Sunday, October 16, 2011

‘Everyone has abandoned me’-Times of India

Publication: The Times Of India Mumbai; Date: Oct 16, 2011; Section: Times City; Page: 8

‘Everyone has abandoned me’

Sukhada Tatke TNN
Farm widow Aparna Mallikar’s KBC win turned sour when relatives, money lenders and fake creditors descended on her, demanding their share. It’s the same story everywhere

THE BIG PICTURE Days before Aparna Mallikar was to appear on KBC, her brother-in-law, who’s an NCPturned-Congress leader and former mayor of Nagpur, called the organisers and said that her husband’s was not a case of farm suicide, and that the suicide was, in fact, propelled by Mallikar’s parents and herself

It took a few moments of intense uncertainty before Aparna Mallikar, 27, decided to relinquish her hot seat opposite Amitabh Bachchan. Something told her that the answer to the question he had just posed (‘Who wrote 4000 abhangs on Vithoba?’) was Sant Tukaram—but not wanting to lose out on what was within reach, she chose to withdraw from the contest with a prize money of Rs 6.40 lakh. She believed the amount would be enough to bail her out of the misery awaiting her back home in the hamlet of Vara-Kawatha in Yavatmal district, about 750 kilometers away from the glamour of where she was. Instead, there was more anguish lingering at her doorstep.

Aparna, whose debt-ridden, cotton-growing farmer husband Sanjay ended his life in August 2008, thought that winning the money would, if not entirely put an end to her family’s misfortune, at least temporarily assuage their distress. However, the sudden windfall and the publicity accompanying it translated into burgeoning problems with her in-laws, the arrival of a clutch of people posing as creditors and an unprecedented increase in familial and neighbourhood discord. Amitabh Bachchan, moved by her sorry tale, gave her Rs 1 lakh. The money that she won on the show, aired on September 29, is yet to be transferred to her.

After her husband’s death, Aparna was left to raise her two daughters, eight-year-old Rohini and four-year-old Samruddhi, all by herself (Samruddhi was barely nine months old when her father consumed pesticide). Sanjay’s debts to private moneylenders and banks stood at Rs 2 lakh. The family did not get compensation from the government, as his suicide was considered “ineligible” for it. In the circumstances, KBC could have been the panacea but it was not to be.

“The problems started even before my show was aired,” says Aparna. “Days before I was to appear on it, my brother-in-law, who’s an NCPturned-Congress leader and former mayor of Nagpur, called the organisers and said that my husband’s was not a case of farm suicide, and that the suicide was, in fact, propelled by my parents and me. The allegations took a great mental toll on me. As if I hadn’t borne a heavy enough burden after my husband died, I had to now start proving with documents that he had indeed ended his life because of debts. My in-laws, who abandoned my daughters and me days after my husband died, have been trying to ensure that the money doesn’t reach me. Various other people are approaching me, saying that they had lent my husband money, but I have no way to verify this.”

Aparna’s is not an isolated case—very often, a simple act of assistance has turned into a nightmare for widows because of the publicity surrounding it. When Rahul Gandhi visited and later mentioned Kalawati Bandurkar from Jalka village in Yavatmal during a Lok Sabha debate in 2008, she went on to become the face of the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha. Soon enough, help poured in for this mother of nine, whose husband’s death had drained her emotionally and financially. As the news spread and grabbed the attention of everyone from local leaders to the global media, several hawks swooped down, demanding money. “Suddenly, her family members increased. Those who were never around earlier came and started demanding their share of the money. It caused a lot of problems,” says Kishore Tiwari, leader of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, afarmers’ advocacy group.

Magsaysay award winner P Sainath, who has worked to highlight the agrarian crisis for over a decade, explains that the problem often arises after a huge public spectacle is made of the simple act of extending assistance to an affected family. “When one draws attention to help given or received, one invites a host of predators to descend on the widow and children, including all the creditors of her late husband and money lenders,” he says. “Most of this debt is illegal. Even though the principal amount is repaid several times over, high interest rates ensure that the widow can never be out of debt. Also, more often than not, the farmer never consults his wife and doesn’t even keep her in the loop about his financial transactions, most of which are based on word of honour. After he dies is probably the first time that the wife meets his creditors. While some of them exaggerate the amounts owed to them, others are plain frauds.”

A few years ago, a Californian idealist read about farmers’ suicides in Andhra Pradesh and decided to clear all the widows’ debts. While his visit was accompanied by a flood of media publicity, the entire amount went to money lenders. The result, says Sainath, was the same as in most cases: “The widows were left with nothing.”

In many cases, a widow gets socially isolated and at the receiving end of resentment and jealousy from neighbours and family members who are all in the same, impoverished state. “When Amitabh Bachchan asked me why I still wore a mangalsutra, I told him it was to ward off unwelcome male attention,” says Aparna. “But now my in-laws and others have been taunting me, saying the mangalsutrais a sign of another man’s presence.” Tears well up in her eyes as she ends, “This is the most difficult part of the journey.”

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