Saturday, September 3

Grandparents in Punjab bring up children of a lost generation

As hundreds of indebted farmers in Punjab commit suicide, in village after village old grandparents -- once prosperous, now impoverished -- are left struggling to take care of their grandchildren, writes Rashme Sehgal

Dressed in a tehmat and kurta, Bade Ram looks older than his age. He has every reason to look worried. He has no option but to stop sending his two nieces -- 11-year-old Sheila and nine-year-old Reena, studying in Class 5 and Class 2 respectively -- to the government school.
It's difficult to believe that Bade Ram, whose family once owned 300 acres of land in the village of Banga near Patiala, can no longer afford to send the two young girls to school. But rural indebtedness has caused such havoc among families in the Punjab that they are no longer in a position to fork out even Rs 200 every month. Although the fees at government schools are not high, other incidental expenses including the cost of uniforms and books work out to almost Rs 200 per month.
Bade Ram's three elder brothers committed suicide. Bade Ram takes a deep breath and says: "My oldest brother Balbir Singh committed suicide way back in 1997. Immediately after his death, my bhabhi , the wife of another brother Gyana Singh, became ill. My brother ended up taking loans of Rs 2,50,000 for her treatment. She could not be cured and 21 days later Gyana killed himself by drinking pesticide."
Activist Surjeet Singh, from the nearby village of Bhutal Khurd, feels the problem in the Sangrur belt is compounded by annual flooding of the Ghaggar river. "Unlike other parts of the Punjab, the farmers here can grow only one crop. Year after year we end up losing the paddy crop. The government is aware of our problems but has done nothing to try and rein in the river," Singh complains.
"With our entire livelihood dependent on the wheat crop, most of us farmers have been forced to take loans for weddings or for illnesses, which we are not in a position to repay. What has broken our spirit is the fact that while the children of dalits enjoy several privileges, including free education, free uniforms and free books, no such facilities have been extended to the majority of farmers who belong to the Jat community," Surjeet Singh adds.
Bade Ram is too weighed down by his immediate problems to add to the discussion. Educating his nieces is only one of his many worries. His other major concern is that he is the sole breadwinner for his brothers' children too. "My elder brother has left behind an 18-year-old daughter who has to be married off. From where do I raise the money for her marriage?" he asks.
The spate of farmer suicides in Punjab has created an unprecedented situation where often one or sometimes both parents are dead. So the burden of bringing up children is being shouldered by grandfathers and grandmothers who have neither the money nor the physical strength to cope with such a huge responsibility.
There's Paneswari Devi, who, at the age of 70, is trying her best to look after her son's three children. Sitting outside her dilapidated hut in Khanori Khurd village in Bhutal Kalan, near Lehra, she tries to stop her fingers from trembling as she describes the abject poverty and anguish of her condition.
"After my husband's death, my only son Pritam Singh committed suicide by drinking pesticide. This happened in July 2004. He was only 27 years old. The local moneylenders forced him to take this extreme step. My husband had taken a loan against our land, which he was not able to repay. The debt piled up and Pritam Singh also was not in a position to repay the money. After his death, his wife ran away leaving behind three children between the ages of five and ten. They are my responsibility, but tell me, how can an aged and ailing woman like me take care of them," she asks.
Shanti Devi, an elderly grandmother from Kalwanjara, shares Paneswari Devi's plight. Her husband's suicide, triggered by indebtedness, preyed enormously on the psyche of her two elder boys both of whom also ended up taking their own lives. Her middle son's wife, unwilling to be burdened with the responsibility of taking care of three young children, ran away. Shanti Devi was already looking after her youngest son who is retarded. She is now forced to depend on village charity to take care of the three children and her youngest son. "If someone gives me one kilo of wheat for doing an odd job here or there, then only we are able to eat. The rest of the time we are close to starvation," she says in a faltering voice.
Members of panchayats in the region are worried about this trend. One senior sarpanch, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "This entire area comes under the Lok Sabha constituency of Perneet Kaur, wife of Punjab's chief minister Amarinder Singh. She has all the money and the wherewithal to come to the rescue of these grief-stricken families, but she has done little to help any of them."
Malkit Kaur, sarpanch of Chotiyan village, points out: "We are constantly being sensitised about the whole AIDS syndrome where earning members of families are being destroyed by this disease. But in Punjab an entire generation has been wiped out because of rural indebtedness. And once the earning member is not there, who is going to shoulder the responsibility of nurturing and taking care of the young ones? The elders have been placed in an impossible situation."
Delhi High Court lawyer Manjit Hardev Singh read about the plight of these families in the newspapers. Extremely disturbed, she got in touch with Chandigarh-based activist Inderjit Singh Jajee who has been highlighting suicides in the Punjab. Manjit Hardev Singh personally toured some of the affected villages and decided to adopt three families being looked after by an aged matriarch. All three families were from Sangrur district. "I'm giving each of the three families I have adopted a stipend of Rs 1,500 each. The cheques are given to them through their local sarpanch or a responsible village elder. But my contribution is like a drop in the ocean. Other people need to come forward to look after these suffering people," she says.
Sociologist Dr Pramod Kumar, who runs the Centre for Sociology and Communication in Chandigarh, believes the government must take immediate steps to provide assistance to these families. "Community structures have broken down all over the state. Even in the villages, extended families are getting smaller. The government should intervene and provide some sort of relief package for these people. This whole trend of elders taking care of a younger generation is no solution to the problem."
But until the government steps in, the plight of over 10,000 families in the Punjab (according to estimates put together by local activists) will remain unchanged.

(Rashme Sehgal is a Delhi-based writer and journalist)

No comments: