March 16, 2006

Above their heads

Some months ago, Namdeo Malwe committed suicide in his small village near the dusty district town of Pandharkawda, in eastern Maharashtra. (Well, actually, he committed suicide in his fields). When I visit his family one morning, his daughter Manisha is about to leave for school -- the Savitribai Phule Madhyamik Vidyalaya (SP Middle School) about 5 km away. Her mother Nalini calls her back; the bus she takes to school comes and goes.

It's much of a muchness, Malwe's story. He had borrowed Rs 20,000 to buy fertilizer for his field. His cotton crop didn't bring him enough to pay back the debt, he also had to marry his older daughter (her dowry was Rs 20,000 as well). It all got too much for him to cope, so he sat in his field one morning and drank down rat poison.

I gather all these details sitting on the floor of his little hut with Nalini and Manisha. It is painted a striking blue and white outside. Inside, we sit under a somber garlanded picture of Namdeo, hanging above an inner door.

And I'm feeling increasingly desperate as we talk, because what do you say to a family like this? What do you say when a debt that seems small to you was a terrifying spectre to a cotton farmer here? What do you say when even that thought -- that the debt seems small -- is hard to think?

What do you say when you know, and this family knows, and you know they know, that you're no different from a voyeur: here for tragedy, looking in on sadness? Yeah yeah -- write about it, spread the word, make people aware, all that stuff. Tell me about it. But in even meeting the eyes of these two, these eyes that never so much as smile, you're the voyeur.

Two things happen.

First, a man comes in and tells me, why don't you take a picture of them holding Namdeo's picture? Without waiting for an answer, he reaches up and tries to unhook the frame. He can't, because it is not just hung there, but tied securely. Get a knife, he tells Nalini, I'll cut the string. I dissuade him, then look away for a few seconds to put aside my notebook and pull out my camera. When I look back, mother and daughter are standing in the doorway, the man positioning them just so. They have their arms straight up above their heads, hands cradling the photograph as it hangs there.

No, I say, just stand there. No need to reach out to it.

Second, with the photograph done, Nalini asks me quietly: what will I get from this? You people come and go, but what will I get? What will you do for us?

The sense of tragedy is almost suffocating.

And today, when I've finally felt I can write about this little incident, I find there's one thing I have been able to do for Namdeo's family. I've changed all their names.


Postscript: and even that one thing I thought I was able to do -- change their names -- I didn't manage properly. One name changed above after I posted this.


Puru said...

Dilip, while there have been several reports about the very saddening situation in Vidarbha and the Rs.1075-crore relief package not reaching the ones who need it, I am wondering if, while on your trip, did you see any efforts/developments (local/state/NGOs...) to improve the situation? The govt. is talking about increase in rural-credit etc., but even if that happens that is not going to be immediate.

Anonymous said...


Next time donate some cash to such people direct - no middleman.

Better than donating Rs 2 lacs to Tehelka? Right?

Transmogrifier said...

I am wondering if there is anything more constructive that we can do. Many reporters write about the suicides and the problems that the farmers face. I have seen very few write about solutions that the farmers themselves can find or which other people (NGOs etc) can help them find.

Donating money is not going to solve the problem. The main problems the farmers face are 2: First is the perpetual debt cycle and unavailability of good low cost credit. Second is the high expenses they incur on food and health, especially health. P. Sainath has written a lot about this. There are NGOs I believe who are trying to solve both of these. Eg. CEHAT in Pune is trying to establish low cost health care systems in the villages.

The main problem is debt. I dunno if the farmers can get good credit at low prices somewhere to pay off debt to money lenders? Are there any banks/agencies who are trying to do that? Second problem I guess is that the cost of fertilizers and seed keeps increasing year over year and buying GM seeds ensures that your are tied to that cycle. There are NGOs that are providing a way out by going organic or by using good crop rotations etc. I know a group in Raichur district in Karnataka that has tried this for small-scale farmers and it has worked fairly well.

I can understand that reporters' role is kind of limited and so is the time they have but if they can atleast point this out to some farmers or try to link the farmers to those who can help, it would do some difference. I can see why the farmers and families are helpless, but I don't like the idea that people like you or me should feel the same way about the situation. There has to be some way out and there is I believe.

Umesh Patil said...

The sober writing like what Dilip presented here serves lot of good purposes:
- First and foremost it does illustrate how the real world is all 'jungle' and it is the responsibility of adults to take care of their house holds so that kids get at least some cover while growing up. It shows how really the danger is always lurking around to destroy anyone's basic economic stability. It also illustrates that how hard choices can be if we do not want to 'risk' totally our basic economic stability. I wonder did the farmer and his family think of marrying the elder daughter to a young man who is not addict, poor but hard working so that they family does not need to spend Rs. 20K for the marriage. Of course it is easy to speculate like this sitting at a distance. The point is hard choices are everywhere if we want to avoid the meaningless risks.
- Second point is the way Dilip and others are presenting these items; that is the only way things ever get addressed. It is excruciatingly painful process for a reporter or those bringing out the news. But unless such sustained reporting happens, society as a whole would not take any action. We have to keep in mind - there is a competitive market for sorrows of the world and misery of humans. There is only finite ability of the world to solve these issues by intervention whereas needs are literally infinite. So if at all such hearfelt needs are going to get addressed ever, we will need these blogs, these reports and sustained media exposure. That is the only way it ever happens.
- Finally, I think it is wrong to advise those who are working to get the news out about how they should help directly. Reporters or first hand narrative tellers are doing the basic duty of digging the news and relevant information so that the society at least knows the issues. To assume Dilip as a visiting ATM so that money is donated everywhere, is not correct. Those readers among us who feel he should do that first need to give money to Dilip, then he will distribute it!

Anonymous said...

Good post. I posted about it here.

This is what a farmer said about suicides - “The worst humiliation is when you cannot feed your family. It is better to die than go down in the eyes of your wife and children every day.”

Its horrible. If we are not able to donate money ourselves, or not willing to disrupt our well-laid out lives to be social-workers, atleast we can try and get the attention of people who have more power than we do (indirectly or otherwise).

Anonymous said...

Ok, perhaps I'm really not clued into all these details - but how is changing the names of these people in your article helping them? Not trying to put you down or anything, really don't understand...

Btw, it was good bumping into you the other day. Took my mind off all the Roadside Romeos ;)

Anonymous said...

[I]>>Those readers among us who feel he should do that first need to give money to Dilip, then he will distribute it![/I]
Hmm.. has AID shut it's office down? You asking Dilip to go into charity/fund raising business? Please, for a computer engineer moonlighting as a part time reporter and full time blogger; isn't this good enough for you?

[I] I think it is wrong to advise those who are working to get the news out about how they should help directly[/I]
Hmm...perhaps one is wrong in assuming that a globe trotting world traveller plus donor to big media house is a person different than who visits those zhopdis and offers the distitute nothing more than a name change on the blog. Mighty generous this guy.

Someday these people will have a computer and will offer their thanks to Dilip online for his little mercies.

[I]>>Ok, perhaps I'm really not clued into all these details - but how is changing the names of these people in your article helping them?[/I]
It helps (only Dilip) can't you see?

Dilip D'Souza said...

Puru, I made a very short trip. I had planned to return (today in fact) for a longer trip to look particularly at efforts to address the problem, but I've cancelled it for various reasons. I probably will make the trip in April, and hope to have more for you then.

Transm, I don't feel helpless. But I do feel I need to understand the situation better before I can make suggestions, certainly to the people involved.

Thank you Umesh for your thoughts. But I'm not taking money to hand out to anyone!

Melody, the point was actually mild sarcasm directed at myself. It's like this: I've taken photographs of some of these families, but I'm not thrilled with the idea of making those pix public. In much the same way, I didn't want to make the names of these families public. So I'm unable to do anything for them, except keep their identities to myself.

It was good to see you too!