He Lived to Die Another Day

People

He Lived to Die Another Day

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

R

amrao Chavan’s story started with a small prayer, a tiny ambition.

He grew soya with the help of a motor and a pipeline to channel water from the well. It insured him against the temperamental rain gods of Latur. The pitiful kharif output of soyabean last year had yielded only three to four sacks from four-and-a-half acres of ancestral land and the rabi crop had been destroyed by a hailstorm. Soya was his hope. He took the brave step of taking a loan of ₹1 lakh from IDBI Bank to set up the pipeline.

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The family had been, until then, living in a small hut, built from tin scrap. Early last year, they had the chance to get better shelter through a ₹60,000 grant from the government’s Gharkul Yojana scheme. Ramrao gathered courage and used that amount to secure a loan of ₹2.5 lakh from the local moneylender, and built a two-room pucca RCC house. He was certain the soya would help repay the dues.

And then came the drought – so severe and so intense that the borewell dried up. The machine was rendered useless and the precarious house of cards Ramrao had so bravely built, began to collapse. He could neither repay the bank nor the moneylender. Father and sons began to work part-time on other farmers’ land to scrape through. Even this did not help.

Desperate, they turned to the family cow. A villager had offered to buy the bovine, which was pregnant at the time. That would fetch them ₹28,000 – not enough to repay the debt, but enough to provide some sustenance for a couple of months. But Ramrao did not want to sell it. If the family didn’t have enough grain to eat, at least there would be milk to drink.

Ramrao Chavan was done with life. But life wasn’t quite done with him.

And then, the cow died.

Creditors began circling the Chavans’ house like vultures, ready to snatch his meagre possessions. The bank, the moneylenders, old creditors who had loaned him money for his daughter and sons’ weddings in 2011 and 2012, all of them came calling.

On August 22 last year, the soyabean farmer left for the farm on an empty stomach. He slaved in the field all day. At 8 pm, he returned home. The seeds and fertiliser he had bought for the soyabean mocked him from the corner. Ramrao looked at the can of fertiliser that had failed to live up to its promise of producing a healthy, green field. He picked it up and drank its contents.

Ramrao Chavan was done with life. But life wasn’t quite done with him.

***

I could sense the dry, scorching despair as I neared Kolpa, a tiny hamlet eight kilometres from Latur. One rattletrap ST bus touched the edges of this remote village once a day.

As I visited the Chavan family, I couldn’t help but feel like I was shouldering the collective guilt of a people who are so removed from this reality, that the news of Chavan’s desperation registers little impact. A staggering 3,228 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra last year, the highest since 2001. This year, until March, the toll had touched 57.

***

It was Vikas, the elder of Ramrao’s two sons, who found him unconscious on the farm and rushed him to the Latur government hospital. On September 9, Ramrao opened his eyes to see the ceiling of the hospital room. The man who was unsuccessful at fighting life had successfully beaten death. Except now, he could barely speak about his agony – his speech was slurred, and he couldn’t walk more than a few steps without losing his balance.

The incident has shaken the Chavans. In their two-room house, crammed with bodies and a paltry few possessions, they tell me Ramrao is a hard-working man, a scrupulous manager of money. He has never taken to alcohol; he does not smoke or have any guilty pleasures. All he has struggled with is keeping his family’s head above water. Still, no one expected him to choose the extreme – yet frighteningly common – path out of the cycle of misery. He has always been a brave and responsible man.

His younger son Chandrashekhar, who has a diploma in agriculture, and is chasing a degree at an open university, couldn’t recall a single year when the farm’s produce had touched ₹50,000. “Sometimes there is a drought, sometimes it is a cloudburst, and sometimes hailstorms – the problems never stop,” he said. “Sometimes crops are destroyed by disease and sometimes they are sold at a throwaway price in the market.” I could hear the despair in Chandrashekhar’s voice. Mother Nature seems to be working hard to ensure that farmers like Ramrao can’t catch a break.

Days after his failed suicide bid, politicians flocked to Ramrao’s bedside. Short on real, lasting solutions, they flooded him with good wishes and solicitude. Latur MLA Amit Deshmukh paid a visit and BJP MP Sunil Gaikwad declared that he would pay all the hospital bills.

But these politicians, just like the monsoon, failed to deliver. Ramrao’s relatives were turned away by the assistants of the elected representatives, and it was only after local newspaper Divya Marathi published a story about the MP’s empty assurances that Gaikwad visited the hospital and doled out ₹1.1 lakh in hospital expenses.

But the medical bills at the Latur hospital were much higher. The family had to borrow nearly ₹3.5 lakh from the moneylender, raising their debt to a staggering ₹6 lakh, an amount that they will take years to pay back.

Now Ramrao spends most of his days in silence. No one can tell what he is thinking or feeling. But everyone is sure he knows that he is even deeper in debt than he was last year. The ₹6,000 that he received as compensation from an indifferent government feels like a slap on the face.

In this Kafkaesque tale of desperation, there is a long line of sinners who can be brought to trial – the rain gods, the elected representatives, the skewed agricultural system and even the avaricious moneylender. But nobody will be declared guilty. Meanwhile, Ramrao lies on his narrow bed, continuing to hope that he had been more successful at death than he has been at life.

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