Weddings in the time of suicide
On the mass weddings in Vidarbha, a phenomenon that has grown due to the agrarian crisis.
Kishan Bansod, 27, greets us as we enter, peering through the strings of plastic beads dangling from his forehead. He is the bridegroom. “You seem very excited,” we remarked. “Let’s see how long it lasts,” he laughs.
The bride, Asmita Wankhede, arrived and they sit at the front of the line of couples waiting to get married. While Bansod continues grinning and joking with his friends Asmita plays the demure bride. They wait patiently to get on stage while an aged woman sings and the master of ceremony invites local leaders on stage to give a speech. Sisters and little nephews and nieces bustle around the couple.
Many other couples are sitting in the line. Most men are in white shirt and trousers, with maybe a small sehra (head-dress). Only one wears a turban. Many have decked themselves up with nail polish and mehndi. The women too are dressed colourfully, but without much jewellery.
We are at a mass marriage in a small school courtyard in Amravati, a district that has witnessed many farmers’ suicides. Community weddings are part of the government’s rehabilitation package for farmers in this region. “Many of those who committed suicide had borrowed heavily from moneylenders for their daughters’ weddings. Several of them can’t afford to get their children married,” says Vijay Wankhede, a member of the trust that has organised this wedding.
“There are 12 couples here from different communities. As part of the scheme, the government also gives them a mangalsutra, a gas cylinder and some vessels totally worth Rs.10,000.” So far, 6,740 couples have been married at mass weddings in the Vidarbha region.
“We came here because the situation in her house is very bad. Her father wouldn’t have been able to afford the wedding otherwise,” said Kishan. Asmita’s father was sitting away from the ceremony, in a classroom on the first floor of the school building.
“I got my first daughter married to my nephew so there weren’t too many expenses involved. My niece got married in a mass wedding a few months back,” Namdeo Wankhede tells us. “I don’t have any money, so we got the wedding done here. I can’t even find the funds to sow the next crop, so I have leased out one of my three acres of land. If people with more than 10 acres can’t make both ends meet, how are we supposed to survive?”
Many have not survived. There have been 592 suicides since June 2005. Spiralling costs of inputs and falling output prices have meant huge losses. There is high use of pesticides and fertilizers, increasing farmers’ costs but not their yield. Flow of bank credit has not kept up with rising costs, so farmers have to borrow from moneylenders at interest rates varying from 60 to 120 per cent. The government has not protected cotton farmers with trade tariffs. Farmers do not get proper advice about agricultural techniques owing to the dearth of government extension work.
Once a rich cotton belt, Vidarbha is now drowning in debt. The State government has neglected the farm crisis here. The rains have arrived a month late and sowing should soon begin, but most farmers are desperate because they have no money for seeds and other inputs.
For Namdeo, there seems no way out of this tight spot. “Every year, we make losses. There is barely any work on the fields so I can’t even earn as much as a daily labourer. The banks won’t lend us money. And I refuse to take a loan from the moneylender because he asks for my land title deed. Why should I mortgage it to him for a pittance?”
As the men chat upstairs, the marriage continues below. We meet Kavita Athavale and Sachin Vaidya sitting in the queue. “We like this wedding. There are different people from different villages. And most importantly, it saves our parents from spending,” says Kavita, an undergraduate student of arts.
Kavita Athavale and Sachin Vaidya, after their weddingPhoto: Ranjit Deshmuk
“My father is a daily-wage labourer. We don’t have any land. He doesn’t get much work. There is no food at home, and there is lot of tension. We have been waiting for a year to get married. When we read about this in the newspapers, we decided to come here.” Kavita will leave her village to join Sachin who works as a security guard in Nagpur. When we ask to meet her father, Sachin says: “He must be somewhere at the back, crying because his daughter will leave.”
We find Kavita’s father sitting at the entrance, just outside the shamiana. “I’m still paying back the loans I had taken to get my three other daughters married. We get work for only two or three days a week and wages are only Rs.40 a day,” says Dayaram Athavale. “I couldn’t even give her a gift. It is such a bad time. There is no rain, no work,” says Kavita’s uncle.
The father of the bride, Dayaram AthavalePhoto: Ranjit Deshmukh
Inside, the couples are finally called on stage, after enduring the speeches. At one end of the stage, there is an array of photos and paintings – the Buddha, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj, Shivaji. The ceremony is not too elaborate. A sloka is recited, the couples exchange garlands and a mangalsutra. No priest, no fire, no rituals.
“This is better than my wedding. There weren’t so many people at mine and the expenses are much less,” Kavita’s sister Sunita Ogle says. “I will also get my kids married like this.”
To many families in distress the mass marriages have brought some desperately needed joy. And to the grinning groom Kishan who may not have otherwise been able to take home his bride proudly.
Frontline, July 1-14, 2006 Also available here