Widows of Vidarbha

Farmer suicides are the most vicious and unforgiving indictment of the neglect of agriculture by the state and the politics, obsessed with power and the market. But the story of a farmer’s distress does not end with his death; it lives on in the experiences of the widows who struggle in the shadows because they are invisible to the state, the community, and even their families. Published in January 2018, Kota Neelima’s Widows of Vidarbha: Making of Shadows is the story of 18 such widows of Vidarbha; it is an attempt at making their voices heard. The following extract is from the chapter “Death at the Wishing Well”. It is the story of Anjana Katekar, a widow since December 3, 2011.

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What is a nation worth, if its citizens seek to escape their lives and commit suicide? The farmers of Vidarbha did not just commit suicide to be free of their circumstances, poverty, and helplessness. They also died silently amid the cacophony of election promises that glorified the farmer. What is a democracy worth when the vote merely exchanged politicians in power and never changed their politics?

The Vidarbha farmers, like their brethren elsewhere in the country, voted in free and fair elections that formed 16 governments at the centre since 1952 and 13 at the state level in Maharashtra since 1960. They were promised irrigation in five year plans by experts; they were pledged water in lengthy budget speeches in hallowed elected houses but were yet to see even a drop delivered. And yet, the same governments and the state knew that rain-fed Vidarbha was involved in cotton cultivation with genetically modified seeds that required regular irrigation. Elected governments, on the lines of colonial exploiters, had overlooked the plight of the Indian farmers and even tried to minimize the crisis. Despite this, in every election the voter diligently carried his/her identity card to the polling booth and chose a candidate from the list who promised, if not a vastly improved future, at least a secure one. The voter created several influential politicians hailing from Vidarbha like Devendra Fadnavis (present chief minister of Maharashtra from the BJP), Nitin Gadkari (present minister for Road Transport and Highways, Shipping and Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation in the central government, from the BJP), Praful Patel (present Member of Parliament, and former minister of Civil Aviation from the Nationalist Congress Party), among many others. The list of the powerful was long, but longer was the list of farmers who had committed suicide every year in Vidarbha.

As Anjana, the widow of Shanker Katekar, said, ‘No one really cares about poor farmers like us.’ Her 46-year-old husband had committed suicide in 2011 because of debt; they had five daughters (of whom one remains unmarried), and an unmarried son. The official documents stated that the ‘burden of debt’, a phrase often used to explain the circumstances of a farmer’s suicide, required enquiry. Why was it that farmers, some of the poorest people of this country, needed to repay loans with interest? One answer could be that if they had taken loans, then they must repay like everyone else. But surely, the deaths of the defaulters said something about this system. How many suicides would it take for the banks, the government, the experts, the economists, and others, to realize that farmers could not repay loans, not even at the so-called low interest rates? Every farmer suicide was a plea seeking to draw attention to the fact that rain-fed agriculture required a different system of crops, finance, markets, and other aspects—aspects that every farmer listed out each time he/she was asked.

The burden of loan also begged another question: why would a farmer commit suicide when millions of people defaulted on death at the wishing well loans in this country? Farmers committed suicide, notwithstanding the various self-serving explanations of politicians and their supporting research, because they believed in fairness. They never questioned why they were subject to the same rules of banking as the affluent class or why were they harassed for repayment or why they were refused loans if they defaulted. Farmers believed that the state was fair. And, when they were unable to repay the loans, they preferred to end their lives rather than live with the burden. It was just as well that they would not discover how farmer suicides were subverted by the state afterwards; the death of an honest farmer had repercussions, even in this nation of hijacked headlines. The state minimized the damage it wreaked by questioning the character of the farmer, imputing some of the suicides in Vidarbha to alcoholism, gambling, depression, domestic quarrels, etc.1 No visit to the state administration is complete without this version of farmer suicides being offered to researchers. In comparison, the state shares little information on harassment by moneylenders, recovery notices by banks, household visits to ask for money by cooperative societies, refusal by kisan kendras2 to lend farm material, threats by lending agencies, etc. If a farmer who faced harassment for loan recovery committed suicide, who would be held complicit in his death? That was primarily why the burden of debt, besides being the truth, was also a simple guilt free description of a farmer’s condition.

In the absence of political accountability through elections, the administration remained complacent and inefficient. Instead of modern irrigation techniques, the administration could get away by sanctioning wells that either had little or no water. It rarely helped the farmer to deepen or repair such wells. Shanker died, according to the police report, a few feet away from one such well in his field in December 2011. The well, a symbol of survival for most farmers in Vidarbha, was the only hope for any yield on his11.5-acre land. It was the harvest season and a low cotton yield meant that he would not be able to repay the loan he had taken that year. The police report of the suicide stated that Shanker had died from poisoning; the bottle of pesticide he had consumed was found at the spot. Spraying pesticide for the cotton crop was critical as it protected the crop from debilitating pests that brought down the yield. The crop in his fi eld had reached the stage where it was sprayed several times, and each spray cost Shanker money he could not afford. These expenses were recorded at the kisan kendra, to be recovered at the time of harvest. Along with irrigation, the high use of pesticide was another requirement for the cotton crop that was not easy to fulfil. The cost of cultivation of the advanced seeds of cotton contradicted the propaganda that it was disease resistant and high yielding.3

Shanker was discovered in the field by his son Umesh. Apart from the bottle of the pesticide, in which there was still some left, there was also a steel plate that he used to consume the poison. Shanker had taken the pesticide on the afternoon of 3 December2011, and was declared dead on arrival at the government hospital death at the wishing well at Amravati. There was a reason that the well had been at the 147centre of Shanker’s dreams for the future. It had materialized after many efforts, according to Anjana. The administration provided support to dig agricultural wells for poor farmers owning dry land and one such well was made in Shanker’s land. It had been 10years in 2015 since the well was made, and it was still dry. Anjana said, ‘The administration has to ensure that a certain number of wells were dug in the village. This was a target they had to meet and they weren’t bothered about the usefulness of the wells,’ she said. ‘The well was sanctioned when there was water at 10 feet, but that became scarce with each passing year. We kept asking the officials to sanction the deepening of the well, but that was not their concern. No one bothered to re-examine the location of the well or relocate it to a new place,’ Anjana said, her lean face angry. ‘It does not matter to anyone that we were losing our crops. How could we have repaid the loans if there was no water in our fields and no yield? We were ready to work on other’s fields as wage labour and repay the loans. We just needed help.’

Ironically, even the compensation that the state had given Anjana had gone into repairing the well. The indifference of the administration was such that the relief provided for the death of the farmer was used by the family to do the state’s work. Anjana explained, ‘We used part of the Rs 30,000 that came to me as relief, to deepen the well.’ The well that was dug to a depth of10 feet by the administration was now 40 feet, and every inch had cost something of Shanker’s life. On the other hand, it would have taken one signature of the administration on an approval letter to do the same.

Shanker had an outstanding loan from a bank that sent notices for repayment. The latest notice, in December 2013,4 was two years after Shanker’s death, in which the bank stated that the loan of Rs 47,000 taken in May 2011, and amounted to Rs 56,427 and interest. It said that interest was being added to the principle amount and urged him to repay instead of incurring losses. It also stated that he had not honoured the agreement of the loan and the tenure was now over. While Shanker was beyond such threats now, Anjana was not.

‘The bank people told us to repay,’ Anjana said, referring to the letter. ‘But there was nothing to repay them with.’ Anyone could have discerned that just by looking at the way Anjana lived. Did the banks, perhaps, think that there were places to hide over Rs 64,000, the amount pending now, in that sparse, empty house? Anjana had preserved that letter, possibly to remind herself why her husband had killed himself. She had been sheltered from such matters throughout her life, as Shanker had never shared his burdens with her. ‘The yield from our 11.5 acres for cotton had always been low because of lack of irrigation. Then he tried to plant cotton in one half of the land and soybean in another half in 2011, hoping that would help.’ It did not; the yield was low death at the wishing well even for soybean—4 quintals for 5 acres. They had to get one of 149 their daughters, Swati, married in May that year, and Shanker had hoped that a good crop that season would repay the loan. Swati and her husband must have realized why Shanker had killed himself or where the expense for their marriage had come from. But such matters were not to be talked about in families; a daughter’s marriage was always delicately balanced with the husband and his family holding it for ransom.

The gram panchayat had numbered the house that was barely standing, and in a corner of the plaque was the message to educate the girl child. This was unnecessary advice in the Katekar household; Swati was educated up to Class 12, but still worked in the fields. The gram panchayat did not mention in its message what a girl should do with her education. Like the expensive well that did not have water, the government supported expensive education for the poor without providing opportunities for employment. Perhaps, that was why Shanker’s son Umesh had dropped out of school when he reached Class 7. Anjana said he wanted to pursue agriculture and tend the farm with his father. Now, Umesh took care of the field alone, and in 2015, had planted wheat in 5 acres that would serve for household consumption.

Anjana’s only complaint against her late husband was that he had never shared with her the troubles he faced about the pending loans. He had toiled with a difficult crop on an impossible land but kept all the distress to himself. She felt she could have shared the burden and supported him. But perhaps he could not share his plans with her. Perhaps he had planned to die next to the well, finally losing hope that there would be water in his fields. What if the well had to be deepened again? Who would have to pay for it with their lives? Certainly not the administration, which lived off a salary or even the government, which lived off the votes of the poor farmers.


In July 2017, the well was still dry. Earlier in August 2016, despite the good monsoons, the family stated that the well had remained dry and, once again, they got no support from the government to deepen it. A part of the roof of the house had collapsed in the heavy rains, and was yet to be repaired. Umesh had planted soybean, cotton, and pulses in the fi eld, hoping for a good yield. Shanker’s pending loan, though restructured, still remained, haunting Umesh. The bank had called him to discuss repayment. Umesh said, ‘I told the manager that there was no money as there 151 was no crop last year. But he did not listen; he just said the loan must be repaid.’ He had to borrow money for the new crop, and that loan of Rs 85,000 was pending with another lending agency. The aggregate loan amount now stood at Rs 1,49,000.


The troubles that claimed Shankar Katekar’s life continued for his family, and like him, they too wished there was water in the well.
1. Refer to the Introduction for the discussion on the ‘other’ possible reasons generally stated by the government for farmer suicides.
2. Kisan Kendra or krishi Kendra are agricultural input shops that provide farm requirements, sometimes on loan in lieu of produce.
3. Monsanto (www.monsantoglobal.com) is a US-based company that produces seeds for better crops, according to its website. Also see, Vandana Shiva, ‘The Seeds of Suicide: How Monsanto Destroys Farming’, Global Research, 9 March 2016. www.globalresearch.ca/the-seeds-of-suicide-how-monsanto-destroys-farming/5329947, accessed 5 July 2017. In 1993, Monsanto partnered with an Indian seed company MAHYCO to introduce Bt cotton seeds in India and in 1998, a 50-50 joint venture called MAHYCO-Monsanto Biotech (MMB) was formed. Bt cotton seeds were perceived as superior, with claims that they would not require pesticides for high yields, and were adopted mostly by small and marginal farmers. Anil K. Gupta and Vikas Chandak, ‘Agriculture Biotechnology in India: Ethics, Business and Politics’, Int. J. Biotechnology, Vol. 7, Nos. 1/2/3, 2005, pp. 212-27.
4. Notice from the bank in Bhatkuli tehsil, on 8 December 2013.

Widows of Vidarbha: Making of Shadows was published in January 2018 by the Oxford University Press. This extract has been republished here with permission from Oxford University Press.


Kota Neelima is a former Senior Research Fellow at SAIS, John Hopkins University, Washington, DC, USA, and writes on farmer suicides, rural women, and electoral reforms in India.

Courtesy: India Cultural Forum



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