My own conversations with single/widowed women in Marathwada at the beginning of the monsoon bore this out. "We’ve been spending months eating just bhakri and chutney," Dhondubai told me in Tandulja village in Latur earlier this year. A Dalit, she had managed to eke out a living during the difficult months by working in houses of dominant castes.
Since women are always the last to eat in the household, there is often nothing or little left by the time their turn to eat arrives. The Vak-Orf study points out how women feel guilty for not being able to afford food for their children. Their own hunger was of little consequence to them during the drought, says the report. Several people interviewed as part of the study also mentioned how girls’ schooling was discontinued during the drought as there was no money. This has probably pushed up the number of female school dropouts in the region substantially.
Several factors come together during droughts and other calamities to render women particularly vulnerable. The story of one particular family cited in the report, where the farmer committed suicide in April 2015, shows how this happens.
The family in question owns a four-acre plot in Osmanabad’s Kalamb taluka and cultivates one crop a year. The farmer would also migrate to work as farm labour in neighbouring districts every year after Dussera. They had married off two daughters by availing loans, but both had returned home in recent months. While one daughter was abandoned by her husband, the other was turned out by her in-laws after her husband fell sick.
"They had been having a difficult time, and the drought only pushed them further to the brink," says Renuka Kad, who visited the family as part of the Vak-Orf research study. In April last year, the farmer hanged himself from a tree. He is survived by a married son who takes up whatever daily wage work he finds in the village. Apart from two daughters abandoned and a widowed wife, the report highlights how women from such families lived through increased harassment, mental and physical torture, and sexual violence while trying to access water during the drought.
Padoli, where the Tekades lived and died, is also in Osmanabad district’s Kalamb taluka and shares its boundary with Beed and Latur districts. Taken together, Beed, Latur and Osmanabad faced the most acute water crisis through the four-year drought preceeding this monsoon and have accounted for the maximum farmer sucides during the period. The districts also have the poorest sex ratio and record of female infanticide/ foeticide in the state; just last year, a huge illegal abortion scam was unearthed in Beed.
The practice of dowry is common as well in rural Marathwada. Although expectations regarding the the booty in question are tempered by caste and class considerations, several women across these barriers told me how the drought had sharpened anxieties. "How will we arrange for the money (for dowry)… we have to pay off creditors we’ve borrowed from over the last three-four years," they say.
Was it possible that this thought was playing on Mahendra Tekade’s mind when he hanged himself on 24 June, merely a fortnight after the birth of his second daughter? "We’ll never know," says his brother, Santosh Tekade. "His first child was a daughter, so he was hoping for a son. But we never spoke about these things… In the months before his suicide, he would often grieve over the fact that he had no savings in his elder daughter’s name; nor was he being able to build a pucca house for the family," recalls Santosh.
The first time, Supriya Tekade overdosed on sleeping pills. "We took her to the private hospital in Murud around 4 pm," recalls borther-in-law Santosh. It was 25 June, the day after her husband had committed suicide. The night was spent in the hospital. Yet, all Supriya had wanted through those hours in the ICU was to be back in her husband’s home: the next day was his vidai.
Her in-laws say that even after returning from the hospital, Supriya carried on without any will. On 28 June, when here parents and brother were also over at her Padoli residence, she succeeded in doing what was undone on 25 June. She escaped from the room where she was sleeping with her parents and other relatives around 1:30-2:00 am. She walked across the courtyard, and locked herself into the room where her husband had hanged himself.
"We did not hear her scream. Not even once," says Santosh. "She had wrapped herself in four-five saris and set herself ablaze with the flame of lamp that was burning in her husband’s memory," recalls her father-in-law, Sriram Tekade, his eyes glistening.
During her last two days, he says, Supriya could hardly think of anything, including her children. "’What basis do I have to live, now that my husband is gone," he recallls her saying.
The administration will not recognise Supriya’s suicide as a case of farm suicide, as she had no land in her name. The Tekades will get only Rs 1 lakh for Mahendra’s suicide, of which Rs 70,000 will be retained in a fixed deposit by the bank. This, too, will come after the police complete their investigation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s "Beti bachao" and "Selfie with daughter" rhetoric will not touch Supriya — the one who set herself afire like the ideal Hindu woman performing sati. It will not help improve the lives of her daughters Shweta and Shreya; or the thousands of other single/abandoned/widowed women affected severely by four years of drought.
The rhetoric also won’t be able to make breast milk available for little Shweta, though that has never been the government’s lookout anyway.
The writer is The Statesman&’s Mumbai-based Special Correspondent and a PhD scholar at The Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.