“There will be many more deaths in the years to come, many more suicides. You wait and watch,” warned Ganesh as we walked alongside the road looking for stalls that sold lemon juice and cucumbers. “We are running out of water and food. How can a human being survive then? We can’t outwit death.”
One morning, a few weeks ago, he rode his bike aimlessly around Latur. It was a cloudless day. His thoughts ran wild, and he couldn’t escape them. A wave of grief engulfed him as he stopped to gather himself. It would buy them two years, he told himself. Perhaps, they could survive. There wouldn’t be a better tomorrow. Not in this lifetime. So, he thought about how he would do it. “Main itna toot gaya tha poocho hi mat. There’s no money left for my sister’s wedding. I had nothing to run this house. I didn’t know if we would last the week,” he said looking at his feet.
“I would have done it, you know,” he whispered hesitantly. “If it weren’t for Dattu, I wouldn’t be standing before you today.”
At Rajiv Gandhi Chowk, Dattu waved at him excitedly gesturing him to stop. His face was blank, and his eyes held nothing. “What’s wrong?” he asked Ganesh. He was no stranger to loneliness.
I can’t do it anymore, he said to Dattu. It hasn’t rained in five years. There was no fight left in him. “Sabr rakho, dene waala uppar baitha hai,” Dattu told him and held his hands. “Don’t lose hope. That’s all we have. Sabka bura waqt aata hai par iska ye matlab nahin hai ki hum apne aap ko maar de. God will find us a way.”
He took him home. They had lunch and spoke for a few hours. They couldn’t afford to die. It wasn’t their time yet. Their families needed them. “When a farmer kills himself, the government provides financial compensation to the family. I thought maybe my family could survive for two years if I did it. I can’t get a job. I had to give up school in tenth grade. I have no education. There was a lot of pressure on us to survive. My father has a BA degree. My older brother has completed his LLB. He is now sitting at home. My younger brother has done his MA. He is sitting at home. Unemployment is at its peak. I was burdened with the responsibility of keeping us alive. So, I quit school,” he said wrapping his head in a wet handkerchief.
He doesn’t earn much. Nothing in the last few months. He accompanies farmers to government offices or banks and fights for them. First, there was a problem with the vegetable market. They were forbidden from setting up their stalls. Everything including the weighing scale was confiscated. “We protested against them. Almost everyone had joined us. We went to their offices and sat on the floor. We refused to move till we got what we wanted. It is important for farmers to have a union. Otherwise we will die without a voice. But we need money to run a union. An ordinary farmer isn’t even aware of his rights. I might not have money but by helping a few farmers, I might earn their prayers,” he said smiling.
Then, came the deaths. And, he fought for them too. For, the dead had no one. The government pays Rs 65 per gunta as compensation while farmers can earn upto Rs 400 with a good harvest. “How is it fair?” they ask. Crop insurance must be renewed every year. Ganesh has been making his payments diligently for the last ten years. He received compensation that one time a few years ago. He doesn’t remember the year. His memories were leaving him.
In four acres of his land, Dattu grows nothing. Year after year, the seeds shrivel and die. Saplings don’t sprout, and the rains never come. He looked for signs in the ground. Nothing. The dirt remained, and for the longest time nothing grew. He wondered if they were late that year. It has been four years since.
“I tried sowing thrice both during rabi and kharif. I sowed soybean and gram. Nothing happened. You feel helpless after a point. You can’t do this anymore. You can’t keep waiting for something to come. How long can I wait?” he said.
The streets are almost empty. A bus waited near our stall. The driver had turned impatient. One of his customers hadn’t returned. He kept yelling at the other side. There was no one around him. Flies swarmed around vegetable peels piled in the corner. The stench returned with vengeance.
“He stopped me,” said Ganesh folding his arms behind his head as he looked away. He repeated the story throughout the day. “He said what of your family? What will happen to them? I was depressed. I fight for everyone’s rights, but no one fights for mine. I felt alone. Everyone at home keeps asking me these things. Even my wife. Why doesn’t anyone help you?”
Eight months have gone by. Eight months since he took his bike and rode to Latur. Eight months since Dattu found him. Eight months since he had any such thoughts that sent him spiraling into oblivion. Sometimes, they returned but he fought them feebly. Some days, he wept.
That’s all he could manage for now.
They climbed trees all afternoon. They chased each other in the unsparing heat. One of them sat on a branch. He held an axe in his hand. Those were bad times, said the elders after it happened. They were cousins. They weren’t sure if they got into a fight. They weren’t sure if it was an accident. There was no one around them save the dead farms.
They aren’t certain what conspired beneath those trees that afternoon.
He couldn’t remember. He was in the hospital for a long time.
Far too long.
Dattu was devastated. “I had to spend 5.5 lakhs. My world stopped that day. On the fourth, my son was enrolled at an institution to do his Diploma in Electrical and Electronics Engineering. He’s at home now. He cleared his tenth grade. The accident happened the day before he had to leave for college. Sab ka fees bharna padta hai. Daswi ka fees dena padta hai. Marne ka bhi fees bharna padta hai. My pockets are empty. I can’t even afford to buy a rope to kill myself. Nothing comes free here. Jo bhi niyam banta hai woh sirf kagaz pe banta hai. Zameen level pe ya ground level pe kuch nahin banta,” he said guffawing at his own remark.
There were rumours of animal shelters being built in the state. Their animals won’t die anymore. They were assured of a better life. Months later, their cows became symbols of divinity across the country. Some vowed to protect them. Others promised to kill anyone who harmed them. Their cattle remained a symbol for a while until they breathed their last. “There are strict rules,” said Ganesh. Most of the farmers have been rejected so far. One must own 200 to 500 cows, they were told.
“A farmer is always distressed. Every rupee matters to them. People like me will probably understand what needs to be done. However, a small farmer from a tiny village won’t have the faintest clue about paperwork and documents. Most of them are illiterate,” he said.
The Rs 2 scheme can only be availed by those families registered below the poverty line, and those who are landless. Both of them are ineligible for such facilities since they own farmlands. “Even if my fields don’t yield anything, I can’t get help. In the next few months, I fear there will be many more suicides reported from Latur. The compensation for drought is Rs 6000 to Rs 7000 per hectare. One can earn Rs 1.5 lakh with a good harvest. The farmer will probably spend whatever he gets by clearing his debts. There’s so much corruption in the system that it affects us all. If I must get anything done, notes must be exchanged under the table. I am quite fed up,” he said scratching his head. His nervous glance towards us caught Dattu’s attention. He looked at him for a while before turning away. Such thoughts must not be encouraged. We didn’t look at them. Some moments needn’t be intruded upon.
He begins talking by opening a packet of biscuits. There is no water left here. Not enough to construct buildings. Not enough to install wells. Not enough for anything. They can’t plead any longer. “If I go to the mandi, they decide what my produce is worth. If I go to the government, they decide what my death is worth. Tell me, what do I decide then? Should I live a little longer? Perhaps, that’s the only decision I can make. A while ago, our CM visited some of the drought-affected areas in our district. People had a lot of hope that something good will come out of his visit. The next morning, a statement was released to the media. ‘I hadn’t gone there to give them something. I just went to see what the situation was’ it read. It broke our spirit. How do you break someone who has nothing else to lose,” said Ganesh bitterly, “You kill their hope.”
Daal, wheat flour, vegetables and 20 litres of cold water: we stocked up on our supplies for the week and left Ausa. Masrudi was 20 km away. The features hadn’t changed. Brown and barren stayed the fields throughout the month. We didn’t look at them anymore. They didn’t bother us. They lived and died without making their presence felt.
A small detour from the main road led us to Masrudi. The paths were narrow, and the roads turned uneven. Potholes and shoddy patches stretched till the remote villages. Some of them were coated in dirt. A few people carried boxes on their heads and marched towards their homes. At lower Masrudi, where the new temple was constructed recently, sat a group of elderly men reading newspapers. In each other, they sought liberation from troubles that hovered around them.
His rose turban and gold-rimmed glasses caught our eye. He read the news to others. Some discussed the weather. They looked at each other when we crossed them.
Naveen Masrudi was created after the earthquake. The ground had split into two, some recalled. The winds brought in heat today. It seared our faces with sand and dust. We parked our car at the end of the village, and walked towards a shop that sold biscuits, milk and tea. A few men sat on the floor fanning themselves with old newspapers.
They were curious. They spoke amongst each other and discussed what needs to be told, what they’d like to convey. Every voice mattered.
They had done this before.
There are 70 to 75 houses in Naveen Masrudi. On an average, every household owns three acres of farmland. Here, everybody is a farmer. It has been four years since it rained. There are very few who still toil in the heat in hopes of a harvest.
“They failed. Everyone keeps trying, nonetheless. They hope that one of these days something works out. People have migrated from the villages to cities in search of work. Some work as construction labourers too. They do whatever they have to feed their families. We are struggling to eat. There are expenses other than food. No one goes to the hospital no matter how ill they are. We just sit at home,” said Nagnath Baburao Parbat.
Their children go to school. They are fed three meals a day. No one skips school. Their head master is strict. Days later, one evening, as we sat on the ground playing old games with tamarind seeds, the children said, “Sir will come looking for us if we don’t come to school. He’ll question aai and baba if they don’t send us. I think he scares the elders too.”
“No, he doesn’t,” said one of the girls giggling as she covered her eyes.
There are many dropping out of schools. The good schools where the students wore crisp white and blue uniforms are located almost 50 kms away. They can’t afford to pay for the bus fare. “It becomes difficult for us to manage the entire month. In the end, the child is left with no option but to sit at home. We hope they survive. They must go to college. They need to have a chance at a better life,” said Parbat.
“Look at him,” he said pointing at a middle-aged man who tapped his fingers on the steel tumbler. His tea was cold. His eyes darted from one spot to another. “He is blind,” they said to us. His sons live in the city. They work as construction labourers. There is no work here. Their farms have dried up. “For his sake, they left him and went to work in the cities. So, he won’t starve,” he explained.
The nearest hospital is 10 km away. There’s a better one, they say, which is 15 km from Masrudi. However, the roads are terrible. In case of medical emergencies, they travel to Ujjani. Some couldn’t afford the treatment. So, they never go to the hospital. They hope they would somehow survive the illness. Survive death.
But here, death came easy.
Every ten days, the water tankers arrive. Sometimes, at night. The children keep an eye out and inform the parents. Starvation would have led to many more deaths. They would know. The forlorn wail of a lost buffalo breaks their reverie. An ominous sound: one that speaks something and holds in abundance an emotion they were accustomed to – loss.
They get 200 litres per house: a barrel of water which lasts them ten days. There isn’t enough water for everyone. They make it last. “It’s getting difficult to manage now. Summers are harsher. The rains never come. If the tankers come once in four days, that will help us. We run out of water on the sixth day. There is a hand pump in the village but there isn’t any water in it. If a family consists of five members, then each of them get 20 litres of water for ten days to bathe, drink, cook and clean. Tell me, how is it enough? Nothing is enough in Latur. Not the water. Not the food. Even our deaths aren’t enough for you to pay us any attention,” he said waving his shawl in the air as he went on to explain how they bathe in summer earning laughter from the entire group. It has been three years since the first tanker arrived in Masrudi. The supply had stopped for a while. They resumed two months ago.
“We get ration,” chimed in a man who just arrived from Ausa. His forehead creased with worry as he sat beside us. They are charged Rs 2 for rice and Rs 3 for wheat flour. They eat what they get. There haven’t been any weddings or festivals celebrated in the village for the past three years. “We earn nothing. We are struggling to feed ourselves. How and why will we conduct weddings here?” said Nagnath.
Everyone relies on farming to make a living. Some had 10 acres of farmlands. Some owned five. Nothing survived. Banks and private money lenders hound them every month. The notices haven’t stopped coming in. “Despite the prevalent drought-like conditions in these areas, the banks expect us to clear our debts. They keep asking us to pay the minimum amount. Where do I get that from? Should I starve my family for a few days so that the banks stop troubling us? Should I kill myself, so they get their compensation? These are the choices I am faced with everyday,” said Nagnath frowning. His smile didn’t reach his eyes. They held a different emotion. There was anger in them.
“What choices are you faced with?” he asked as we sat on the ground, that afternoon. The winds howled. Dust rose and settled near the stall. Some covered their eyes. Two miles further up, off the road, a herd of cows came in view. Lumbering ahead on the uneven path was a truck that struggled to reach the road behind us.
“Those who have one or two acres of land aren’t eligible for loans,” said a man clearing his throat. Probing for flecks of dust on his dhoti, he then covered his head with a white shawl as he rose to speak, “My older son has shifted to another city. He drives a JCB now. I have one acre of farmland. I haven’t got any loan yet. Whatever my son earns is barely sufficient to run the household. My daughters go to school. How do I pay their fees? My younger son was enrolled in an institute. He wanted to study engineering. I didn’t have any money. So, he dropped out of college. He had scored 86% in 12th grade. He has been sitting at home for almost a year now. He went to the hospital in Ausa today. He has been sick for the past few days,” he said with deep regret.
What happens if it doesn’t rain this year? we asked the men hesitantly. They looked at each other. They didn’t answer. In a while, one of the elderly men removed his shawl that was wrapped around his neck. His feeble hands shook as he straightened it before us. Waving the scarf to our faces, he said, “We’ll perhaps use this to make a noose around our neck and kill ourselves. What else is left to do?”
Amidst peals of laughter, we sat still. Everyone nodded to what he had said. We stared at their faces for a while till the laughter died down. “No human being should ever reach a point in his life when he counts his moments to death,” said another farmer.
Here, everybody had a counter. For themselves, and their crops.
“We belong to the general category. Our problems are general. Our lives are menial. A farmer has no value in our society. There are no reservations for us.”
“Maybe we need a caste of our own.”
“Maybe, we’ll call ourselves – kisaan…”
(to be continued…)
‘Rest of My family‘ is a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.