Hyderabad: For 15 years, Sangishetty Yadaiah has not been able to tend to the small farm that supports his family. After a severe TB attack, he says the muscles in his forearms gradually wasted away and rendered him incapable of physical work, it was his wife, Yadamma, who supervised both the farm and their home. She made sure their three children were cared for. She also fought tough battles for bank loans, schooled herself in seeds and fertilizers, and consumed pesticide when debtors started asking her to repay loans and she felt helpless because the crop had completely failed.
Yadaih holds on to her photograph. "I am not ashamed to admit that if it had not been for her, I would have been long dead. She worked really hard on the farm and to take care of me and the children. Whenever I felt in better health, I would accompany her to the farm or to the shops. What am I going to do without her?"
As a state, Andhra Pradesh has seen so many farmer suicides that bureaucrats and families are well-versed in what happens if a farmer surrenders to the pressure of mounting debt or a poor harvest.
The YSR government formally issued an order, famous as GO 421, that outlined who is to be considered a farmer and what is to be considered a genuine farmer suicide. Once that is established, the family gets one lakh rupees to be able to start life afresh with some livelihood activity and another 50,000 rupees is used to settle all outstanding loans.
The problem is that women, who almost never have land registered in their name, are not recognised as farmers. Even otherwise, records indicate that most of the farmers who commit suicide are usually what are called tenant farmers, who take land on lease and cultivate.
"The local revenue official said this won't apply to ladies, only to gents. That she cannot be considered a farmer," said Mr Yadaiah. "He accused us of claiming she was a farmer only to get compensation money. He even said 'if you had died instead of her, then your family would have got the money'."
In the last one year, the government has recognised 90 farmer suicides. Independent surveys by media and field organizations say the real number is at least three to four times that number. Just in October in six districts surveyed, 95 farmer suicide deaths were reported and in November that number went up to 157 for the state.
Critics say the state government's guidelines for defining who is a farmer what is a genuine farmer suicide has tended to be exclusive rather than inclusive. Women are not identified as farmers, especially because land is rarely bought or registered in their names.
"Even in women self-help groups, loans are usually used for agriculture-related needs. But even there women are not considered farmers though they earn their livelihood through agriculture," says V Usha Rani, Agriculture Commissioner.
The commissioner said all District Collectors and revenue officials have been instructed to follow the guideline that whoever cultivates land is a farmer. The government has also issued licences to some tenant farmers to identify them as 'real farmers'.
But the administration has tended to be insular rather than sensitive. That is the reason, deaths of women farmers is rarely ever recorded by officials as 'farmer' deaths. Proving that it is a 'genuine' suicide death, which means, it is only farm-related distress like crop loss and loans that drove the woman to suicide becomes a next-to-impossible task for the family to claim that they are eligible to be paid compensation.
But this does not mean suicide deaths of women farmers are rare or uncommon. In the village next to where Singamshetty Yadamma used to live, we came across the case of Sujatha, another woman farmer who had been driven to suicide in the same month as Yadamma. After her husband's death, she cultivated on a one-acre farm and ensured her 5-year-old son and elderly mother-in-law don't go hungry. Drought and debt drove her to hang to death. Both Yadamma and Sujatha still do not figure in the state government's list of 'genuine farmer' suicide deaths. Both families have got no help.