SUNNA, India (Reuters) - Savita Jiddewar is a rare success story on the cotton fields of central India, the epicenter of an agrarian crisis that has seen 150,000 farmers commit suicide since 1997 because they could not pay back loans.
Her home stands out strikingly in this small village of dirt lanes and pale blue brick houses. She has a television set, a DVD player and a comfortable sofa. A mobile phone rings intermittently and the aroma of cooking wafts from the kitchen.
Clearly, she is well off in a farming village where most people struggle to make ends meet and where at least four people have killed themselves unable to repay crop loans.
While her neighbors borrowed heavily, entangling themselves in a never-ending cycle of debts, Jiddewar, a widow whose husband and daughter died in a road accident, made her moves smartly.
She joined a microcredit program last year, saving tiny amounts that she ploughed back into her cotton fields, and earning a life of relative comfort.
After the agrarian crisis broke out in the early 1990s when India began privatizing its economy, several voluntary organizations and banks in the region began microcredit schemes for women.
But women are only now joining in large numbers and the benefits are showing.
“Initially I wasn’t sure what this is all about but then I saw other women who were doing well,” Jiddewar said as she walked around her village, the air heavy with the smell of cow dung and animal feed.
Jiddewar then joined the Annapurna women’s self help group, one of around 60,000 such groups in the region known as Vidarbha. Here, the microcredit model is benefiting some 500,000 women and widows of farmers.
A farmers’ lobby in the area estimates there are about 20,000 widows in Vidarbha whose husbands committed suicide after crops failed and they could not pay moneylenders and banks.
The women form groups of 10 or 12 to start a business and approach a bank for tiny credits. The banks encourage the women to save with them, with each member depositing amounts starting from $1 every month.
The next loan to the group depends on how fast they repay the initial credit after making a saving.
There are a variety of banks offering microcredit and the women are careful not to choose the wrong option.
Jiddewar’s group chose the one that gave them $2,500 for community farming. Within months of borrowing her group had managed to pay back half the amount. Now the group is considering setting up a stationery shop.
Once left without hope after their sons and husbands died, many windows are picking up the pieces again.
“There was a time when we didn’t know where the next meal was going to come from,” said Mirabai Shyamrao Martawar, whose husband killed himself by jumping into a river after moneylenders pestered him for payment.
“Now I save fifty rupees (a little over $1) every month after providing for 10 members in the family.”
The women are into a variety of businesses such as goat farming, community farming, running corner shops, bamboo handicrafts and glue making.
Without an income, life for these women and their children was a constant struggle for survival. Young widows were particularly vulnerable.
“This is a revolution,” said Manoj Bhoir, whose voluntary group Village Development and Education Society facilitates microcredit for 650 self help groups.
“These women are determined to repay not only the debts of their families but also provide a better life for their children.”
In many cases widows were thrown out by their in-laws. Only a small number were given $2,500 in compensation by the government after proving their husbands committed suicide.
But there is criticism as well of the microcredit model in Vidarbha. Although defaults are almost nil, many women are repeat borrowers and have become dependent on loans for household expenditures rather than capital investments.
But for tens of thousands of women in Vidarbha, microcredit seems their best chance of breaking from a life of debt.
“In a group we are safe,” said Martawar. “When one is in trouble the others will come forward to help.”
Editing by Simon Denyer and Megan Goldin