Monday, September 28, 2009

Kalawati withdraws, a setback for farm widows

Kalawati withdraws, a setback for farm widows

Farmer widow, Kalawati. She became famous after Rahul Gandhi visited her house, and made a special mention about her in one of his Parliamentary speech. She is better known as 'Rahul Gandhi's Kalawati'.

The widow of a farmer from Vidharba, Kalawati Bandurkar, 48, has finally decided not to contest the forthcoming Maharashtra Assembly polls. Although a lot of activists and civil society leaders have welcomed her decision, and feel that she should instead devote her energies to social work, I am a lot disappointed.

Kalawati had shot into prominance for whatever reasons we know of. The fact remains that she had become the face of hundreds of thousands of farm widows. Even if she wouldn't have succeeded in the electoral battle, she would have definitely mainstreamed the terrible agrarian issue. In today's democratic set up, it is very important to take the battle right into the political arena, and try to put it on the top of the political agenda.

I don't understand why the NGOs feel that politics is something that we must stay away from. I strongly feel that farmer suicide has to be politicised in a manner that the political system cannot escape responsibility. This may perhaps be the only way to ensure that the nation's focus is drawn towards the serial death dance that continues unabated. How many more farmers do we want to send to gallows before we expect any meaningful action? Aren't 200,000 farmer suicides in the past 15 years or so enough to seek immediate action?

On the contrary, I have always felt that the entire development discourse remains in the dumps because of our failure to politicise it. Most NGOs are happy in advocacy and capacity building exercises, which is their source of livelihood, and the farmer organisations are refraining to hammer the issue of farmer suicides more often than not for the simple reason that it would annoy the powers that be. Which means it would spoil their chances of getting a party ticket in the next elections. This is simply outrageous.

Not that Kalawati (even if she got elected) alone would have changed the entire situation. I am not saying that farmer suicides would have stopped after she got elected. I would have certainly expected another Kalawati to follow, and then another subsistence farmer to emerge on the political scene. Such a chain reaction can take place provided we all join hands, shun our ideologies, egos and differences, and work collectively towards building a new political scenario.

Anyway, I asked Kishor Tiwari, who heads the Vidharba Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), the organisation that fielded Kalawati, to send me a small write-up on why they did so. His note is pasted below, and I would like you to read carefully the demands they are raising.

This is what Kishor Tiwari writes:

On 5th September 2009 we called a meeting of Vidarbha farm widows mostly from Yavatmal district, and around 200 farm widows attended it. The meeting decided to demand:

1. Food for the dying families

2. Family pension to all widows

3. Free higher education, and aid for marriage of their daughters.

4. Right of land owned by their husband. Deprived of this right, most widows are forced to leave their homes.

The reason why the VJAS was trying to field a candidate in the coming elections was because the issue is being ignored by the State administration, and hence getting into the election process would have provided an opportunity to draw attention to these critical issues.

It was decided that as Kalawati Bandurkar is well-known, she was best suited for the task. After 8 days of making the choice known to her, Kalawati called me to inform that she is ready to contest provided her health permits.

It was only then that we announced her candidature, which was a breaking news. As Rahul Gandhi’s Kalawati, her name drew more than 200 journalists to interview her, hundreds of article and newsreports in media, and evoked concern in the political circles mainly in the Congress party, finally forcing her to change her decision.

Also, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International wrote a letter to her asking her not to contest election. This was a major jolt to her as she is still awaiting to receive the entire Rs 30 lakhs that Pathak had promised to provide to her as aid (she has got Rs 6 lakh by now). Kalawati therefore announced the change in her thinking, and withdrew from the race.

Before that, Kalawati had come to Nagpur and clarified the stand that her contest is symbolic and the plight of farm widows and farm suicide issues should be taken up. She had announced that she would be filing her nomination on Sept 25.

This announcement brought more pressure on her. She withdrew later, after her own son-in-law threatened to commit suicide if she contested. VJAS therefore replaced her with Babitai Bais. I don't know why senior activists from some sections of the society are criticizing us for using these innocent widows to raise voice of farmers.

I also draw your attention to an elaborate interview of Kalawati published by the Times of India on Sept 27, 2009. This will help bring the issue to those who have not been able to follow the spate of developments involving Kalawati, and also help those who are outside India to put this blog in right perspective.

'Money is no longer a problem, being a celebrity is'

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