‘Our Farms Are Failing, We Live On Loans From Here, There, Everywhere’

We speak to a farmer family whose roots lie in rural Andhra, but have also spread to the cities – there is simply never enough money to get by

“The Prime Minister has said that Self help Groups (SHGs) are helping women become Lakhpati Didis. Are you one?” I ask Gedda Lakshmi, a SHG leader in Jeyti village in Vizianagaram district, northern Andhra Pradesh. She stops in her tracks, gives me a stare and says: “Lachalu lachalu ekkada, amma? Kharchulu chuseva? (What lakhs are you talking about? Have you seen the expenses?).”

Lakshmi, who owns a 2-acre farm, should have become a Lakhpati Didi – it was introduced by the Modi government for women self help group members who earn an annual household income of more than Rs 1 Lakh and a monthly income of Rs 10,000 for at least four agricultural seasons and/or business cycles. In his Independence Day speech, PM Modi called them the “pillars of Viksit Bharat” and outlined a vision of empowering 2 crore women like Lakshmi. Andhra Pradesh has only 17% households with Lakhpati Didis, according to government data.

“Our farms are failing. Instead of earning from our farms, we are losing money. Last year, I lost 10,000 per acre,” she said launching into an angry tirade. She then promptly sat down once again under the shade of the tamarind tree on a very hot March day. Across her district, small and medium farmers have been losing money as input costs increase and make agriculture unviable. Paddy farmers on an average spend Rs 30,000 per acre but are able to earn only Rs 20,000, we found in our interviews with farmers across Vizianagaram district.

Lakshmi has given away her farm on lease to a tenant farmer couple and they give her one-third of the paddy produce as rent. As a single woman whose husband had died of a snake bite a few years ago, she cannot afford to take care of her farm. Her two sons have now moved away to the cities, the elder one to Visakhapatnam and the younger to Hyderabad. Her two daughters are married and live in Visakhapatnam too.

As the landlady of the farm, she gets to lose less than her tenants because she gets her assured share despite the rising input costs. The monetary losses pinch the tenants. But, she has other expenditures.

Mee kharchulu emiti (What are your expenses like)?” I ask.“Mari pratidi kharche (But everything is an expense),” she shoots back.

“I am a single woman. So it may seem like I don’t have many expenses but that is not the case. I get 10 bags of 80 kg of rice each as my share from the farm but I send 40 kg of it every month to my eldest son and his family of four. Do you know how expensive is it to raise a family in the city? Health, education, transport, everything is an expense. So to help them tide over, I send them rice, tamarind and other daily needs every month.” It is income foregone for her.

When she is alone, she makes herself a small bowl of rice and one vegetable and makes it last over two meals. But come holidays, her children and grandchildren descend on her village home. “Food, groceries are expensive anyway, but I also have to keep buying treats for the 8 grandkids. How can I say no to them?” she asks. “When you have children, you are never free of responsibilities. And so, expenses keep mounting.” She calls this kannavari kharchulu, a birthgiver’s expense. 

Illustration: Urvi Sawant

Andhra Pradesh has an inflation rate of 5.66%, a bit higher than the all-India rate of 5.09%, per government data from February 2024. Manipur (10.9%), Odisha (7.5%) and Telangana (6.7%) are the top three states with highest inflation rates. Inflation (the measure of the rate of increase in the prices of goods and services) is calculated using the consumer price index (CPI) and the wholesale price index (WPI). The measure of inflation determines the purchasing power of the consumer.

With rising inflation, household debt is at an all-time high – 40% of the Gross Domestic Product (December 2023). And there has been a 47-year low in the net financial savings – at 5.1% of GDP. These together define the financial distress that households in India are grappling with. 

At Behanbox, we wanted to map the costs and burdens of this distress in real time. We bring you an ‘Inflation Journals’ series that show through real life stories from across India how households are coping with rising costs and debt.

‘I Run My Household On Small Loans’

Health care is a major expense for Lakshmi. Over the last few years, she has developed arthritis and she sees a doctor in Visakhapatnam when she visits her son. Every consultation costs her a minimum of Rs 500 and over the last year, she likely spent around Rs 50,000 on her own health.

“I got married in 1981 and I remember we used to pay Rs 150 as consultation fee. And everything altogether would be Rs 1000,” she says. “Ippudu veyya annamata poyindi. Hospital ki velte velu kharchu (now, a thousand is a small number. If you go to a hospital, it is in thousands). I had to pay for the deliveries of both my daughters, twice over. Each time it cost me at least Rs 2 lakh from the time they came home to the time they left mine with their newborns. This includes healthcare costs, food and all the associated ceremonies.”

She has spent the Rs 1 lakh she got in January this year as a member of her DWCRA (development of women and children in rural areas (group).  These groups or Sanghams are part of the AP state’s mission to eliminate poverty. Under this, the government gives a group loan to a SHG at low interest or even zero interest rate to women to make them economically independent. 

However, most of them spend this money on daily needs or other exigencies. Lakshmi spent Rs 50,000 for Sankranti festivities, buying clothes and other gifts and holding a three-day feast which she, as the eldest in the family, cannot avoid. She gave away the other half of her loan to her younger son in Hyderabad because he needed money.

“Because we are not salaried, we don’t know where our money comes from but we do know where it goes. I run my household on small loans from here, there and everywhere. From banks, neighbours, shopkeepers and moneylenders. Sometimes I ask my sons too. Then I have to do small jobs like daily wage work or MNREGA work to pay those off,” she says.

And then she goes on to give a perspective on the debt and small loan economy in rural India.

‘Loans Help But Cause Distress Too’

“These loans help us get by for our expenses. Those who believe we are able to save and invest and then make further money out of it are fooling themselves, us and you. And once you have debt, you are doomed for life. These DWCRA loans are both a lifesaver and a source of extreme stress,” she says.

 Lakshmi and indeed all the women I met who are part of these sanghams told me how the loan burden is a cause of extreme stress and anxiety. While the government has made it easy to access loans for women, it has also put on them the onus of securing and repaying them.

A week later, I met Lakshmi again. This time at her son’s place in Visakhapatnam. The whole family had gathered for the wedding shopping for her youngest son. It was a small one-room quarter on the top floor of a house. The conversation once again drifted to rising prices and incomes that were not keeping pace. But this time, we were talking to her urban migrant children with their families. They are all in salaried jobs in the city but with no secure tenure.

Lakshmi’s daughter, Saraswati, who came from Kurmannapalem near the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant offered a glimpse into her finances. Saraswati is a homemaker and her husband works in a private company. Her household income is Rs 17,000 per month, of which she spends 4,500 in rent, Rs 5,000 in groceries, another 5,000 for education and other miscellaneous expenses. As someone who lives with sinusitis, she has to set aside Rs 2000 every month for her medical needs. It is a non-negotiable expense.

“That’s it. We are out of money as the month ends,” says Saraswati.

‘We Run A Tight Ship’

Rent is a big component in urban expenses, and an especially big burden on lower socio-economic groups. Jytosna, Lakshmi’s daughter-in-law, tells me that she pays Rs 5000 in rent, which increases by Rs 500 every year. Her husband works as a salesperson in a big jewellery store in Visakhapatnam. 

“As women, we save every penny here and there so we can get by, not to build houses or buy gold. We save because of fear – of an emergency, health, fees or any other that is likely to turn up,” says Jyotsna.

So how do you save? I ask. “Let’s say we buy chicken. I will ensure it stretches to two meals. If I buy milk at Rs 35 per packet for both my kids, I add water to stretch to both times of the day. I will buy the cheapest rice available and make sure it lasts for the entire month,” Saraswati explains.

She also undertakes a trip to the village to bring back pulses in bulk even if it means hauling a heavy load back home in a bus. “On village farms, tamarind costs Rs 60 a kilo, whereas in the city it is Rs 150,” she says.“Kattubadiga unta (I run a tight ship).”

Lakshmi intervenes and reminds everyone that they had not factored in the electricity costs. In the village she pays Rs 250 a month. She saves on the usage by sleeping on her front porch amidst the light breeze. But when the family comes for holidays the usage goes up to Rs 500. And the children watch TV. In the city, her children pay much more, especially in the summer.

“On top of it, if I fail to pay the electricity bill, I am charged a penalty of Rs 100. Sometimes I have borrowed money to pay the bill.”

So who makes the sacrifices, I ask. “As parents, we do. We cut our share.” Saraswati did not categorically mention if she made the bigger sacrifice. I did not press. “I also teach my kids the value of money. So if they ask for biscuits, I buy one packet for both. I do not want to give in to everything they ask for. They should know”, she says.


BehanBox’s Feminist Election Newsroom has created accessible video voting guides to equip our audience to become  informed voters.

We have explainers on “How To Register Your Vote As a First Time Voter” – English, “अपना वोट रजिस्टर कैसे करे? – Hindi”

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  • Bhanupriya Rao is the founder of Behanbox. She is a researcher and advocate on gender and just governance.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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