No woman’s land: meeting Warangal’s resolute farm women

March 22, 2018
By Rang De Team

My land Telangana

The Godavari passes through it but it’s of no use to us,

It keeps running away, and doesn’t stop for us

We have so many rivers in Telangana

And it still is like we’re in a desert

The politicians they took our votes for years in the name of water

For years they fooled us, became ministers and then left us

On a sunlit afternoon early this February, we had just finished meeting with about thirty women from Vasanthapur village in Warangal district of Telangana, when they broke into the chorus in Telugu. The ‘Impact assessment visit’, which started earlier in the morning, began with a round of introductions and it went on to the customary set of questions about the impact of Rang De’s loans.

The women we met in Vasanthapur were unlike most of Rang De’s women borrowers. Each one of the women we met was struck by a tragedy that was very personal, yet public. These are the women left behind after their husbands took their own lives in the wake of mounting debt, drought and crop failure, not having any other source of income to fall back on to make things work.

I refer to the heartbreak of losing their husband and father of their children as public because of the troubling recurrence of farmers’ suicides in the country over the last decade. Since June 2014, more than 3500 farmers in Telangana have committed suicide and the lives of the families they left behind remain far from easy. In addition to having no support from their in-laws, the government programmes and legal relief that exist, haven’t reached many of these women.

In Atmakur, one of the blocks in the Warangal district, the children of the women walk out of home in the morning only to be told “Tell your mother not to wake up so early, I don’t want hers to be the first face I see in the day.”

While I try to come to terms with the injustice of this sort of isolation for a deed their husband committed, the women tell us how, in spite of the constant discrimination and ostracism, they find support and comfort within their own community of farm widows: they organise their own joyful get-together even as they are not invited to any auspicious or festive community events within the village.

After their husbands’ suicide, the women are excluded from most community functions and rituals and find that they can talk freely only with other widows

When I reflect on all of this later on, the irony of it doesn’t escape me. When the women’s husbands were alive, the land they owned and collectively toiled on, belonged to him. The wives laboured as much — if not more — on the field but only the husband was recognised as a farmer.

Upon his death, the burden of debt and responsibility of the children fell on her, in addition to being socially excluded for being the parent that struggles through the pain of her loss to provide for her children.

If it is of any consolation, studies indicate that when a woman looks after household finances, she spends more on the well being of the family, especially her children — investing in their health and education more than a man is likely to. Except that here, some of the women have had to move their children from private schools (having better quality of education but expensive) to government schools, just in order to keep the family afloat.

Beedi making, another source of income for some of the women we met, getting paid Rs 100 per 1,000 beedis

Many of the women cannot hold on to their land in their effort to pay off their debt. This has meant moving from being land-owning farmers to landless labourers on others farmland — being paid a paltry Rs 200 for a day’s work.

Others have discontinued farm work altogether because it is a constant reminder of their husbands’ fate, in addition to being extremely laborious and prefer to start up small enterprises of their own, with the help of a Rang De loan.

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Some, like Swapna Maredugonda from neighbouring Musthyalapalli village, have to go the bank and repeatedly request the manager to transfer her late husband’s mortgaged land deed to her name. The bank manager is willing to oblige, but only if she repays the principal amount of Rs 1 lakh.

It has been four years since 37-year-old Swapna’s husband passed away. She managed to hold on to her land by giving it out on lease for two years after her husband’s death, while she worked as hired labour in other farms. It took her a while to realise that she could do it all by herself after which she began to cultivate on her land again.

So apart from single-handedly raising her son and daughter, she does everything on her farm as well. This includes spraying pesticide — a task usually done by hired male labour — by carrying 15 to 20 litres on her back. She also tends to the farm late at night or early in the morning, depending on when canal water is available for irrigation. She’s managed to clear almost Rs 3 lakhs of her husband’s debt now, by carrying on with agricultural work on her own.

Swapna’s laughter and matter-of-fact manner of speaking to us does not betray her struggle but it is when she tells us about her husband’s suicide and the outstanding debt, that she breaks down. But she regains her composure almost immediately when she talks about what she loves — sport!

When Sarvodaya Youth Organisation — Rang De’s implementing partner — organises programmes for their beneficiaries in Warangal on Women’s Day, Swapna comes first in most events. She loves kho-kho, much to the embarrassment of her daughter, who asks her “Why do you play with the kids?!”

Swapna, seated in the middle, along with (L-R) Rama, Komala, Rajitha, and Latha, Rang De borrowers who are also farm widows from Musthyalapalli village

At the end of our visit, what nagged me was the question of “impact”, the intention of our visit. How do you “measure impact” when working with a community like farm widows? How do you broach the subject of savings when you meet someone like Perumandla Indira, who has only been paying an interest on a loan of Rs 1.5 lakhs that her husband took 14 years ago?

I am then reminded of humbling stories like Swapna’s that give us hope and inspiration, even though it goes unsaid that a lot remains to be done.

Beginning from challenging existing gender norms and women’s economic dependence on their husbands, there is still a long way to go before women have access to land and are given decision-making roles. It fills us with joy that for Swapna and all the other women we met, the journey has begun — sadly, at the cost of personal tragedy.

By Lydia Thomas

Lydia Thomas is a member of the Impact Team at Rang De. She visited our community of borrowers associated with Sarvodaya Youth Organistion (SYO) in Warangal, Telangana in February 2018.

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