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Farmers’ Suicides in Maharashtra - The Vidarbha project of HelpAge India empowering elderly women

Farmers’ suicides in India have been rampant for decades due to the agrarian crisis that the country is undergoing. According to the official data from the study, Farmers’ Suicides in India: Magnitudes, Trends and Spatial Patterns, “On an average nearly 16,000 farmers committed suicide every year over the last decade and every seventh suicide in the country was a farmer suicide.” The common factor in almost every reported case of farmer’s suicide in the country was its occurrence in cotton growing states. Vidarbha region in the state of Maharashtra, known for its cotton farming, accounts for 10 per cent of the farmers’ suicides in the country.
The total number of reported farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra in the year 2006 was 1427. The Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmers’ movement, reported that approximately 1158 farmers committed suicide between June 2005 and December 2006. In 2006 alone, there were 772 reported cases of suicide accounting for 55 per cent of the suicide cases. The main reasons were crop failure, simultaneous rising cost of cultivation and indebtedness. Other factors include lack of flexibility in cultivation practices, wrong choice of crops for cultivation, decreasing area for crop cultivation (cotton takes a larger area) and poor irrigation facilities. All these led to a low yield per hectare due to which there was a decrease in international prices, making cotton farming less remunerative, and driving the farmers to suicide. The district of Yavatmal was most affected though the maximum number of suicide cases was reported in Pandrakawada Taluka.

Elderly women who lost their husbands were the most vulnerable among the people who were affected by the farmers’ suicides. They were not only emotionally affected but these suicides took away their source of sustenance, sometimes leaving them responsible for their families.

In January 2006, HelpAge India started working for this cause and carried out various activities during the initial stage. A Mobile Medical Unit (MMU) was sent from Nagpur to provide the required medical and psychological support to the families of farmers who had committed suicide. A survey was then carried out to assess the needs and situation of the grieving families. It was observed that there was no backup or financial support for these families. While entire families were affected, it was seen that the women who had lost their husbands were the most vulnerable, especially the elderly. They were not only emotionally vulnerable but the suicides also took away their source of sustenance, sometimes leaving them to shoulder the family responsibilities. There was extreme poverty in that area requiring the use of some innovative techniques which could uplift the poor widows and farmers.
A baseline survey was carried out to assess the needs of the people in the villages. A series of meetings were held with the villagers and members of the Gram Panchayat6 and it was observed that the major challenge was to regain their livelihood and sustain their families. The HelpAge India officials explained the proposed activities to the villagers and conducted demonstrations. Though there was a sense of reluctance initially, with time the villagers started participating by enrolling themselves in the Elder Self-Help Groups (ESHGs) beginning with 36 groups which later increased to 51. Most of the activities were targeted at providing a source of livelihood and attaining a dignified life for the families.
The project, entitled “The Vidarbha Project” was launched in February 2011. The nine villages which were chosen for implementation of the project are, Bhadumri, Padha, Saykheda, Hiwara, Rampur, Pardi, Pachpoor, Shibla and Rajni. Currently the project is operative in all nine villages.

Main Implementation Strategy :

Elder Self Help Groups (ESHGs)

As mentioned above, one of the concerns in these villages was earning a livelihood. HelpAge figured that through Self-Help Groups, it would be possible to get the elderly together as a group to sustain themselves. In-depth interviews of all the villagers were conducted by HelpAge India through the ESHGs. Initially, there were 36 ESHGs in two blocks, Kelapur and Jhari, which had 399 senior citizens. Each ESHG had 10-15 members and most of them were women. Community meetings were organized and internal lending was initiated in Kelapur and Jhari villages. By 2011, 51 groups were formed in which 322 members were women and 213 men. Village committees, known as ‘Federations’, were established out of which two of them received a subsidy of Rs. 10,000 each from the Panchayat Samiti. For the other groups, HelpAge India provided a seed capital of Rs. 13,300. HelpAge India also helped two BPL groups to get subsidies from the Government for initiating income generating activities.

Income Generating Activities
  • Dal Mills and Threshers - Through the ESHG meetings HelpAge discovered that the people in the villages faced difficulty in processing dal (legumes) and crop threshing. The quantity of dal produced was very little compared to the money spent on its processing. They didn’t have a dal mill or a thresher near their villages due to which they had to travel long distances to get it processed. Also, the rate at which the processing was done was extremely high.
    The villagers themselves suggested setting up dal mills and threshers. HelpAge supported the setting up of the dal mill and linked up with government schemes under the Agricultural Department to get the pump for water. HelpAge India funded the dal mill and the thresher. The earnings and surplus was used for maintenance of these machines.
    The setting up of the mill helped in increasing the yield and also in generating income. In 2010, almost 62.22 quintals of dal were processed. The dal mill became a source of income and also provided employment to a few villagers.
  • Grain Banks - Another initiative was ‘Grain Banks’. This concept was launched for a 2-month period in February-March 2012. Despite all the activities carried out by the ESHG members, a few people remained unemployed and had no source of income. The ESHG members decided to contribute a handful of grain each and give it to the needy. For example, around 50 kg. of grain was collected by the villagers and distributed among the elderly who had no source of income. Another initiative is the Devdhan scheme under which the members and few other interested people in the villages collected grains. HelpAge India donated the same amount of grains. The grain was given to the needy and the extra was stored for use in case of any natural calamity.
  • Linkages with Government Schemes - The HelpAge India projects brought the villages closer to the government schemes. Through constant visits to the block offices, the farmers received a subsidy of 75 per cent for their production. Currently, another project is underway wherein 100 per cent subsidy would be available under Adivasi Vikas Prakalpa.8 HelpAge has also linked up with the Agriculture Department to provide 15 old beneficiaries to receive 100 teakwood saplings. This activity is carried out once every year.
Medical mobile camps

HelpAge India also organizes medical and eye camps for the elderly people in the village. The members are assessed and screened for cataract and other eye surgeries. These patients are provided free transport facility and the surgeries are also carried out free of cost.

Achievements of the Project
  • Coverage: The project is working effectively in all 9 villages. It started with 36 ESHGs in 2011 and in three years the number has increased to 51.
  • Innovative ways of generating income: Projects like setting up of dal mills and the threshers have contributed to the income of the villagers by providing them. The project covers a large beneficiary group of 2358 members. Approximately 3500 people from the 9 villages participate in this project.
  • Sustainability of the initiatives: The ESHGs contribute to the maintenance of the dal mill and the thresher. A part of the earnings generated are saved and used for maintenance of the machines. Also, members from the federation invest a small amount from the savings to start a small scale business activity and then the profits made are reinvested further for new ventures.
  • Replicability: The success of the Vidarbha project has convinced HelpAge to replicate it in other parts of India; a program is now being planned for the state of Bihar.
  • Empowerment of women: As a result of the project elderly women have started participating in decision making at home. They have also started participating in activities such as starting a small scale business like a small shop, farming activities etc. The women are now aware of investments which can be used later in life. They are also saving small amounts every month in banks which could help them in their future.
  • Lower suicide rates: One of the major achievements of this project has been a decrease in the suicide rates in the villages. In 2011 13 cases were reported. After the initiation of the project there have been no such cases.


The Vidarbha Project is working successfully. It has benefited a huge population and has contributed to bettering the socio-economic conditions of the people. Income generation through the grain banks and mills are now helping people to not only take care of their families but also repay their earlier debts. Women who never participated in any activities outside their homes have now started participating in the village meetings and also suggesting innovative ideas. They are more confident now.

Another positive outcome of the ESHGs is that it has brought about more unity amongst the people in the village. Thus, it can be concluded that the project is having a significant impact on the lives of the people, especially elderly women.

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