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Posted at: Jan 11, 2016, 11:47 AM; last updated: Jan 11, 2016, 11:47 AM (IST)FIELD REPORTS

Woman who won’t die till she repays debt, rupee by rupee

Just how real is the farm crisis? What does debt do to a family after the farmer chooses to give up? The Tribune goes home to home to get an account of the piercing truth. Here are stories of resilience amid despair, trying to find meaning when there is little left to. Part I of a series…

55 suicides in this Mansa village

  • As per the 2011 Census, Tamkot village has a population of 2,916. According to a resolution passed by the Gram Sabha, 55 farmers and agricultural labourers have committed suicide since the early 1980s. Of these, the families of 21, who committed suicide between 2000 and 2009, have been given compensation by the state government. But as Sukhwant Kaur’s husband, Gurtej Singh, died before 2000 and her son after 2009, she was not eligible for any relief.
Woman who won’t die till she repays debt, rupee by rupee
Sukhwant Kaur of Tamkot village in Mansa, with photos of her sons and husband. Photo by writer.

Vishav Bharti

Tribune News Service

Tamkot (Mansa), January 10

At 57, Sukhwant Kaur’s only wish is that the Rs 3 lakh debt she carries doesn’t go with her to her next birth. Sukhwant Kaur didn’t die, will not give up. Her husband and son were not as brave.

“Perhaps it was because of my previous life’s debt,” she tries to make sense of what life’s offered her.

When she came to Tamkot (on the outskirts of Mansa) as a young bride from a Bathinda village in the early 1980s, her husband Gurtej Singh and his two brothers owned 9 acres. Camels were used to till the land. The family decided to relocate to Rajasthan to increase the landholding, but the plan did not work out. They returned landless a couple of years later.

Back from Rajasthan, they first bought a buffalo for Rs 10,000 with borrowed money. The buffalo died soon after. Her husband started working as a sharecropper. But two cotton crops failed back-to-back because of the pest attack in 1990s. They decided to go in for paddy, which required a lot of water for Mansa’s semi-desert land. Yet another Rs 15,000 was borrowed for installing a tube well. Gurtej Singh was now under a debt of Rs 1.5 lakh. 

People whom he owed money started visiting the family for recovery. “He stopped talking to anyone of us. I had never seen him like that before,” she tells. Sukhwant was scared and would never let him alone.

It was April and wheat was almost ready for harvest. It was their only hope, but Gurtej could foresee what was coming. He wouldn’t be able to clear the debt even with a good yield. It was the afternoon of April 2, 1996. He left the house silently. Sukhwant Kaur noticed the absence soon enough and raised an alarm. Almost the entire neighbourhood ran out in all directions. An announcement was made from the gurdwara. People working near his field said they had seen him walk towards the water canal.

A pair of shoes on the banks was all that was found.

When Gurtej Singh’s body was fished out, it was found that he had firmly fastened bricks to each of his leg. “Like several others, he too had invested heavily on agriculture inputs, but crop-after-crop failure meant the losses mounted, forget profits to offload the cost. The result was that Gurtej wanted to ensure his death by tying bricks to his legs,” says Ranjit Singh, sarpanch of the village.

His elder son Ram Singh was in fifth standard and the younger one, Lachhman Singh, in second. At the age of 10, Ram Singh was sent to work in a tractor agency for Rs 500 a month. Soon, Lachhman joined him. Sukhwant Kaur had started knitting khes (cotton blankets).

Though the debt stood, life for Sukhwant Kaur’s both sons and two daughters attained a semblance of normalcy with whatever little they earned. Over the next decade, she got both her daughters married.

“Ram Singh was brave like me,” she says. He started earning a decent salary by driving the bus of a private company owned by the area’s prominent politician. Then, one day, in 2009, he fell from the roof and died.

The younger son, Lachhman, was not as brave, she whispers, and plunges into silence. A brief pause later, she adds: “He was as sensitive as his father.” To her surprise, he too took up the job of a driver in Mansa. He even got her treated from a private doctor in Mansa, she smiles, and it cost Rs 50,000. “Later, he renovated the house. In 2013, we got him married.”

A few months later, Sukhwant Kaur noticed uncanny similarities between Lachhman and his father’s conduct. Like Gurtej Singh, he stopped talking. “I was worried and told his friends to ask him what was bothering him,” she tells.

That same afternoon, on January 8, 2014, her daughter-in-law came running and told her that Lachhman had consumed sulfa tablets. Two decades apart, the same story had replayed. The only difference was the debt amount. His father left a debt of Rs 1.5 lakh; Lachhman had found himself under a Rs 3 lakh debt. 

Now, leading her life on Rs 400 widow pension and stitching clothes, Sukhwant Kaur doesn’t know how much Rs 3 lakh is, but she says it is unfair to not return someone’s money. “Sometimes, I wonder if a leaf was a rupee, would I ever be able to pluck even three lakh leaves?”

We ask her if there are any pictures of her sons and husband. She wanders from room to room of the big house her son had built a few months before his death with a loan from his employer. The walls of the house lie unpainted.

The thumping sound of a bed-box can be heard. “I can’t see these photos and keep them away from sight,” she walks in with three frames. She finds it difficult to hold the three at the same time, and then widens her arms, places one over the other and poses with tears rolling down her cheeks. “I couldn’t die. I don’t know what else God wants me to see,” she says, trying to control her cries.  She didn’t die. Perhaps, she lived to tell the tale.

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