Amid droughts and failed crops, a cycle of poverty worsens

She stops for long stretches, lost in thought, trying to make sense of how she’s been left half a person.

Sunita, 18, who requested that her family name not be used to preserve her chance of getting married, said her nightmare started in early 2007 after her father took a loan for her sister’s wedding. The local moneylender charged 60% annual interest.

When the family was unable to make the exorbitant interest payments, she said, the moneylender forced himself on her, not once or twice but repeatedly over many months.

“I used to cry a lot and became a living corpse,” she said.

Sunita’s allegations, which the moneylender denies, cast a harsh light on widespread abuses in rural India, where a highly bureaucratic banking system, corruption and widespread illiteracy allow unethical people with extra income to exploit poor villagers, activists say.

But here in the Bundelkhand region in central India that is among the nation’s more impoverished areas, the problem is exacerbated by climate change and environmental mismanagement, they say, suggesting that ecological degradation and global warming are changing human life in more ways than just elevated sea levels and melting glaciers.

“Before, a bad year would lead to a good year,” said Bharat Dogra, a fellow at New Delhi’s Institute of Social Sciences specializing in the Bundelkhand region. “Now climate change is giving us seven or eight bad years in a row, putting local people deeper and deeper in debt. I expect the situation will only get worse.”

Human tragedies are the direct result of local abuses of the environment, said Sanjay Singh, founder of Parmarth Samaj Sevi Sansthan, a charity focused on Bundelkhand.

Starting in the 1980s, powerful local interests started cutting down hardwood trees for furniture. Local governments then encouraged sand, gravel and granite mining for construction, scarring the landscape.

Farmers were encouraged to grow soybeans as a cash crop, which requires more water than the area can sustain, forcing them to take out loans to pay for water even as weather patterns changed, reducing rainfall.

“This led to a never-ending cycle of loans,” he said. “Droughts and climate change after 2000 were the final nail in the coffin.”

In recent months, a series of sensational cases involving moneylender abuses in Bundelkhand have underscored the problem as drought conditions prompted farmers and local workers to sell wives and daughters to meet burdensome debt obligations.

In September, local media reported that a woman had been sold by her husband to settle a $160 debt. The matter came to light after Saryu Devi, 23, cried out in court as the moneylender tried to acquire a marriage certificate. She was returned to her husband, who was warned not to do it again, the Times of India reported.

“Powerful people give loans backed by clothes, tools, land and sometimes women as collateral, figuring they can sleep with them if they’re not repaid,” Singh said. “It’s a completely feudal thought process.”

Loan sharks collecting debts in sexual services or human trafficking are the exception. Far more typical are borrowers forced to give up their land, the source of their livelihood and identity, leaving them desperate. In September, in Bundelkhand’s Shivpuri district, a moneylender set farmer Narayan Singh Khangaar ablaze, incensed that he wanted his land deed returned after repaying his $1,400 loan.

Others commit suicide. An estimated 200,000 Indian farmers have ended their lives since 1997, including many in this area, largely because of debt.

A 2007 study of 13 Bundelkhand villages found that up to 45% of farming families had forfeited their land, and in extreme cases some were forced into indentured servitude. Tractor companies, land mafia and bankers routinely collude, encouraging farmers to take loans they can’t afford, a 2008 report by India’s Supreme Court found, knowing they’ll default and be forced to sell their land.

“While a few people borrow for social status or a desire to buy a new motorcycle, in most cases it’s for sheer survival,” Dogra said. “When they see their children starving after several years of crop failures, many feel they have no choice.”

Recent amendments to a 1976 law in Uttar Pradesh state have increased the maximum punishment for unauthorized money-lending to three years in jail, up from six months, but many loan sharks are well-connected and elude prosecution. The law specifies that lenders must obtain a state license, but the requirements for obtaining it can be vague, a situation that critics say gives bureaucrats significant leeway to enact arbitrary rules and exact questionable fees.

“I take occasional loans when we’re desperate,” says Jhagdu, 50, a farmer in Barora, 60 miles south of Jhansi, sitting on his haunches with teeth stained red from chewing betel nut. “When there’s no rain, like now, you can’t repay for a year, so the amounts can double.”

Although interest rates at banks are ostensibly lower, Jhagdu said, it takes up to 30 days to process a loan. Residents say there’s no assurance of approval and there are a variety of largely unauthorized fees, typically a $20 paperwork charge, $20 middleman charge and 5% skimmed off by the bank manager, on a $100 loan.

“It’s not worth it,” he said.

In Barora, Bhagwati, 30, who uses one name, sat scrunched on a string cot at the entrance of a two-room mud house, bemoaning her fate. She and her husband stand accused of strangling local moneylender Mahesh Chandra with a towel after he allegedly made advances on her.

“I only told police I killed him because they threatened to beat me,” she said. “The police found his body beside our house, but I don’t know who killed him.”

Bhagwati was recently released on bail after two years in prison, where her husband Chandrabhan remains. “So many people borrow money and don’t come to this situation,” she said. “How could I know that borrowing $100 from him would come to this?”

Back in their bare-bones house with its peeling blue paint and water stains, Sunita recounts how moneylender Rajesh Sethi started coming to their house to collect money the family didn’t have.

Then one day in March 2007, he told them her father -- who she said has a drinking problem -- had passed out nearby.

Concerned, Sunita followed Sethi, who led her to his friend’s house claiming her father was there, she said. There Sethi told her, “You make me happy today and I will write off your father’s loan,” according to the police report, then gagged her, tore her clothes and raped her, she alleged, telling her to keep quiet and that he would marry her.

In rural India, many communities still blame women when they are harassed sexually. The shame is often so great that families agree to almost anything to keep it secret.

A few weeks later, Sethi arrived again and forced her to a hotel, Sunita alleged, amid threats to kill her father and brother, then raped her again. This happened several times over the next six months.

Eventually, Sunita said, she couldn’t keep quiet any longer and confided to her mother, who insisted they tell the police. Sethi has been charged with rape and making death threats and is out on bail.

Reached by telephone, Sethi offered a different version. He said that he never made improper advances toward Sunita and claimed the allegations were fabricated by corrupt local journalists trying to blackmail him.

“I was portrayed as a rapist,” said Sethi, who also owns land, restaurants and other local businesses. “The businesses I built are getting ruined. I can’t even go out.”

Sunita has told police that Sethi continues to threaten her and has pushed her to drop the charges, allegations that Sethi denied.

“He says he will destroy me and my family,” Sunita said. “He also says that he will make an example of me and do things to me that I can’t even dream of.”

Anshul Rana in The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

One in a series of occasional stories about the effects of climate change on people’s lives around the world.