Yavatmal, Maharashtra - It's a tale of three widows bound by a common thread of cotton; and policies of the state that their husbands vocally blamed for their plight before their death.

Savita Ghugul's husband Dinesh fell to the bullets of police in December 2006 at Wani cotton procurement centre when a mob of cotton growers erupted in anger over delay in procurement of cotton. Dinesh, 35, had left his home in Mendholi village the morning he died; his body returned the next day in police protection.

Sunita Girsawale's man Pundalik chose to end himself in the Tehsil Agriculture Office when he ran out of patience and money. He was seeking help to buy a bullock under the Prime Minister's much-trumpeted relief package, but someone in the tehsil office demanded bribe. A cheque of Rs.4500 was found on his person after his death. People of his Tejapur village allege it was planted after his death.

Kiran, Sharda and Durga, the three daughters of Pundalik Girsawale in their hut at Tejapur village, in Wani tehsil of Yavatmal. Their mother, Sunita, has taken to work as a labourer in the village after Pundalik's death. Pic: Jaideep Hardikar.

And 20-year-old Pratibha Kuchankar's husband Rameshwar consumed pesticide in Pandharkawda cotton procurement centre, ending his days of desperation. A stoic silence grips Pratibha's maternal home in Veerkund village, where she has moved in after Rameshwar's death on November 28, last. It was only six months that they had been married, and the young farmer felt his condition would improve. Still in shock and grief, Pratibha speaks, but only through silence.

Says Savita: "I asked the Home Minister what was the fault of my husband? He told me, what has happened has happened, now the government will stand firmly in your support." She says the family never thought selling cotton would be so deadly.

Sunita, on the other hand, doesn't have time to mourn the loss. Her struggle for the livelihood deepened the moment her husband quit the world. "Since I can't work, it's upto Savita and these children to earn money," laments Parvatabai, Pundalik's old mother.

Last year, the National Commission for Farmers (NCF) led by the father of the green revolution, M S Swaminathan, submitted its final report to the Central Government.

It strongly recommended the government's intervention in procurement and restoration of advance bonus over and above the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for cotton, a practice Maharashtra Government stopped from 2004-05 season. The withdrawal of the advance bonus saw a sharp decline in cotton prices in the state, and Vidarbha farmers got the stick.

The NCF had also recommended setting up of a Centre-State price stabilisation fund to check any volatility in global and domestic cotton prices, but neither was the advance bonus restored nor the fund set up.

Not a single recommendation of the NCF has been accepted by the government so far.

 •  Replying with bullets
 •  Sermons for distressed souls

Savita, Sunita and Pratibha are women from different contexts, background and age groups, yet engulfed by a tragedy that emanates from a single source: The wrong policy. Well over a thousand farmers committed suicide in 2006 and close to 120 in the New Year so far in Vidarbha's cotton districts. Notwithstanding the government's rejection of these suicides as fallout of an agrarian emergency, the number of widows is growing at a frightening speed in the cotton country.

"This one's the fastest growing constituency of this region," quips Kishor Tiwari, the convenor of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) in Pandharkawda. With an average one farmer committing suicide every six to eight hours, as per the state government's own figures, the region is seeing a staggering surge in the number of widows and orphans. This past month saw a father and his son take their own lives following years of desperation that the farming household was in.

Tiwari points out that a growing number of widows are left alone to fend for themselves and their families. "The most disturbing feature of late is the suicides by young farmers, who were married two, three or five years ago," he points out. The widows are young and have a long life ahead. "And there is no support."

The gender face of the crisis often remains neglected or unheard. Farm leaders say the government must waive off the loan of such households where the headman has committed suicide. It would relieve the pressure on the widows.

On the other hand, the farmers taking their own lives are increasingly becoming more vocal in their criticism of the government's policies, and the suicide notes are being directed now straight to the Chief Minister or his deputy.

As Rameshwar Kuchankar, 27, put it in his dying note before consuming poison in the market yard, "Mr CM, give us the price. Mr R R Patil, if you don't give us Rs.3000 a quintal, this issue (of farmers' suicide) will only aggravate."

Rameshwar knew he was in losses after the cotton prices crashed to Rs.1700-1900 this year from over Rs.2200 a quintal. Then, in one poignant stroke, he wrote a line for his wife on one corner of that note. "Pratibha, I am sorry, please forgive me and get remarried." In the end, he mentions: "No one in my family should be blamed for my death; if some one does that I won't forgive him."

Pundalik, on the other hand, had had four years of crop failure. "He went at least 15 times to get the cheque from the agriculture office to buy a bullock, but some one there demanded bribe," says his mother Parvatabai. "He had purchased two doors for this hut, but had to sell one to pay for his visits to Wani," she informs. Sunita, his widow, has since taken to working as a farm labourer to earn a living and her three daughters – aged 14, 12 and 10 – look after the household chores.

Apparently, it was a slight provocation by some one in the agriculture office that proved the last straw for Pundalik. He had threatened them that he would end his own life if they did not release his cheque; the officer said do as you like, and a desperate Pundalik consumed poison to take his own life, a villager says.

In both Pundalik and Rameshwar's cases, the government has declined the Rupees one-lakh compensation, saying these were 'non-genuine' suicides, meaning the two farmers' death was genuine, "but was not due to any agricultural crisis". The government says that in the case of Pundalik, money had been released by the bank, but that there was no sign of distres. This, while his widow grapples for a two square meals back home. And since Rameshwar ended his life, there has been no communication from the state government to his young widow, Pratibha.

In Dinesh's case, luckily, there's no question of applying any parameter. He fell to a bullet that pierced his stomach and slit open his intestine. In one way though, Dinesh was a victim of the government's neglect towards procurement of cotton. Had the centres worked round the clock to buy farmers' yield the unprecedented protests may not have erupted in first place, and Dinesh would have lived on.

These three families lost their bread-winners in a span of one month. The same month, over a hundred farming households in Vidarbha also lost their head men, all choosing to take their own lives through different modes.

"The three farmers present shades of misery gifted by the government. One lost his life for no reason in police firing; the other was denied the relief that the Prime Minister himself declared in Nagpur; the third one felt, like all farmers of this region feel, he was denied a decent life," Tiwari.

"All of them had good family life and none was an alcoholic; it was the state's policy and bureaucratic sham that took their lives," he charges.

The questions staring Savita and her children are no less different than those facing Pratibha or Sunita and her three daughters. Alas, no less easy too.