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Last Updated: Monday, 28 August 2006, 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK
Sorry plight of India farm widows
Zubair Ahmed
By Zubair Ahmed
BBC News, Nagpur

Indira has to pay off the debt and look after four children

Manohar Kelkar ended his life by hanging himself from a tree.

Trapped in debt, the cotton farmer in the western Indian state of Maharashtra was driven to commit suicide by despair and hopelessness.

The suicide stunned the residents of Dahegaon, a tiny village 135km (85 miles) from Nagpur.

Mr Kelkar had often talked farmers out of taking their lives in the state's cotton growing belt of Vidarbha where, on average, one farmer commits suicide every eight hours.

In other words, three women become widows here every day.

Mammoth responsibility

Mr Kelkar's wife, Indira, is now one of them.

She is left with the mammoth responsibility of paying off his debt while looking after their four children.

Young women farm workers
Young people most often end up as farm workers

When I arrived in Dahegaon a day after Mr Kelkar's suicide, the family was huddled together, grieving.

Indira looked clearly in shock.

"He kept talking about the mounting bank debt, but I never thought he would commit suicide," she said sitting outside her small mud house, whose walls had gaping holes.

Her eldest daughter, who looks barely 16, was married off recently, and Mr Kelkar had to borrow 30,000 rupees ($645) for the wedding. Indira's main concern now is her other daughter, aged 14.

"My priority is to find a groom for her now," she says.

Indira also wants to send her two young sons to school. But where will the money come from?

She has no ready answers. But after a long pause, she comes up with a thought: "I will become a farm labourer."

That will earn her 60 rupees a day, an amount that is woefully inadequate to look after a family of six.


Indira is among the more than 4,000 widows in the region whose husbands have committed suicide in the past nine years.

Uma was the first widow in the village

Their plight did not escape Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's attention, when he visited the region a few weeks ago.

He pledged five million rupees ($100,000) to help widows in each district.

A widow is normally paid 100,000 rupees (a little over $2,000) as compensation by the state government.

Of this amount, 30,000 rupees ($625) are paid in cash, and the rest are kept in a fixed deposit in the bank for future use by the family.

The cash compensation does help them tide over the immediate problem of feeding the family. But, in the long run, they struggle.

Almost all of them become farm workers, because they are neither educated nor trained in any other vocation.

Uma, whose husband took his life seven years ago, is struggling to cope with the burden of looking after her two children and parents-in-law.

"My father-in-law is disabled, my mother-in-law is very old. I work in a farm, I have to leave the children with my in-laws, I don't know what else to do," she says.

One house, two widows

Uma's problems were further compounded last year when her brother-in-law committed suicide too.

Orphan children
Many children like these have lost their fathers

Two widows in one house is not unusual in Vidarbha.

Her father-in-law looks a lot older than his 60 years. "I had only two children - two sons. Both of them are now gone. Debt has taken a heavy toll on my family. It's ruined our life completely," he says.

In Vidarbha, families often blame widows for their husband's suicides.

In my several visits to the region, I have often heard such complaints, which put the widows under more pressure.

Campaigner Kishor Tiwari, who has been highlighting the farmers' plight for nearly a decade, says "the widows need a healing touch by the administration, but nothing has been done for them".

The state government seems to have no concrete plans to rehabilitate them. Officials say they are doing a lot in the region, but fail to say what concrete steps they have taken.

'Looming crisis'

Also, the prime minister's cash relief has yet to reach the widows I interviewed.

These women need urgent help.

Mr Tiwari says a crisis is looming: "Half the widows are between the ages of 19 and 25 and have two to three children.

"They will never remarry, because it's against tradition."

Uma, who was widowed seven years ago, is only 26. A mother of two young children, she has a long life ahead of her. Yet she has no plans for the future.

Marrying again is out of the question, she says.

Her aim is to train her two children to be farm workers, and she lives in hope that they will look after her.

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