Trapped in an endless spiral of debt, driven remorselessly to suicide, the people of Vidarbha have lost all hope. Sheela Bhatt reports from Ground Zero. Photographs: Satish Bodas.
Rajendra Thakrey, a software engineer from Khamgaon, in Maharashtra's Vidarbha district, has just arrived in New York.
It is the land of hope -- and Thakrey needs all the hope he can get. His mother is a diabetic; his younger brother's college fees are pending; his daughter has joined a private school and the expenses are mounting. And then there is sister Jyoti Deshmukh, who needs Rs 40,000 urgently as her son is in the crucial twelfth standard, and she is already struggling under a mountain of debt. Her husband Santosh Deshmukh's is just one of three tragic suicides in the family Jyoti has lived through.
The family's dire financial straits have already driven Thakrey's father to a heart attack, from which he is now recovering.
Suicide is a leitmotif in this most backward of Indian districts -- in 2006, government figures put the number of those who took their own lives at 1,162. Locals say the real surprise is that the number is as low as it is: The farming-based economy is a shambles, rains are erratic, the young have no jobs, the area is riven by a battle for supremacy between the Dalits -- the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy -- and the Marathas.
Vidarbha is a case study in how to convert plenty into crippling poverty. The area is rich in coal and manganese -- all of which is mined by industrialists from Mumbai and New Delhi who line their pockets and that of their political backers; none of the prosperity trickles into local pockets. The eight rivers that flow through the region help produce a surplus of electricity, but regular load-shedding — planned power outages -- for between 8 to 14 hours a day is prevalent, leaving Vidarbha in the dark.
With the business and political class having forsaken them, people turn to temples and to saints, both of which are available in abundance. At the Gajanan Maharaj temple in Shegaon alone, an estimated 15,000 people come every day to pray.
"We don't have water, power, industry," farmer-contractor Kailash Pandit told rediff.com. "We come here because we have no work due to load-shedding. We pray to the Baba to help the our villages. Faith in Gajanan helps us fight the adversities of life."
Image: Farmer-contractor Kailash Pandit (with spectacles) with his neighbours
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