LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
We go now to central India, where one fourth of the country's population is struggling to cope with widespread drought. That is, some 330 million people affected by two consecutive years of weak monsoon rains, and the lack of rain has brought some tragic consequences. Farmers are taking their own lives. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from one of India's worst affected states.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The newly widowed women of Beed...
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS TINKLING)
MCCARTHY: ...On farms in the western state of this Maharashtra face life with no water and usually no deed to their husband's land in this deeply patriarchal culture. Tulkaram Jadhav was barely surviving off his tiny cotton farm when he killed himself last September. His widow, a petite mother of two, says she discovered her husband as he lay dying.
BHAGYASHRI JADHAV: (Speaking Marathi).
MCCARTHY: "I was the one who found him. I was sleeping and woke up to the powerful smell of pesticides that we use to farm," Bhagyashri says. "I asked my husband if he smelled it. Then I realized he couldn't speak. He'd swallowed the pesticide."
DNAYNESHWAR JADHAV: (Speaking Marathi).
MCCARTHY: Bhagyashri's brother-in-law Dnayneshwar Jadhav says his brother Tulkaram poisoned himself on the same day Hindus honor Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. We'll never be able to celebrate it again, he says. Dnayneshwar explains that his brother, just 35, was distraught over loans he'd taken out to stay afloat despite withered crops. He says usurious interest rates from private money lenders pulled his brother under.
D. JADHAV: (Speaking Marathi).
MCCARTHY: "He made as much as 50 percent interest on his loans, and he couldn't get out of the cycle or talk about it," he says.
Tulkaram was one of 3,228 farmers who killed themselves in Maharashtra last year. While the pace of suicides has slowed here this year, farmers anguished over debt continue to take their lives. Dnayneshwar stands at the foot of his small acreage beside the family's well, 60-feet deep and dry.
D. JADHAV: (Speaking Marathi).
MCCARTHY: "When I look into the well, I feel like dying. Life is such a struggle," he says. "We used to earn over $300 for our cotton. We now get less than $100 because the yield is so small."
Before cotton, the Jadhavs grew sugar cane, a lucrative crop that guzzled water and enriched powerful sugar mill owners. But the secretary of India's water ministry Shashi Shekhar says it was the wrong crop in a region prone to drought.
SHASHI SHEKHAR: That's a mistake. We have to learn from our mistake and change. So switch over from sugar cane to a horticulture crop. Wherever they have moved to horticulture crop like guava or pomegranate, the income levels of farmers have gone up by 7-20 times vis-a-vis sugar cane. So you have to incentivize them.
MCCARTHY: The challenge is educating farmers like the Jadhavs to conserve water and grow appropriate crops. Back at their farm, beneath the stars, we sit in their untilled cotton fields. There, the patriarch of the family Ramkishan Jadhav makes a painful admission that dramatizes the need for help.
RAMKISHAN JADHAV: (Speaking Marathi).
MCCARTHY: "I see the changes. I know they're there. There's no water," he says. "But I'm numb. I'm dumbstruck. I don't have a clue what to do."
In the dark, he rises to fetch a torch. And in the absence of her father-in-law, widow Bhagyashri, seated before me, makes her own confession.
B. JADHAV: (Speaking Marathi).
MCCARTHY: "My husband killed a part of me when he killed himself. It's as if we didn't exist," she says, tears flowing. "I will never turn my back on life," she says. "I choose life for my children."
With the start of the monsoons just weeks away, the widows and farmers here scour the skies and hope for deliverance. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Beed, Maharashtra.
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