In 2018, when Rekha Waghmare was 39 years old, her husband died by suicide. Namdev, 42, was among who died by suicide in Maharashtra from 2015 to 2018, struggling with five years of crop failure. He left behind Rekha, their two children, a 3.5 acre farm, and an unpaid loan of Rs 4 lakh.
Rekha, who lives in Nandusa village in Hingoli district, turned to farming and daily wage work. But she wasn’t too worried about feeding her children three meals a day because she received rations under the National Food Security Act. Under the act, the state government provided grains at subsidised rates to farmers in 14 suicide-prone districts: Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed, Nanded, Osmanabad, Parbhani, Latur, Hingoli, Amravati, Washim, Akola, Buldhana, Yawatmal and Warda.
Living in Hingoli, Rekha would get five kg of foodgrains for each member of the family per month. She’d buy wheat at Rs 2 per kg and rice at Rs 3 per kg.
But no longer. On February 28, 2023, the Maharashtra government saying the distribution of foodgrains under the act would be stopped in these 14 districts. Instead, each member of every household would get Rs 150 cash as a direct benefit transfer every month.
“What will this buy in the open market when prices of foodgrains are so high?” Rekha asked, “The market price of wheat is not less than Rs 25-30 per kg. The lowest price for rice is at least Rs 25 per kg. I don’t know how we’ll survive.”
At least 10 women in these districts told Newslaundry they have similar concerns. They’re also worried that male relatives will spend the cash on drinks , leaving their children hungry.
Importantly, farmer suicides in the state as compared to 2021 despite loan waiver schemes. Maharashtra recorded 1,875 farmer suicides in just eight months last year.
Women discussing the new resolution in Yawatmal.
A cruel blow
After Namdev’s death, Rekha worked as a farm labourer from dawn to dusk, about 10-15 days a month, making Rs 150-200 a day. In the four months of summer, there was no farm work so she’d take up odd jobs.
Her work earned her around Rs 45,000 a year. Nearly Rs 20,000 went towards paying back her husband’s loan, while the rest was spent on household expenses, medical attention, and her children’s education. As a result, she was “totally dependent” on government rations for food.
“We are poor people. We hardly earn anything,” she told Newslaundry. “Whatever I earn from farming goes in the repayment of loans. The day we sell crops, moneylenders are at our doorsteps to take back their money. My children are in school; I have to arrange for their books and other needs too.”
The February resolution was a cruel blow. “It’s not only my situation. Hundreds of women in rural Maharashtra are going through the same thing,” Rekha said. “The government should be considerate to our conditions and withdraw the resolution.”
Varsha Kharwade, 29, began working as a cleaner in a school after her husband Madhavrao died by suicide in 2018. Madhavrao was a farmer in Pardi village in Hingoli district. He had been unable to repay a loan of Rs 1.7 lakh after his crops failed for three years.
Varsha had to step up and look after their four daughters, two of whom were from Madhavrao’s previous marriage.
“I get a monthly salary of Rs 4,500 in the school,” she said. “I have to repay the loan which we took for the marriage of our elder daughters. I pay an instalment of Rs 2,500 per month and run the household with the remaining Rs 2,000.” This Rs 2,000 must be spent across household needs and also the education of Varsha’s two youngest daughters, who are in Class 7 and 5, respectively.
Varsha also tends 1.75 acres of land, growing tuvar and soybean. “If the crop survives, I get around one quintal of tuvar that I use for household purposes, and two quintals of soybeans which I sell for Rs 4,000-5,000 in a year,” she said. “The subsidised rations from the government were a big support to me. It will be a tough situation in the future.”
Like Rekha, Varsha is bewildered as to how she’s expected to feed her family with Rs 150 per person in a month. “Earlier there was a surety that we’d be able to fill our stomachs with bhakri and chutney,” she said. “But now the situation is uncertain. I hope we don’t die of hunger.”
In Yavatmal district, 35-year-old Usha Kute lost her husband Vishwajeet in 2016. He died by suicide after he was unable to pay a loan when his crops failed for two consecutive years. Usha has two children, aged 16 and 15.
“Between the three of us, we consume around two to five quintals of grain a year, including rice and wheat,” she said. “We would get 1.8 quintals of grains per year at a subsidised price and had to buy only 70-80 kg in the market using our small incomes. Now, we’ll have to spend Rs 7,000-8,000 which is a very big amount for people like us! It may not sound big to you, but for a person earning barely Rs 70,000 a year, and spending half to repay a loan, it’s a big amount.”
Usha Kute in Yavatmal.
Women farmers in Hingoli.
In the same district, Anita Kubade is a resident of Vardu Jahage village. She and her husband depend on daily wage work for income. She makes around Rs 200 a day.
“The government’s new rule will eventually lead us into starvation,” she said. “There are many families like us, for whom subsidised foodgrains are a backbone in our fight against hunger. Giving money in lieu of foodgrains isn’t a good initiative. At the control ration shop, we’d get wheat and rice at Rs 2 and Rs 3 per kg, respectively. Now we buy at market price, which keeps fluctuating. Normal wheat costs Rs 25-30 per kg and rice around Rs 40 per kg. How will we manage to buy grains at such expensive rates?”
Under the new resolution, money is transferred directly into their bank accounts. Anita pointed out logistical issues with this.
“We don’t have a bank in our village. We have to go to Jhadgaon, around four km away,” she said. “A trip to Jhadgaon and back costs Rs 50. If we have to go to some other bank, it might even cost our daily wage of Rs 200. So to get Rs 150, we will end up spending Rs 250.”
And if the money goes into the back accounts of male relatives, she added, “it may never even reach us. It will be used for some other purpose by them instead of foodgrains.”
Seema Kulkarini, a social activist who works on issues concerning women farmers, said it cannot be overstated how much these women depend on subsidised foodgrains.
“During Covid, it was the PDS that saved them from a crisis,” she said. “The government’s recent decision will deeply affect their food security. Women from these households will bear the worst brunt of this arbitrary decision. The cash amount is often repurposed by the men of the household and women will have no access to it.”
Kulkarni said women “have been strongly opposing” the new scheme as a result.
Newslaundry contacted food minister Ravindra Chavan for comment. This report will be updated if he responds.