This is something I wrote last year in India, while working closely with Prof Harper and a few others to present a scheme to ease the agrarian distress in India.
A few nights ago, I ran into Professor Malcom at an event on poverty and microfinance.
He mentioned these stories I wrote up, and as I re-read them just now, am deciding to post...
Jakla Punama’s story, Anna Sagar Village, Andhra Pradesh
The sun was setting in Mehbobnagar district of Andhra Pradesh. The staff at the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development of India (NABARD) had arranged for Professor Harper and me to visit a widow; Jakla Punama, a woman who’s husband was a farmer who had committed suicide. Farmer suicides are rampant throughout India for multiple reasons, so Jakla Punama was one of thousands of widows living in rural India. We entered Anna Sagar village and walked past the community police department. A group of men were gathered around a table and chairs that had been arranged for our visit. We came on behalf of an expert panel seeking to address the issues of India’s agrarian distress.
The village chief or “sarpanch” proudly came up to meet Dr. Malcolm Harper. As typical of many Indians, it seemed the sarpanch was eager to impress Harper, a white man, by his status in the village. Harper, however, was unconcerned about anyone or anything other than Jakla Punama, and why she wasn’t asked to sit down when we were. When the sarpanch asked Harper and me to take a seat, Harper demanded where the seats were for Jakla, her mom, and her two daughters. The sarpanch seemed so taken aback by Harper’s blunt behavior and the NABARD staff jumped in saying that the sarpanch did not understand Harper’s accent to which he replied, “Well it’s not a matter of understanding accents; it’s common courtesy.”
After everyone was finally seated, the next dilemma to be solved was ridding our meeting of the male spectators gathered all around the table. After some commotion and interventions, we finally got to hear the story of Jakla Punama’s husband’s death, without our visit turning into a village spectacle.
Later, Mr. Wadavi, a peace-maker, from the NABARD staff accompanying us tried to explain that what had happened was a part of the culture that Harper didn’t understand. Harper responded by saying that he did understand it all to well and that was the problem.
Jakla Punama’s late husband was a paddy farmer. He had taken an informal loan from a local moneylender to dig a bore well. He dug his well, purchased pipes, and bought a motor, but the yield of his well was quite low. So, he leased his land out to come out of his debt situation. According to Jakla, her husband’s total debt was around 50,000 rupees. There may have been other debts of which she is unaware. In 2002, Jakla’s husband had gathered enough money and was able to repay what he owed. Unfortunately, the moneylender did not issue her husband a receipt and denied being repaid. He then forcibly took over the farmer’s land and grew his own crops. According to Jakla, her husband almost immediately committed suicide after the moneylender cheated him by consuming pesticide.
In 2004, after the introduction of a government scheme, Jakla Punama was given 150,000 rupees in compensation. She used the 50,000 rupees to repay the loan amount and then the rest was deposited into an account with the State Bank of India, under her daughters’ names. She also receives 200 rupees a month as widow’s pension.
Though Jakla Punama should have inherited whatever land was in her husband’s name, her mother-in-law does not allow her to cultivate the land, forcing Jakla to continue seeking out daily wage work. Her mother-in-law has given the land to someone else to till. Because Jakla is presumably illiterate, it may be difficult to gather the information to find out whose land it is and how much belongs to her.
Fatima Begum’s story, Tatipathy village, Andhra Pradesh
The following morning, we drove up to Tatipathy village in Mehbabunagar District of Andhra Pradesh. As we passed the farmlands on our way, small hamlets, and a Masjid a couple of kilometers before we got to what appeared to be the village center, I got a sense of what tough rural life in India is like. There was nothing “Bollywood” about this road trip. When we reached the village center, there was a group of men, presumably farmers or laborers of the village standing around. As we got out of the car, a frail woman in her forties approached. She did the traditional touching of the feet to Professor Harper and the two men from NABARD accompanying us, who all insisted she stop. We had come to talk to her and to hear the story of her husband, Mohammed, a farmer who had committed suicide, which is a common phenomenon in rural India and is blamed on India’s agrarian distress.
We all walked into some sort of community building. Some chairs had been arranged on one side of a small table for us to sit at, and we hastily put one chair on the other side for the lady we had come to meet. It was clearly surprising to her, and to everyone else, that she would be allowed to sit down as well, and we almost had to force her into the chair. .
I had so many questions for her, but at the same time felt at a loss for words because I couldn’t even fathom what her life must be like. I had no idea how her marriage life had been, how her kids are, how she managed before and after her husband killed himself, what her relationship to him was, and to her in-laws and her community, how her community viewed her. I had an endless list of other thoughts and questions and concerns.
We slowly started asking questions; basic ones like when her husband killed himself. Gradually she began to tell us the story. Mohammed hung himself five years ago, in 2002, and as Fatima told the story, tears started to pour out of her eyes. At one point, the village chief or ‘Sarpanch’ walked into the room, and Fatima immediately got up and almost threw herself on the ground; it was unacceptable for her to sit on a chair in his presence. He comfortably took a seat and when we realized that she wouldn’t continue in his presence we asked him to leave. It was only after he left the room, that Fatima continued her desolate story.
Fatima is illiterate, and if she is anything like most women in Indian villages, she probably did not communicate on a regular basis with her husband. She was unaware of the exact amount of her husband’s debt. The story is as follows: Some ten to twelve years ago, Mohammed got a loan from the local primary agricultural co-operative society, or PACS, which is part of India’s massive network of over 100,000 such institutions; they are only co-operatives in name, and are usually dominated by the richer farmers in the local community. Although the loan was distributed between all his family members, because their ancestral land had been divided between them, somehow the repayment burden fell only on Mohammed.
The money was used to dig bore wells for irrigation, but the wells failed. Mohammed then took another loan, this time from a local moneylender, for around 5-6,000 rupees. The PACS had issued Mohammed three notices telling him to repay his loans. The money lender also pressured Mohammed to repay his loans. Although Mohammed prayed regularly at the nearby Masjid, he apparently never discussed his problems within the community, and it appeared that he enjoyed no informal social support. Fatima thinks that it was the third notice he received from the PACS as well as increasing pressure from the moneylender that prompted Mohammed to take the drastic step and end his life.
In 2004 the government started a program to provide compensation for families of farmers who had committed suicide. So three years ago, Fatima received 150,000 rupees. Fifty thousand was used to pay off the PACS loan her husband had taken and the other 100,000 went for the marriage dowry of her eldest daughter. The priority placed on marriage dowry is unbelievable and Fatima described her current burden; her second daughter was ready for marriage but that they did not have enough money for dowry to get her married, a fact that would of course be a blow to their social status.
One of her two sons attends a madrassa in the nearest town, where he gets room and board. The older son works at a restaurant stall in town. Fatima wants him to stay there, as there is no work for him in the village. Fatima herself does daily labor work wherever she can find it—intensive work that pays only fifty rupees a day. A new government program, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) guarantees one hundred days work at eighty rupees a day for every household that wants it. When we asked Fatima why she wasn’t working under this scheme, she told us that she knew about it, but that others in the village told her that it wasn’t for women. This is a typical example of how government schemes do not always reach those that most need them.
Fatima is part of the minority Muslim community in a predominately Hindu village. Now that she is a widow, she is also ostracized for that. This could explain why she cannot get the information she needs to take advantage of the NREGA scheme. When we asked whether she was part of a women’s self-help group, she replied in the positive but admitted it was a newly formed group and she still hadn’t opened up to the group. In the five years since her husband had killed himself, Fatima said she had not really shared the story with anybody. Her in-laws were also of no support to her.
The sad case of Fatima Begum illustrates many of India’s social “ills”. In her story, we see that government programs, though well intended, do not always reach those in need. The combination of her being Muslim and now a widow leads to her being ostracized by the community. The importance of a dowry for her daughters creates financial burdens on Fatima and presumably also for her son who now works outside the village. Her attitude and reaction to the village sarpanch is all too common and demonstrates the caste hierarchy that is ever present in India. It is not clear how she related to her husband, but she was unaware of the exact details of his indebtedness, leading one to believe they probably did not communicate regularly. Her in-laws also played a problematic role, both before and after the death of her husband. This is also common among Indian families. Since Fatima’s son found work in town, she thinks he should just stay there, saying there is no need for him to come back. And finally, Fatima is illiterate. This prevents her from even knowing how much land is registered in her husband’s name, and thus rightfully hers.
India is a country which is often romanticized by people, both from within and out of India for its hospitality, its strong family ties and values, and yet, the story of Fatima Begum is not an uncommon one that resonates throughout rural India.