In Kalavati’s wake, out of Kalavati’s shadow
Following the withdrawal from the Assembly elections of Kalavati Bandurkar — the Vidarbha widow who became the face of the farm crisis after Rahul Gandhi visited her and mentioned her in a speech in Parliament — the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) has fielded Babytai against Congress ex-MLA Wamanrao Kasawar and Sena MLA Vishwas Nandekar in Wani.
Babytai admits she does not know the names of her opponents. She refers to them just as ‘Panja’ and ‘Dhanushban’ (symbols of the Congress and Sena) candidates. However, the political novice and Class IV dropout is fast learning her politics.
Criticising Kalavati for withdrawing her nomination, Babytai says: “She thought only about herself and not about her sisters like me... I am contesting the election for my 7,000 distressed sisters. I hope the government gives them a pension and raises the price of cotton per quintal.”
While there is cynicism about her candidature following the drama that surrounded Kalavati’s nomination and withdrawal, there is no discounting the fact that Babytai remains one of the most active women from her village. She led the campaign for ‘daaru bandi (prohibition)’ in Hivra Basra, and became among the few from the village to have stepped outside Maharashtra, or for that matter Yavatmal, when she went to Delhi to highlight the plight of farm widows in 2007.
VJAS chief Kishore Tiwari is confident of her victory. “Our workers have reached all the villages of Wani and they know Babytai. We are not here to be spoilers, but want to fight the elections for farmers and their real problems,” he says.
One vote Tiwari is obviously counting on is the growing number of women whose husbands killed themselves after being caught in a debt trap across Vidarbha, and particularly Yavatmal district. With at least one farm widow in each village, they are a small force.
Rekha Chahare from Babytai’s village and her neighbour is one among them. Having lost her husband two years back, 25-year-old Chahare fends for her two small daughters all alone. “There is no one to look after us . What am I supposed to do — look after my farm, raise my daughters, or earn money for survival?” she says.
At Kosara village, 50 km from Hivra Basra, five widows from the same hamlet are rooting for Babytai. “We have been going door to door campaigning. People easily relate to us as we tell them Babytai is a widow like us and is standing for farmers’ plight,” says Sushila Aswale, who lost her husband in 2005. While she is among the few who got a loan of Rs 1 lakh from the government, life is tough on a daily basis, she says. Lata Bhoyar’s husband killed himself a few days after Aswale’s husband drank poison. She has two sons to feed, and no land of her own. “It will be good if Babytai wins, we hope she helps us get pension,” she says.
It was on the first day of September 2007 that Babytai’s husband Chhatarsingh consumed pesticide in their farm, after the cotton crop on their four-acre plot failed.
“We were in debt since we got our elder daughter married in 2005. The dowry was Rs 20,000 and the rest of the expenditure in gold and for the ceremony came to another Rs 70,000,” Babytai says. The following year, another loan was taken privately for the farm but Chattarsingh soon found himself in the complex web of rising debt and bad yield. “He committed suicide.”
Since then, the family has not progressed much, their three-room house bare except for a TV set and a lone speaker. Her second daughter, Deepa (17), had to drop out from school to work in the fields while son Pankaj (18), who never went to school, had to take up farming full time. “We are happy that she is contesting elections,” they say.
After a long time, Babytai herself has got something to look forward to.“I fasted all nine days of Navratra for Durga mata,” she says. “I have asked her to help me win this election.”