At 31, Ganga, a dirt-poor, farmer's daughter is looking at spinsterhood for life. This slim, dusky girl in pigtails from a nondescript village in central India region of Vidarbha is the unlikely victim of a phenomenon that she scarcely understands. Ganga, a lower-caste Dalit, never aspired to much, but marriage was a thing she took for granted. Inevitably though, she has become a piece of the tragedy unfolding in the countryside and her small dream of marriage lies shattered. Her sacrifice of marital bliss now seems small when others are staring at death and a fate worse than death.

Steeped in debt, Shamrao Khatale, a Dalit cotton farmer, died in October 2005 because could not afford medicines. His daughter, Ganga, now 31, never aspired to much, but marriage was a thing she took for granted. (Pic: P Sainath).

In villages like Ashti, where Ganga lives, girls are married by 20-22 years of age. While her father, Shyamrao Khatale was alive, Ganga thought it was just a matter of time and waited patiently for her turn as her two elder sisters were married off. But all that changed, when her father died in October 2005. He had been sick for a long time, and with no money for medicines, he simply passed away, lying in the small, three-room, mud hut with a low thatched roof.

"My father married off both my sisters. That was no small feat since he had to take more loans. He had previous unpaid loans for farming." In the face of repeated crop failures, loans had become a way of life. He tilled cotton on four acres of un-irrigated land. And like most in his area, he had sown Bt cotton seeds, the genetically modified variety, in the hope of bumper produce and less pest menace. But these inputs were costlier and he needed a loan to tide over the expenses. The loans from private moneylenders were not cheap at 60-120 per cent interest rate. With the banks and cooperative bodies turning their backs on the farmers, the rural credit system in these parts collapsed a decade ago. Loan sharks flourished, extracting their pound of flesh.

Expensive seed inputs from big companies failed to deliver on promises of high yield and pest resistance. Also, during the 2005-06 season, spurious seeds were sold in an unregulated market, resulting in failed crops. Periods of inclement weather also threatened to tip the scale. Caught in the web, the noose was further tightened with the slashing of the prices by the government in the face of freely imported cotton.

"This is not just our story. It is now happening all over the village and even the entire region," explains Ganga in a small voice. The situation is worse than Ganga could ever imagine, with at least one suicide being reported every 24 hours. This season, widows too started taking the death route. How bleak the situation really is, is brought home by the fact that daughters, in the wistful hope of sparing their beleaguered fathers the dowry burden, are thinking of extreme measures. Two young girls in different villages have already ended their lives, both alluding to family tensions over marriage in their suicide notes. Death seemed to offer the only solution.

Ganga feels she and her family have but one option: work the soil in the hope that coming crops would be good enough to repay all the loans.

But her task seems as hopeless now as it seemed to her father and brother, because nothing has changed.

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