbha through his organization Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS). In 2015 the Maharashtra government appointed Kishore Tiwari to head the Farmers Distress Management Task Force to address farm distress in 14 cotton-growing districts of Maharashtra and recommend agro-reforms.
The man I met at a secret location in Pandharkawada had every reason to be suspicious and to demand anonymity. He had been a moneylender for 35 years and inherited the business from his father and grandfather. With farmer suicides peaking in the region of the small village of Sahukar, local moneylenders were blamed for the crisis. A few had been charged in court, and a crackdown on the old credit system of the villages was under way. They were an easy target, as many charge usurious interest rates, take the farmers’ land titles as a collateral, have their strong men threaten the farmer if he delays payments and at times even take the farmer’s daughters home and rape them. But as bad as many moneylenders are, they only part of the problem. Anoop Sadanadan, a political economist at Syracuse University, argues in a study that “the increase in suicides among Indian farmers is an unanticipated consequence of the bank reforms the country undertook since the early-1990s. In particular, the entry of foreign and new generation private banks has made banking in India competitive and led to fewer loans to agriculture and farmers. With increased competition, banks saw lending to the farm sector as unprofitable and unreliable.” As thousands of bank branches shut down in rural India and institutional credit dried up, farmers turned to moneylenders, often getting private loans to pay off the bank and vice versa, until the scheme collapses. With the crackdown on small private moneylenders — some of whom went bankrupt and committed suicide themselves when farmers defaulted on paying – another more-potent predator entered the scene that by now rules the rural economy: Input traders, who sell seed, fertilizer and pesticides, became the new creditors. They sell the farmer inputs that will generate the highest profit, dictate the prices for these inputs and finally force him to sell his crop at the lowest rate to pay the loan. When a lot of disillusioned farmers in Vidarbha tried to shift away from cotton and towards soybeans in 2008, some input dealers responded by holding back on fertilizer. They wanted to sell Bt cotton seed, which generates a higher profit for the dealer.
One year after the suicide of her husband, who poisoned himself with pesticides, Bhim Bai Dauwlat Tekam hosts her family for a traditional ritual, called Shraddha. It‘s believed that after the soul leaves the body, it stays around for a while. The Shraddha ritual helps the soul to break the bonds with its old life and guide it on its journey.
Bhim Bai Dauwlat Tekam lives with her 9-year-old daughter in a small village near Pandarkawadha. Her husband Dauwlat Tekam poisoned himself with pesticides a year before. Now Bhim Bai worries how to raise her daughter since she doesn’t know how to farm by herself. When farmers commit suicide, their children are often forced to take on adult responsibilities and drop out of school, and for girls, marry early so the family has one less mouth to feed.