About 65 kilometres from the cracked earth that was once their source of income, Mandakini Mujmule, in her forties, and her daughter Anita, 21, have spent 16 days in Beed city’s government hospital. Mandakini has undergone a complicated uterine surgery, nearly four years after she first experienced shooting pain in her lower abdomen.
The crop failures at home in Kari village of Beed’s drought-hit Dharur taluka are behind them, they don’t talk about it anymore. Until Mandakini is reminded that the trouble with her uterus coincided with the drought of 2012.
“It was unnerving. I knew the pain was abnormal. But how do you budget for health expenses when everything you put into the field has been a waste?” When she was examined by a “city” doctor at a medical camp last month, she was immediately referred to Beed Civil Hospital for further tests, then surgery. “The doctors didn’t ask why I had ignored it for four years. I suppose they heard the same explanation from dozens of women.”
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In Marathwada’s worst-hit districts of Beed, Osmanabad and Latur, households now have an uncompromising priority list of expenses as an economy hit by years of near-total crop failure goes into a tailspin. And, as rural doctors are finding to their dismay, women’s health, and certainly reproductive health, lies at the bottom of the pyramid, along with women’s nutrition, equal pay for labour and higher education for girls.
“Whether it’s the physical stress of collecting water from the tanker in dozens of pots daily, or the emotional stress of putting out a decent meal for the family when there’s no money at home, whether it’s maintaining menstrual hygiene in times of acute water scarcity or dealing with an increasingly violent or alcoholic husband, it’s always women who have to bear the brunt of a disaster,” says Godavari Kshirsagar, 44, of Gandora village in Tuljapur, Osmanabad.
An activist with the Swayam Shikshan Prayog, an organisation that focuses on economic empowerment of women in the region, Godavari is among several hundred women who have organised themselves into self-help groups. This network, which helps women set up agro-based businesses, has a reassuring report: Wherever women have begun to focus on financial independence, they’ve become the backbone of drought-hit families, managing to provide better than subsistence-level incomes in the face of farm losses.
Archana Koli, 38, is among the 100-odd women in Salgara Devti village of Tuljapur who joined these groups to set up home-businesses with help from the Swayam Shikshan Prayog and the Tuljapur Krishi Vigyan Kendra. “I want a set of kadaknath hens next,” says Archana. The kadaknath is an all-black chicken native to central India, now rapidly earning a “superbird” reputation for its protein and its eggs that fetch Archana Rs 30 apiece.
Archana has over 150 chicken, and is only starting her kadaknath family. Salgara Devti, with a population of 4,283, has 2,400 hectares of cultivated land, almost all of it now barren. Between 200 and 250 men have left the village to look for work in cities. “The only real income source in the village remains whatever the woman can earn,” says Archana. Some of her friends are making chivda of soya, others are rearing goats, but the ‘kadaknath kukadpalan’ or poultry is the big rage.
Archana and her friends are either landless labourers or small and marginal farmers. All have suffered crop destruction multiple times since 2012. Most have more than one loan to repay. “The men feel no hope any more. So more and more women are running families, everybody acknowledges it now,” says Archana, a mother of two. Needless to say, it is still the women’s responsibility to ensure pots are lined up in queue for the tanker.
Marathwada’s women may not figure in official data of farmer suicides — they’re not land owners. But for every addition to the growing list of suicide victims, there’s a farm widow whose income sources and social relationships are realigned immediately. “Everything changed in one moment,” says Anita Mulay about the day her husband Uttam hanged himself at home, on the morning of Dussehra 2014.
Anita was 23 then, with two sons, Vishal and Vaibhav. From creditors to sexual predators, Anita has multiple fears. “We were cultivating gairan land, so we got no compensation,” she says. Cultivating gairan or grazing land has been a tradition and a movement in large parts of Marathwada where the landless, mostly Dalits, have occupied and cultivated government-owned land for decades and have been, with little success, demanding legal rights over this land.
Just outside Osmanabad’s Bhum town, Taramati Jadhav, almost 60, returned to the field a couple of weeks ago after the mandatory period of mourning following her husband’s death. Taramati expects to make Rs 150 today. Like most women in the region, Taramati refers to her late husband Mahadev as “maalak”. “One cannot grieve forever, right?” she reasons.
A Matang by caste, her family never owned land, and times have never been worse for landless labourers. “Wages are falling, and naturally me and my daughter-in-law don’t make much money now,” she grumbles about the disparity in pay for women labourers. A resident of Rameshwar village nearly five km from the farm she’s found work in, Taramati tries to walk the distance, to avoid paying for an auto ride. “There isn’t much work anywhere, so better to save every penny,” she says.
Taramati is working for lower wages and for longer years than she’d have expected, a somewhat less visible impact of the years-long drought in Marathwada. Beed-based women’s rights activist Manisha Tokle says these silent effects of the drought need to be studied for a nuanced policy response. “Families are broken as some people go away looking for work. Some weddings are called off, some girls are married off too young. Old women are forced to continue to work and get paid less and less,” she says. Amid a third drought in four years, simply subsidising food is not adequate government action, Tokle says.
Those who move to the cities now fare just as poorly. In Beed Civil Hospital, Sonali Ghodke, 25, is attending to her mother-in-law, who has arrived from their village, also for uterus surgery. Sonali and her husband run computer classes in Beed city, but student strength has dipped. “Nobody signs up for computer classes in the middle of such a severe drought, so we can barely make Rs 8,000-Rs 10,000 a month,” Sonali says.
The Ghodkes and the Mujmules of Kari, Dharur taluka, live over 50 km apart, but their tales are strikingly similar. Mandakini Mujmule, who put off visiting a hospital for four years, is unhappy her daughter Anita’s wedding had to be postponed owing to the sudden rush of expenses. Anita has two brothers, but she’s the one camping in the grubby hospital with her mother, 16 days on the trot.
“Travelling from the village to college was too expensive, so I gave up,” Anita says about pulling out after her first year of BSc (Agriculture). “I told aai and baba to marry me off.” It would be one person less to feed, she reckoned.
That’s what Godavari, Manisha and others working on women’s issues in the backward region would like to change.
As women shoulder the burden of replacing lost incomes, it’s time to ensure that land rights and higher education are made available to women in a systematic way, Godavari says. Anita Mujmule agrees that a degree would improve her job prospects. She says she’ll have a little chat with her fiance.