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Survey: Women Farmers from Maharashtra are facing financial crisis due to Covid-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic and Maharashtra's lockout, a survey of 940 single woman farmers revealed their increased vulnerability.

Chintu Das
Women Farmers
Women Farmers

During the COVID-19 pandemic and Maharashtra's lockout, a survey of 940 single woman farmers revealed their increased vulnerability. The women did not receive their Rs 1,100 or Rs 1,200 widow pensions; they did not have access to job guarantee schemes; and their debt grew.

This study by MAKAAM (Forum For Women Farmers' Rights) is not the first to recognise action areas for women farmers. It has been working to raise awareness of the issue with the government in order to help them draft policies, and in 2018, MAKAAM organized two meetings with women farmers. It polled 505 women across 11 districts in Vidarbha and Marathwada.

According to the poll, only 34% of them received a widow's pension, only 52% had ration cards in their names, and 60% did not have land transferred in their names after their husbands died. It also estimated (based on revenue records from the districts) that there were 19,313 suicides in Maharashtra's Vidarbha and Marathwada regions between 2001 and 2018, with 20% of the cases being ineligible for reimbursement for different reasons.

Neelima Renge of Yavatmal's Ralegaon was pregnant when her husband committed suicide. She struggled in 2020 when there was no transportation due to the nationwide lockout. Her commute from her home to her husband's farm is 15 kilometers, and she quickly became the target of nasty rumors. Her neighbors said it was inappropriate for a woman to drive alone, often hitching rides on motorcycles or in strange vehicles. Her son was unable to attend school due to a lack of transportation. She requested and did not get a refund of her school fees.

It is difficult for women farmers whose land is not in their names to sell their crop. Since they go through a middleman, they sometimes get low rates. Many farm widows have given up farming in favor of working for regular wages. They are unable to participate in federal programs, and there is no employment available in these fields. And if they succeed in growing cotton, transporting it to market is difficult due to the high cost of hiring transportation.

Sangeeta Kamble got a loan to pay for her daughter's wedding, but she is unable to repay it because she is unemployed and unable to sell her fabric. Women are dragged into the same debt trap that destroyed their husbands, and they eventually have to borrow money from money lenders. Many do not have enough housing and are unable to afford their children's school fees. In one instance, a school in Haatgaon, Akola, is refusing to release a child's marksheet because the fees have not been charged.

On June 18, 2019, Maharashtra released a government resolution (GR) outlining measures to assist farm widows. It was an extraordinary leap, the product of MAKAAM's determined efforts. However, two years later, with no work on the ground and little discernible improvement in the condition of farm widows, Seema Kulkarni of MAKAAM used the Right to Information Act to request clarification on how the GR was applied on March 7, 2021.

There are several steps backwards with any hesitant procedural step forward. Even after accounting for the COVID-19 pandemic, this GR was praised as radical, but the government has done very little to resolve the key issues facing women. And before COVID, the woman farmers were on the verge of extinction, but the pandemic has made it even worse.

Following the release of the earlier survey results in 2018, there was pressure on the government to resolve the gaps, especially in transferring land to women. MAKAAM had requested a district-level cell to track and support women in distress on a monthly basis (which is yet to be formed); a Kisan Mitra helpline was launched for six months in Wardha district to assist farmers, but was then withdrawn due to a shortage of funds and after the collector changed. It was decided in meetings with the government that the women would receive a Praman Patra, or identification card, to allow them to quickly access government programs.

MAKAAM said that states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana are paying ex gratia to families after a farm suicide, while submitting a presentation to Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar and finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on January 31. When asked in the Rajya Sabha on February 12, 2021, if civil society organisations such as MAKAAM had requested "debt emancipation" for woman farmers and a separate policy for them, Tomar denied that such a request had been made.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Maharashtra has the highest rate of farm suicides in the world, with over 83,000 farmers committing suicide between 1995 and 2019. This number may not be accurate because the NCRB has been using different categories to measure farm suicides since 2014, which includes agricultural laborers, who are now classified as a separate group. According to MAKAAM, the total number of farm widows in Maharashtra is not more than 20,000, mostly in the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions, despite inconsistencies in reporting deaths and differences between NCRB and state numbers.

It's incomprehensible that the government finds it impossible to make a separate discretionary allocation or develop a course of action for this amount when it appears to finance temple renovations and memorials generously. A government survey conducted in 2006 in Vidarbha's six districts listed 1,226,559 families out of a total of 1,764,438 in 8,351 villages as being in distress due to crop failure and debt.

The pandemic has just added to the women's woes, and the government has maintained its long-standing apathy. It's no surprise that ending one's life seems to be a better option than living it.

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