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Suicides on the rise in Vidarbha, Rahul Gandhi's Kalavati remains symbol of deprivation
| The long, bumpy road to Jalka, 130 km from Nagpur, travels through miles of scorched cotton fields. In a tin-roofed hut, Kalawati Bandurkar, 55, sits surrounded by her six grandchildren. She tries to discipline them with an occasional shout, and then ruffles their hair in rough affection. She picks up the cranky one-year-old, Naman, her grandson who has just lost his mother. One more hungry mouth to feed in a family of eight. Kalawati's forehead pleats in a fierce frown. "You can't depend on anyone, anything. Not rains, not government." Perhaps not even on her 28-year-old daughter, Naman's mother Savita, who set herself ablaze in September. "She was bleeding continuously since Naman's birth," says Kalawati. "I used to take her to the doctor." But with money in short supply, Savita took the familiar way out. Poverty and grief stalk Kalawati's home. |
"I would take you to the house of Kalawatiâ€¦a woman with nine children whose husband committed suicide. I would urge you to respect her." When Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi quoted her example in his July 21, 2008, Lok Sabha speech, describing how she had diversified her income, Kalawati became the symbol of rural resurgence. But Rahul didn't return to check on her. In 2010, Kalawati's son-in-law, plagued by debts, committed suicide. In September, it was her daughter-the fourth death in her family in the last six years.
There's at least one Kalawati in every village in Maharashtra's "graveyard for farmers", Vidarbha. In the last 16 years, Vidarbha has recorded the largest wave of suicides in history, according to the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice of New York University School of Law (CHRGJ). And a great number of those affected are cotton farmers. A study of official data by K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, reports that nearly 29,000 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra between 1997 and 2005 due to extreme poverty. The figure for Vidarbha is estimated to be 8,652 between 2004 and 2011. This year, 647 cases have already been reported, according to the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS).
The figures hide lives ruined as collateral damage. According to some estimates, there are 1.5 million surviving family members affected by the suicides. Their stories are no less tragic. With the husband's death, a new vicious cycle of debt is set in motion: the widows inherit their husbands' debts, work round the clock to pay back as well as make ends meet, lose a way of life, status and standing in society, and the children get sucked into farm work.