CHENNAI: It rained for about an hour at Agaram, a village in Kancheepuram, on Monday evening. It was not enough to wet the parched agricultural lands. In any case, it was too late for Shanthi, whose husband had consumed poison on Sunday, driven to despair by two consecutive years of farming failure and resultant debts.
“Hope it rains today,” her 47-year-old husband Chandrasekaran’s constant refrain in the last three months did not help. About six years ago, this farm labourer had decided to turn farmer himself, and took eight acres of land on lease to cultivate paddy. It was not surprising though; he became a farm worker due to financial constraints in the family. “He always liked farming.”
He had to pay `90,000 a year on lease, but it was quite pleasant in the initial years, recalled Shanthi. “The first four years were good – the yield was decent and we did not have any debts. But from last year, we began facing water scarcity leading to crop damage.” Playing it safe, they took up cultivation only in two acres, and managed to pay the lease amount.
This year, however, perhaps forced by the pressure of mounting debts, Chandrasekaran planted crops twice. “Pledging jewels and borrowing money, we paid half the lease amount, hoping we would get atleast a minimal yield this time,” said Shanthi, as her eyes swelled up with tears.
But hope is not a luxury a farmer can afford. It did not rain. On the contrary, Tamil Nadu experienced its worst drought in 140 years. “In the last three months, he prayed every day for rain.” But it did not. “Crops were destroyed both times.”
These failures came with a huge tab. They had employed 136 daily labourers doing various works in the land. “For the last three months, we struggled to pay their wages of `120 a day. But we borrowed money at high interest rates to pay them. Later, even the moneylenders stopped giving us money, and most workers never turned up for work,” Shanthi said. Such was the debt burden that they could not even send their elder daughter to college.
On Sunday, Chandrasekaran told Shanthi that he would go to the field. But he did not return. At 5 pm, a person from the neighbourhood informed the family that he had consumed poison.
This is not an aberration, not even in the family. Her mother, Radha, recalled how she became a widow over three decades ago, when her husband committed suicide. Shanthi was all of one and half year old when she lost her father.
The family now consists of two generations of women widowed by despair, and two young children who just lost their father. Perhaps it was hope that did them in; hope that turning from a farm worker to a farmer was progress, not knowing that it came with a Faustian bargain, where investment was not just his sweat but blood as well.