March 19, 1986. Over three decades have passed, but Suman Agrawal’s eyes well up when thinks back to that day. A member of the Shetkari Sanghatna (farmer’s association), she was on a tour of villages in Wardha district of Maharashtra, when she rushed to Duttapur village. A farmer had committed suicide. “Six bodies lay on the floor of a hut, with a Re 1 coin placed on the heads of five of them. Four were children — the youngest, a girl, no more than eight months old. Next to them was their mother. A few feet away lay the father, who had killed his entire family before consuming poison,” says Agrawal, 78, when we meet in her daughter’s apartment in Goregaon, Mumbai.
With help from bystanders and the police, Agrawal loaded the bodies in a bullock cart and took them to the nearest hospital. The farmer, Sahebrao Karpe, had lived in a small village in Yavatmal district. His crop failed the previous year, pushing him into debt due to which he could not pay his electricity bill. “He had been warned that power supply would be disconnected soon, which would ruin his current crop as well. With no way out, he killed himself and his family. He knew that suicides in his remote village would not draw attention. So, he came to Duttapur so that the government took note.”
Karpe’s was the first case of farmer suicide in Maharashtra. “But we knew that that was just the beginning, that it would become an epidemic,” says Agrawal.
The “epidemic” continues (according to the NCRB, 3,685 farmers killed themselves every year between 2004 and 2013). Farmers have hit the streets multiple times since last year to protest rural distress. Agrawal may have discontinued her activism in 2002 owing to age but she continues to be involved in farmer issues in her village Warood and around. “I have been a farmer … I have suffered the problems,” she says.
From a village in Konkan, Agrawal was 26 when she married Radheshyam Agrawal. A few years after the birth of their children, the couple took up farming. “In 1975, we had a good crop of potatoes in the Warood farm. Unfortunately, that year, the prices of potatoes fell. We sold each bag of 40 kilos for Rs 6, not even Re 1 per kilo.” It took the family 20 years to repay that debt. But it also pushed her into the farmers’ movement.
A speech by agriculturist and farmer leader Sharad Joshi led her to understand that thousands of farmers across Maharashtra — and before that, in Andhra Pradesh — were in a similar plight. “It had to do with government policies, pesticides and the draw of cash crops. But I wanted other farmers to find this out too,” she says.
Her husband took over the farm work and the upbringing of the children and by 1982, Agrawal started to tour villages as part of Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatana’s women’s wing, Shetkari Mahila Aghadi. Later, Agrawal would also go on to introduce the Sita Sheti campaign, which urged farmers to legally transfer a part of their farmland in their wives’ name so that in case of a crisis or their demise, the woman is not left dependent.
“We had limited resources and sometimes, we had only enough to eat. Good schools for the children were a distance away. My husband would carry them on his shoulders during the monsoons through the overflowing river stream. I was guilty that I was an absent mother,” says Agrawal.
Today, dressed in a simple cotton sari, Agrawal is happy to recount her years of activism. Her daughter Geeta Agrawal, an actor, has moved to the city but her sons continue farming in Wardha. “In the 1980s, we moved to growing vegetables. We understood that any crop that requires mediation by the government is a potential risk,” Agrawal says. “And their relief schemes are laughable. Rs 6,000 for a whole year!” she points out. “The scheme in which the government provides pesticides and fertilisers and pays for the labour; all the farmer has to do is work on the field — anyone can see that it will only benefit the fertiliser and pesticide manufacturers, who the government will buy from directly,” she says about the scheme.
Over the years, Agrawal’s sons have turned to organic farming and she helps them run homestays. But it still hurts to see farmers across the state suffer. “Is it not high time the government realise that 33 years have passed since Sahebrao Karpe’s family sacrificed their lives but nothing has been done for them?”
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Bitter Harvest’