The farm widows of India: Perumalla Vinodha’s story

December 18, 2017
By Rang De Team
Perumalla Vinodha (right) is one of thousands of ‘farm widows’ in India, a term that refers to women who are left behind when their farmer husbands commit suicide. PC: Ahinsa

During a span of six months between June 2014 and January 2015, a period of intense agrarian crisis in India, over 536 farmers ended their lives in the South Indian state of Telangana. One of these farmers was Perumalla Vindoha’s husband.

Perumalla Vinodha lives in a small village called Damera in the Warangal district in Telangana. Along with her husband, she grew paddy in half an acre of land that the family owned. With the money they earned from the farms barely enough for the family, Perumalla’s husband leased an acre of land from a landlord, paying the rent upfront by borrowing money from the local moneylender.

After a season of poor harvests, Vinodha’s husband leased more land, hoping to make up for the losses through a bumper crop. However, due to a deficient south-west monsoon, the crops failed and another loan went unpaid. To make matters worse, the commodity prices crashed and he was forced to sell the harvested produce for a pittance. Distraught, Vinodha’s husband took his own life by consuming pesticide.

In India, nearly 60,000 farmers farmers who have committed suicide over the past 30 years, primarily in the states of Maharashtra, erstwhile undivided Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. While the causes for the suicides are varied, the term ‘farm widow’, used to the refer to the women who are left behind when their farmer husbands commit suicide, points to the sheer scale of the agrarian crisis in India, as well the largely unspoken, gendered nature of the problem.

Many of these farm widows often face a host of problems, routinely face harassment or ostracisation by family members, the community as a whole or even at the hands of government and public officials. With little skills or vocational training, they are left to look after the children and pay back the debt that the husband has left behind. The suicide of a farmer can condemn an entire family to a life of penury

After the death of her husband over three years ago, Vinodha was given compensation offered to farm widows by the state government but only received part of the money, with the rest disappearing as it made its way through the arcane machinery of the Indian bureaucracy. The little money she did received immediately went towards repaying her hsubands’ loans, but a debt of Rs 1,50,000 remained.

Vinodha sowed paddy in the family field but the money raised from selling the harvest was not enough to repay her husband’s debt. Her son, who makes a living as a daily wage labourer, contributed to the household expenses but didn’t have enough money to spare towards paying off his father’s debts as well.

It was clear to Vinodha that she needed to do something more, take up an alternative livelihood perhaps, but all of her attempts to secure a loan were rejected outright because of the existing debts she had.

In Warangal, a district in the South India state of Telangana, the Sarvodaya Youth Organisation (SYO) is working to support and provide the ‘farm widows’ with alternative means of livelihood.

Vinodha eventually approached the Sarvodaya Youth Organisation (SYO), a grassroots organisation in the Warangal district of Telangana that works with farm widows, helping them take up alternative livelihoods. SYO helped Vinodha apply for a special category, low-cost loan provided by Rang De. The successful loan application prompted a local Self-Help Group to lend Vinodha an unsecured loan of Rs 10,000.

The low-cost loan from Rang De, combined with the money provided by the SHG, helped her purchase a buffalo and take up dairy farming, resulting in a small increase in her monthly earnings. Today, Vinodha is slowly clearing the debt her husband has left behind. It will take a sustained effort and a long time for Vinodha to stand on her own feet, but what is more important is that the plight of thousands of women like her, the farm widows of India, should no longer be ignored.

Find out more about the Sarvodaya Youth Organisation here.

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