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Serpent's egg

PUSHPA SURENDRA

When the monsoon fails, the link that connects farmers to their natural environment is lost and every day is a reminder of that loss. Nothing can dispel the gloom until normality is restored by Nature itself.

THOSE engaged in farming believe that it provides the best opportunity to work in a natural environment with a certain degree of freedom and independence. This view may not reflect the realities of a farm worker's life but only of those who control the "means of production". The joy of living and working in communion with nature certainly has a calming effect on the personality of farmers and enables them withstand the many challenges posed by their occupation.

When monsoons fail, this important link that connects farmers to their natural environment is lost and every day is a reminder of that loss, whether it is lack of employment, food for the family, fodder for cattle or water for their personal needs and crops.

This year a general mood of depression has overtaken people whose lives depend on agriculture. No amount of doles in the form of drought relief through "food for work" programmes can dispel this feeling of gloom except when normalcy is restored by nature itself and farmers have enough work to do on their own lands. Though a settler-farmer not dependent entirely on farm income for a living, even I am not able to escape this feeling of gloom and depression. As crime and suicides in the surrounding villages increase, I realise how important it is to have normal monsoons and good harvests.

Overflowing godowns, even if it were due to over-production of grain, as our political leaders would have us believe, is a minor problem compared to rural unrest and turmoil resulting from agricultural under-production.

Just this week our farm worker, Basamma, absented herself from work to take care of her grandchildren suffering from the trauma of seeing their relative Chennaiah's body hanging from a tree.

As dusk fell, the girls had gone to defecate under the mango tree in Chennaiah's fields when fear struck and screaming they ran back home to describe to the elders what they saw. That morning Chennaiah had gone to visit his married daughter in a nearby village. The girl had been harassed for dowry by her in-laws since her marriage two years ago, but this year they had become particularly cruel towards her. Chennaiah was beaten up by his son-in-law's family and had his scooter confiscated for failing to keep up promises made during the marriage. His humiliation was total when his helpless daughter pleaded with him to put up with the beating for her sake. The mango tree from which he hung himself was just a distance away from our farm and, the next day, I could hear the wailing relatives, the sound of police jeeps and the loud chatter of curious villagers. In the last two months, our farm workers have brought me news of six suicides in the nearby villages. Where the victims are young married girls, the incidents are not even reported to the police. The girls' parents are "talked to" by the village elders and relatives not to "invite" trouble by going to the police. Villages where remnants of the old style panchayat system still functions are the worst in bringing pressure on the victims' parents to compromise with the boy's family.

As most dowry suicides are due to the "failure" of the victim's parents to keep up promises of money or gold, parents are overcome by feelings of grief and guilt. The poor, though landed, do not have the means to initiate any action and willingly accept the monetary compensation given by the perpetrators of crime.

Dowry related deaths are more prevalent among the landed poor families than the landless poor where young women are wage earners. Wage earning women are more independent and have greater interaction with the outside world unlike the landed poor women who work on their fields or within the confines of their homes.

During years of normal harvests, the families of girls are able to fulfil their social obligations with presents of farm produce, clothes, money and gold, feasting during festivals, all of which makes the boy's family feel their family "honour" has been maintained. Rural police stations have as many as 40-50 villages under their jurisdiction and, in times of drought, have to cope with the increase in crime and suicides. Eliciting information from relatives of suicide victims is a hard task for which the police are least equipped.

In the absence of women's organisations in rural areas that take a serious view of dowry deaths and harassment cases, the women have no one to turn to in distress. The decade-long political environment that whipped up communal passions served as incubation period for hatching out crimes against women. It is ironic that supporters of the Government that helped hatch venomous serpents and let them loose on the women in Gujarat, now ask death penalty for rape! We need to remind ourselves that two years ago it was the same Government that suggested an insurance cover for women against rape.

It is in the above context of unreported suicides we need to examine the findings of the committee appointed by the Government of Karnataka to "scientifically" analyse the cause of farmer's suicides. In spite of the presence of a learned woman member on the committee, the report has nothing substantial to say about women's suicides in farming families. The word "farmer", it seems, has come to represent only male farmers.

Unless better-designed research frameworks than police records are used to elicit suppressed information on suicides from victims' families, the Government commissions will be satisfied with analysing only "reported" cases of suicides.

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