Driven to desperation by debt, an Aurangabad farmer seeks government permission to kill himself
The Hon’ble Chief Minister
The State of Maharashtra, Mantralaya,
I write to inform you that I had suffered terrible losses in the hailstorm and unseasonal rains that had occurred on 11.04.2015 and 12.04.2015. Even though it had destroyed the polyhouse [a type of greenhouse] and shed-net I had so painstakingly constructed, my name isn’t included in the list of people eligible for compensation.
It is my humble request that you either help offset my losses or allow me to commit suicide.
Rameshwar Haribhau Bhusare
IT HAD INDEED come to this. Two years of meeting babus of his taluka, district and state-level bodies had come to naught. Now he had little choice but take it up with Devendra Fadnavis, show him photographs of the disaster that had struck his farmland, demand the compensation the government owed him and, if rebuffed, issue the ultimatum.
The meeting never happened. Instead, by that evening of March 23rd, a video shot from a camera-phone outside Mumbai’s Marine Drive police station went viral. There was Bhusare, his white shirt streaked in blood and a tooth missing, telling a journalist that he was assaulted by policemen while waiting outside the Chief Minister’s office.
“They told me to go away as the CM had already left,” the farmer is seen saying. “I refused to leave, so they dragged me to the elevator and punched me and kicked me.” He was charged with an attempt to commit suicide and detained at the police station overnight.
This was sensational stuff. Bhusare belongs to Aurangabad, part of the ‘suicide belt’ of Maharashtra that comprises the hot, drought-prone Marathwada and Vidarbha regions. As reasons, data crunchers cite the farmers’ inability to pay off debts, crippling inflation, family problems and failure of crops. For its prevalence, sociologists talk of mental health issues and a domino effect. In some cases, they say, the farmer kills himself so that his family can pay off debts with the compensation accorded to their kin. Put it together, and you have a state that has seen over 60,000 farmers take their own lives in the past two decades.
With the state Assembly session on, the political opposition smelled blood. Only last year, a farmer from Nanded had acted on his threat and consumed insecticide outside Mantralaya, prompting a nationwide outrage. He had died eventually—and escaped the criminal charges. Now was a chance for yet another round of mud-slinging in the name of the downtrodden.
The next afternoon, former Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar along with MLAs Jitendra Awhad and Naseem Shaikh stormed the police station, followed closely by TV news camerapersons and faithfuls. ‘How could you?’ they demanded of a police inspector quaking before them. The officer mumbled something about Bhusare getting into a scuffle with the guards, biting one of their arms, trying to strangle himself using a rope inside a police van. His audience refused to buy the story and insisted that the police book their own personnel for Bhusare’s assault.
We are with you, the leaders told the farmer. The whole of Maharashtra is with you, one of their runners added. Soon, they were out of the chambers and ready with a byte for the cameras. Ajit Pawar, the prime accused of the Rs 35,000 crore irrigation scam of 2012, who’d once mocked a drought-affected farmer’s 55-day hunger strike with, “What do you want me to do if there is no water in the dam? Pee in it?”, offered up his bleeding heart.
“Today, a farmer is nervous, desperate. He can’t get justice even at the sixth floor of Mantralaya [at the Chief Minister’s office]. We will ensure that he gets justice. Not just [Bhusare], but all the farmers in Maharashtra.”
In the coming days, a united Congress and NCP would launch a state-wide tour in a Mercedes to demand for the farmers’ rights. In their speeches, its leaders would demand waivers, just as the ruling BJP had until it won the elections a few years ago. Even as it waives off loans worth Rs 36,359 crore in Uttar Pradesh, the Maharashtra state BJP would dismiss the idea and say that it would much rather focus on building agri-infrastructure, just as the now-opposition had when in power. They would take turns playing Tom and Jerry as its audience slowly perished—nearly five people every day.
Bhusare’s exclusion from state compensation turned into his obsession. He claims to have visited the district offices nearly 80 times in two years
Pawar and his subordinates drove off in their SUVs. The Runner, a red tika between his eyebrows and a saffron gamcha around his neck, looked around frantically for a journalist interested in his opinion too. An hour later, he found his chance, puffed up his chest and recorded an animated call-to-action. O farmers, said he, time you take to the streets.
“Say, why do you think a farmer takes his own life?” he asked as the camera turned off. There was only one TV crew left by now and they were already distracted by their smartphones.
“Come on. Why do you think he does that?”
“You’d know best,” said one half-heartedly.
It was his cue. “It’s simple,” he said. “A farmer doesn’t have the resources to get a bank loan. He ends up borrowing from friends and relatives. People start talking. Everyone in the village comes to know if he can’t pay back. At that point, the farmer kills himself out of sheer embarrassment.”
Rameshwar Bhusare had borrowed Rs 6 lakh from nearly 25 of his friends and relatives. When I meet him at his village in Aurangabad, I asked him if he really wants to take his own life. “Of course not,” he says. His letter was meant as a mockery of the bureaucratic nightmare he had been subjected to, an indictment of the times that had normalised suicides as a part of daily discourse. Had he meant it, he knows he would’ve become just another number: the 193rd farmer who killed himself in Marathwada in 2017.
BHUSARE’S VILLAGE, GHATSHENDRA, is roughly 450 km from Mumbai. It takes a seven-hour train ride to Aurangabad followed by a three-hour journey on a road that steadily gets coarser once you cross the popular Ellora caves. Its 7,500 residents live in caste-clumps: Brahmins and Patils at the centre of the village, marked by a panchayat office, tea-shop and an old Rama temple; Muslims with their green-coloured houses and a mosque at one end; and in the outskirts, Buddhists with their more emaciated brethren, Dalits. Its walls pledge to end open defecation for the safety of its women and bear paintings of the government’s ‘Save the girl child, teach the girl child’ campaign, even as its figurehead sarpanch Savita Namvev Taru outsources all her duties to her husband.
“It’s all good that Modi says ‘Patiraj khatam karo’ (Down with the patriarchy),” Namdev Taru tells me as his wife serves us tea, unwilling to join the men sitting in her living room. “But that’s not quite possible in rural India.”
Not too far from the town centre is Bhusare’s Rs 500-a- month rental house, held together by tin sheets. A side of his living room is lined with portraits of gods, godmen and god- like men. A green rag, earlier put up as a crop-shield at the poly- house, now acts as a curtain to separate it from the kitchen. Bhusare lives here with his wife, mother and two school-going kids.
Eldest of three siblings, Bhusare had dropped out of school when eight, soon after his father died of a heart attack. Like most in the region, he and his mother spent their days raising cotton, jowar and bajra in their four-acres and, when hard-up, their villagers’. He eventually learnt how to drive a car and started ferrying tourists. Fifteen years on, he had saved up enough to afford the marriage expenses for his sister, including Rs 30,000 for dowry. By 2014, he had started toying with an idea of ‘technical farming’. In his travels to Pune and Nashik, he had often come across a green shed erected on fields, known to regulate temperature, come up high yields and profits. The banks had refused his loan application, so he borrowed from anyone willing to lend, even if it meant incurring an interest rate of up to 30 per cent. If all went well, Bhusare was sure it would only take him a couple of harvests to pay them off.
A few days after being granted bail in Mumbai for his attempt to commit suicide, Bhusare was back in Ghatshendra, still penniless, almost forgotten
On January 1st, 2015, a coconut was cracked open in front of a photograph of Shivaji and the first poly-house farm in Ghatshendra inaugurated. Bhusare worked hard, advertised harder and soon it was clear that he would reap a jackpot. That March, several parts of north and west India were struck by one of its worst torrential rains, four months before the monsoon season. At Aurangabad, it turned into a hailstorm.
“In my 32 years, this was the first time I was seeing such a thing,” Bhusare recalls. “The ice nearly came up to my knees. It was like Kashmir.”
Crops across nearly 12.3 million acres of land were damaged across the country. Some pegged the losses at Rs 20,000 crore. The next month, the Maharashtra state government released a Government Resolution declaring that farmers would be compensated: up to Rs 10,000 per acre for damaged fields, Rs 25,000 for dead farm animals, Rs 70,000 for damaged homes and Rs 2.5 lakh for the kin of dead farmers. There was, however, no mention of what damaged poly-houses would get.
Teams of government officials were appointed to survey each of those beleaguered. Incorrigibly, they hinted at a sweetener between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 to make sure they qualify for their dues on paper. Bhusare refused. He has never paid bribes, he says, not even to traffic cops. Six months later, the government released a list of 398 farmers of his village eligible for compensation. There was no Rameshwar Bhusare in it.
His exclusion turned into his obsession. Bhusare claims to have visited his Kannad taluka and Aurangabad district offices nearly 80 times in two years. His work suffered; he started borrowing from his wife and mother to fund his follow-ups. He would travel 20 km to meet a typist at Kannad, post ‘official-sounding letters’ written for Rs 30 each, send emails from a cyber café nearby and seek updates from each of the offices over numerous phone calls. But his name isn’t in The List, they all informed him. Hence, no money.
By the end of 2016, he applied for a loan of Rs 16 lakh under the government-sponsored NABARD scheme. It was time for a fresh start; a bigger, better poly-house. But under the scheme’s rules, Bhusare was required to chip in with 25 per cent of the loan amount—Rs 4 lakh—to be eligible for the rest of the sum.
This meant yet another debt. A loan to get a loan to pay off a loan. “Had I been able to pay off my earlier dues, this wouldn’t be a problem. But who would give me money now?”
He started doing rounds of Mantralaya, travelling ticketless, hiding in toilets, repeating his letter-email-phone call routine. Even a meeting with the state minister for Agriculture didn’t help. Finally, he decided to go on a hunger strike at Azad Maidan, Mumbai’s protest hotspot. He submitted a letter to the local police station, copied it to the Office of Devendra Fadnavis and five other ministries, and grabbed a spot under a banyan tree, next to a teacher from Solapur on a dharna against his unjust dismissal. He would start his day with a cup of tea, read newspapers between 10 am and 6 pm seated at his spot, eat a plate of pav-bhaji in the evenings, and sleep on the pavements at nights, if they weren’t already occupied.
His was among nearly 15 protests at Azad Maidan; he was among hundreds of aggrieved. To a city of over 10 million and counting, none of them really matters. It would chug on with or without him. It took Bhusare 12 days to realise as much.
“It was hope that kept me going all this while,” he says, “I was like a patient on a saline drip.”
On March 23rd, as he registered for a visitor’s pass at Mantralaya and walked past the gates that until recently had a list of 37 ‘suicide- prone’ individuals stuck on it so that they could be stopped from ‘bringing disrepute to the government’, Bhusare clutched in his hand all evidence of his struggle over the last two years. And a letter.
Soon after Ajit Pawar and his coterie of kurta pyjamas left the police station that had detained Bhusare, he was taken to the Mumbai sessions court for a remand hearing. In the messy room, where a squeaky fan chopped the light from an overhead tube, sat a middle-aged judge, his hair styled as a toupee, dealing with cases with a breath-taking efficiency. The prosecution presented theirs: distressed farmer failed to kill himself, now faces criminal charges.
“Do you accept the charges?” the judge asked.
“Absolutely not,” the farmer replied, his voice unusually loud for the deferential ambience. Even the morose stenographer looked up.
Milord, the defence lawyer offered, how can one possibly commit suicide by strangulating oneself with a rope? It will come loose, obviously.
Bhusare was granted bail within minutes.
A few days later, he was back in Ghatshendra, still penniless, almost forgotten. His family was smarting: police officials from Aurangabad had offered to drive them to Mumbai to help Bhusare secure bail and later handed them petrol bills of Rs 8,000. Soon after, Ranjit Patil, Minister of state for Home, dismissed Bhusare’s version of his assault as false, reiterating the police’s version. While those from the Opposition visited him to offer condolences and assurances, no one from the government contacted him about the compensation. On my way to his residence, a slightly tipsy farmer I was sharing the ride with offered an explanation: “If you want to get your dues, you need to be polite.” He bowed his head, joined hands into a namaskaram. “Please, Sir. I’m desperate, Sir.” Bhusare, said he, was not the type. The poor didn’t want to play the meek, so he suffered.
At the village, Bhusare shows me a primary school he helps manage, its cracked ceiling and classrooms stocked with debris. His neighbours point out the kerosene seller who charges three rupees more than the fixed rate, the de facto sarpanch walks me over to a health centre closed for the past year and a half. In the absence of local MPs and MLAs, who do their rounds only once every five years, come election season, to distribute promises and ‘Bypass Bisleris’ (local code for alcoholic drinks), they have pinned their hopes on this journalist to be their saviour.
Bhusare tells me he will resume his fight. “This is a government for industrialists, not farmers,” he alleges. “But I won’t give up. I will go to New Delhi if that’s what it takes.”
His neighbours are sceptical. “Even Anna Hazare couldn’t get his Lokpal,” one of them tells me on the sly. “What can a poor farmer do?”