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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

‘Widows Of Vidarbha’ Author, Kota Neelima, On Why Government Can Afford To Deny The Sufferings Of Farmers And Rural Poor

  • IWB Post
  •  November 30, 2018

Every time I read about the problems faced by Rural India, in my mind, takes the centre stage, book ‘The Other Country: Dispatches from Mofussil’. Written by Journalist-Author Mrinal Pande, it traces the multiple ever-widening fault lines between the Rural Bharat and Shining India.

And my conversation with Journalist-Author Kota Neelima only broadened my horizon of reality. She witnessed from close, farmers, rural youth, and women deal with their grievances, and listening to her, I began to think about the consequences of our country’s current scenario, where one media channel reports on farmers suicide, and in parallel, another talks about India being projected as the world’s fastest-growing large economy.

“I began my research in the year 2003, when the height of the crisis was yet to sink in the minds of rest of the country. The crisis was unforeseen and the government was yet in the sense of denial. Seeing the state largely untouched of a distress that was intense and growing, I visited Vidarbha wanting to understand the magnitude of the problem that was making farmers commit suicide,” Neelima shared.

India being an agrarian country, approximately 70% of the total population is directly or indirectly dependent upon agriculture, and farmer suicides account for 11.2% of all suicides in the country. Why? The monsoon uncertainties and lack of resources lead to crop failure, which in turn, forces the farmer to take loans, but left unsupported with the inadequate government policies, he eventually succumbs to the high debt burden.

But while the problem can be summarized, even after sixteen years, it remains unsolved, and largely unattended. Earlier this year, farmers marched into the cities with a hope to get their voices heard – should their situation and helplessness still be subjected to questioning? The concern that Kota Neelima has written on in four books so far.

Widows Of Vidarbha - Kota Neelima

Known for her strong and unwavering views concerning issues of women empowerment, farmer suicides, and rights of Rural Indians, you can find her questioning the accepted notions of politics and society, in the columns she writes for various national media agencies.

Widows of Vidarbha’ is Neelima’s first non-fiction book of the four she has authored on farmers’ suicide, narrated in the voices of the 16 women she met and interacted with during the four years of research. Talking about which, she reminisced, “The loss of these women can’t be understood in words or written in language – it reflects in their silence. I didn’t realise when they became a part of my life, and now I can’t imagine it without them.”

Follow our conversation to learn more:

Four years of research! What were the first few observations that led you to dig deeper? 

I was stunned that the Government should deny a crisis of that magnitude because it was a problem of Rural India, and that could not have made to the headlines. The situation with regard to their response and action remains the same even after fifteen years; to get their voices heard the farmers had to march into the cities. I took on to Vidarbha in 2013, and never in favour of hit and run research, travelled back and forth for the next four years. I wanted to follow the lines, get detailed narratives, and understand their perceptions. And doing that over a period of time helped me learn about the change in their perceptions and views.

Would you talk about the changes you noticed and felt in the 2013-2017 timeline?

Situations have undoubtedly changed; we as a nation are rapidly changing and becoming more intelligent. But the changes that reach to the farmers and Rural Poor are limited, and that is because all changes that happen in our country are subjected to one’s financial condition, and hence only for the consumer class. I look at changes as developments if they are unconditional, and impact the Rural Indians as well. And I say that because I see that famers haven’t moved an inch, the problem of crop failure is getting more intense, and so is of loan debts.

The book has narratives of widows from the age of 26 to 63. In what ways were the issues of the younger women different from those of the older?

From very close I saw them cope with the circumstances after the husband’s death. Widowed in their 20s and 30s, and mothers to young children, the situation of these women, I felt, could not be written in language. In their silence, reflected their misery. Left alone with no resources and support from family or government, they are forced to live a directionless life. And with time I also saw how they began to find ways to understand those barriers that could help them keep invisible, buying time to find what they are capable of.

And how about the older women?

Time helped them understand the various facets of their situation, and so they, I saw, had broken the barriers that the young ones were yet to figure out. The need of looking after their family drove them to become independent. As a step towards which, they leased out their land, because, with no strength and time to practice agriculture themselves, the rent could help them run the house. But the rules and traditions are meant to make women suppressed and dependent, and to not let them find their voice, so the journey of learning has been nowhere close to easy, rather filled with more difficulties.

The change in their social and financial situation must create an impact on the children. What specific changes did you notice in the lives of the young girls?

The young girls of Vidarbha are very, very intelligent. And not just academically, I saw in them a deep sense of resentment, and in their eyes and conduct, a hope to change their destiny and make a better future. But there was a drastic change from when I met them in the initial days of my research to the next time. They were attending school, acing studies, supporting their mothers in the house, and managing it all until I found most of them to be married in the later visits; patriarchy and society crushed their hopes, pushing them to obey the preset rules. Unlike the urban middle class, for girls in Rural India, marriage is a compromise, and far from a celebration of future, it breaks all their dreams.

Tell me a little about your interactions with the people in general; did you ever find yourself in a place to put forward a word of encouragement to build their hope? 

The one interesting thing that I noticed about Rural India is the vibrant mix of honesty, pride, spirituality, and humor that is inherent to every person. And which I believe is the real nature of all Indians, but has gotten masked by the modernity and exposure, in the urban dwellers. People of Vidarbha and my interactions with them, have taught me a lot; they have become an integral part of my life. I saw them happy despite their circumstances, and I realised that somewhere farmers suicide is also a consequence of their honesty overdriven by the guilt of failing in responsibilities.

I read in one of the articles written about the book that the farmers may think that they’re ending the pain, but all they’re doing is passing it on to those they leave behind. What emotions did you read in the eyes of the sons and daughters of Vidarbha?  

The children are witness to every situation, and they have complete understanding of how the burden of crop failure and loan debt led their father to commit suicide. Looking at their mother struggling to run the family, they memorise the time when their father was still alive, and it arouses in them the deep sense of anger and resentment. And I think it is something that India as a nation should be worried about.

Today’s younger generation of Rural India is aware of everything that is happening in the country. They understand corruption in the financial system and also know that they are not getting the education that they deserve. And the fact that they are ignored by the state is gradually making them believe that their future will be no different from their fathers’.

If you were to propose an urgent political action plan concerning the farmers’ situation, what would be the main pointers? 

In my opinion, top priority should be given to Rural India. And to begin with, agriculture has to improve. Government blames farmers for crop failure, suggesting the misuse of land and fertilisers, but it is time we accept what we know is not the truth. They need to be heard and have to be helped besides the immediate financial support. Old policies should be reformed to the current needs; private sector won’t think about them because they are not consumers, but if government doesn’t either, what will be the difference in the two bodies!

Also, the younger generation of Rural India has immense potential and focus, and they are very different from the yesteryears population. They really can change the face of India, and I’d request the state and government to understand their dreams, give them support, and make it the need of the hour.

In your opinion, what immediate measures should be employed to help the women attain independence?

As I have written in my book, these women are the shadow of state; they only exist until the husband is alive. I feel hesitant to use terms like schemes and policies, because all that exists in the name of the welfare of these women are childcare and domestic services, whereas they are dynamic and can do anything in life. I wonder why India doesn’t have confidence in the Rural poor and women when with little help they can do wonders! Why do the schemes restrict a woman’s role to homemaker, mother, daughter, sister, when she is capable of much more. But unfortunately, her social status is curtailed and she is forced to live a life of an invisible, and how can the state have schemes for those who are invisible! 

Do you believe that somewhere we as a society have also failed in extending support What would be your guiding word to someone who wishes to contribute at an individual level?

An individual can make history, all that needs to be done is some injustices have to be corrected. And for it, one doesn’t necessarily have to dedicate themselves to social work, because it’s not difficult to understand that people struggle every day to support themselves, as also our inspiration and ideas are subject to change due to many factors. But if we decide to contribute through the skill we possess and the work that we do, a lot can be done. For instance, I am good at writing so I can use it to make people’s voices heard. Likewise, if someone is an engineer, making use of technology and network, they could create projects involving Rural India, and broaden the impact area.

We are a dishonest and corrupt society – the government is only the reflection of the society, isn’t it? And so unless we let our honesty drive our intentions, not much can be achieved.

Speaking of skill, you don’t just write, but paint, too! What did the artist’s eye observe in Vidarbha that later made to the canvas?  

All my paintings are inspired by the innate spiritual nature of the people of Rural India, be it Vidarbha, Telangana, or others. Surrounded by suffering and failures, it is touching to see how their faith in God (higher power) keeps them going even in desperate times. How they work to resolve and strike a balance despite the tragedies. It is these emotions and thought of their strength and hope that I explore on canvas with colours.

Widows Of Vidarbha - Kota Neelima

We have been talking about the role of families; tell me about how you find strength in your family, and about their role in your journey? 

I maintain a strict writing schedule when working on a book, and when on a deadline, I don’t have time to talk even though in the same house. But my family understands that it is my work, and has come to adjust to it. And their support and involvement are of great importance. For instance, while working on this book, many times it happened that they took calls from families from Vidarbha and slowly a bond got forged between them. Needless to say, I couldn’t have taken this journey alone. 

22 years in the journalism world is a big feat, what helped you in dealing with the threats and trolls on the way? 

Well, I have received threats plenty of times. Just recently when I wrote an article on the Padmavat controversy, for one of the newspapers, expressing how if only the Karni Sena was as concerned and vocal about the many other issues faced by women as much as the hue and cry they created in regard to the said film; they backlashed me with threats pertaining my visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival. But while fundamentally, it had no impact on me, it depicts the reality, this is how women have always been threatened and silenced.

I am Gandhian at heart, and I feel that for all these situations where people don’t agree, the only way out is to talk about it instead of wasting time in trolling. But given the quick nature of social media, and of course, the current wave of politics, situations often get tough for women and hardly anyone stands up in support.

Having gathered her experiences and views on the matters pertaining the situation of farmers and Rural India, we then went slightly off topic and indulged in a light and fun conversation. Scroll on!  

So I visited your Instagram and absolutely loved the visuals and the captions! (I already had her laughing at this point). Let’s get into a quick conversation and decode-recode some of the stories and know you a little better, shall we?

Hahaha. Sure!

Try changing the #channel now! #Winner of the #war for the #television #remote. Spotted at a #weeklymarket in R.K.Puram #newdelhi #india

16 Likes, 1 Comments – Kota Neelima (@kotaneelima) on Instagram: “Try changing the #channel now! #Winner of the #war for the #television #remote. Spotted at a…”

“Try changing the channel now! Winner of the war for the television remote.” Tell me about those household wars that you win, and also about the ones that you lose? 

After a good laugh, she said, well, I think the sense of humor plays a significant role in helping us get through our life hassles. Household wars that I win hmmm, laughed while recalling, I very often win over my work deadlines. The war of time that we all have! And the food department at home is where I lose, but we all make our choices, so that’s okay I feel. 

It wasn’t that far the #moon #blue, it was just one #dream away and one #wish #true

18 Likes, 1 Comments – Kota Neelima (@kotaneelima) on Instagram: “It wasn’t that far the #moon #blue, it was just one #dream away and one #wish #true”

The next thing that caught my attention was the abundance of nature shots. Define the role of nature in your life?

Ah, nature plays a major role in my life! When at home, I have to have the doors and windows open, I can’t live without feeling the breeze. And even when I am writing, though I prefer solitude, every now and then I step out to breathe in some fresh air. This picture is of a Himalayan region where there was hardly any network connectivity – only silence in which you could hear yourself thinking, a feeling of pure bliss. 

Somewhere over the #rainbow… In search of #bluebirds in the #Himalayas.

19 Likes, 2 Comments – Kota Neelima (@kotaneelima) on Instagram: “Somewhere over the #rainbow… In search of #bluebirds in the #Himalayas.”

“Somewhere over the rainbow… In search of bluebirds in the Himalayas.” What are you in search of in life, at this moment in time? 

Possibly in search of a way of telling a story where I am able to write an instance of a person’s life expressing all its emotions and complexities. I have written both fiction and non-fiction, but I feel language can be extremely limiting, and my search is to cross that limitation in all its varied form. That is what drives me to write, and write.

Shelf Life in Vidarbha. In Ner tehsil, Yavatmal district, Maharashtra. August 18, 2016.

20 Likes, 1 Comments – Kota Neelima (@kotaneelima) on Instagram: “Shelf Life in Vidarbha. In Ner tehsil, Yavatmal district, Maharashtra. August 18, 2016.”

And now the most awaited question! I’m so curious to learn about this “Shelf Life in Vidarbha”. And also to get a glimpse of your personal shelf!  

We laughed for good one minute. And then laughed some more. The shelf spotted here, is from one of the houses that she visited during the research period in Vidarbha. I remember I had reached this house a little early, and the lady whom I had to meet was yet to return from the farm. Suddenly it began to rain and everyone moved inside, and while waiting I spotted these two on the shelf behind the standing cot. Interestingly, one of them was laying eggs, and I just sat there observing and watching them interact.

Widows Of Vidarbha - Kota Neelima

And our conversation came to a halt after Neelima walked us towards her bookshelf. Curious much? Here’s a list of the few of her many ‘read’ and ‘to be read’ reads:

  1. Culture – Terry Eagleton
  2. The Babri Masjid Question – A.G. Noorani
  3. The Cultrual Heritage Of India
  4. Why Marx Was Right – Terry Eagleton
  5. John Berger’s books


First published on Apr 2, 2018.

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