Subbaiah, now 60 years old, had watched with growing unease over the last few years as his fellow farmers in the region sold banyan trees ( Ficus benghalensis ) on their farms. Over two decades ago, Subbaiah too had planted and nurtured a banyan cutting on his two-acre farm. The sapling grew into a large tree with a spreading canopy, providing shade and shelter on hot days.
Now it was Subbaiah’s time to sell his banyan tree, for just Rs. 8,000. The forced sale was to support his wife’s treatment. Two years ago, a fortnight before Gowri-Ganesha Habba (a festival in Karnataka), Subbaiah’s wife, 56-year-old Mahadevamma tripped on a stone while tending to goats, and fractured her hip.
“I was chasing after a kid that had strayed from the herd of goats, and I didn’t see the stone. I couldn’t pick myself up after the fall,” Mahadevamma says, recounting the events of that fateful day. “I was in severe pain. Thankfully, passersby found me and helped me get home.”This incident upended the couple’s already fragile world.
Subbaiah and Mahadevamma live in Hunasanalu village, located around 12 kilometres from Nanjangud town, off the Mysuru-Ooty highway. They are from the Adi Karnataka (AK) community, listed as Scheduled Caste in Karnataka. They have a 20-year-old daughter Pavithra and an 18-year-old son Abhishek.
Pavithra studied till Class 8. Abhishek was born with a hearing loss condition that has left him with a moderately severe degree of hearing loss in both ears. He can almost hear nothing when people talk and as a result, has never learnt to speak. Abhishek communicates with gestures and has to be careful when out on his own as he is unable to hear vehicular movement or horns.
Subbaiah enrolled his son at the Jnana Vikasa Special Residential School for Speech and Hearing in Chinakurali village in Pandavapura taluk in Mandya District. Abhishek has so far cleared Class 12. He now spends his time at home tending to the family cow, while scouting for jobs in nearby cities and towns to contribute to household expenses.Over time, Mahadevamma’s treatment medical expenses started to eat into their small savings. After selling his banyan tree, Subbaiah raised another Rs. 70,000 by letting out his two-acre dryland on a three-year lease to Swamy, another farmer in the village.
Following a battery of medical tests, doctors at the K. R. Hospital in Mysuru concluded that Mahadevamma needed surgery, but it was going to be difficult as she had anaemia and an existing thyroid condition. She was discharged after a 15-day hospital stay, put on a course of medicines, and advised to return for surgery in six weeks. By then, the couple were drained of almost Rs. 40,000 on travel, food, x-rays, blood tests and medication.
Mahadevamma was unable to bear the discomfort and pain, and so the couple then decided to opt for non-surgical treatment at Singiripalayam village, nearly 130 kilometres away from their home, in Erode District of neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Singiripalayam is known for its traditional bone healing and treatment centres. The treatment involved strapping Madevamma’s leg to a splint from the hip till the ankle and pouring herbal oil over the fractured hip. This didn’t come cheap. Subbaiah and Mahadevamma travelled to Singiripalayam every 15 days in a hired car for four sessions. Each treatment session cost the family Rs. 6,000, and then there was the additional Rs. 4,500 for the car rental they need for every roundtrip to Singiripalayam and back.
The treatment led to other complications. The edge of the splint dug into Mahadevamma’s foot, and the friction grazed the skin. The wound festered as the splint continued to graze her foot till her bones showed. Subbaiah then took Mahadevamma to a private clinic in Nanjangud. The treatment set them back by another Rs. 30,000, but her foot did not heal.
Mahadevamma suffered two more falls while trying to move around in the house with her injured leg. Both falls have left her with a severely injured knee. Treatment at a nearby hospital cost another Rs. 4,000. Despite the treatment, she is unable to bend her knee fully.
With his two-acre field leased out, Subbaiah has lost the income he used to earn from growing rain-fed crops like cotton, maize, horse gram, green gram, lentils, and cowpea. He had to take a loan of Rs. 100,000 at an interest rate of 4 per cent from the local self-help group. He has since been paying Rs. 3,000 every month towards the loan, and will need to continue paying instalments for another 14 months.
He will also need to raise another Rs. 70,000 to repay the lease amount in a year’s time to regain custody of his land.
Subbaiah earns Rs. 500 a day when he is able to find work, which is typically for around 20 days in a month. He works as a hired hand on farms in the region and helps at house construction sites in the village. During the sugarcane harvest season, Subbaiah chops sugarcane at sugar factories. Mahadevamma, who once managed household chores and contributed Rs. 200 a day to the household income by cutting grass and weeding on neighbouring farms, can now no longer walk without support, let alone earn an income.
Their milch cow which earned them Rs. 6,000 from selling almost 200 litres of milk every month, hasn’t given birth in two years, cutting off yet another income source.
A single-room, whitewashed house in a narrow lane on the edge of Hunasanalu village is all that the family is left with now.
Before these mishaps, Subbaiah harboured hope for his son’s future, putting him through a special school for those who have hearing impairments. “He is bright. He just can’t speak,” he says of his son with evident pride. He regrets not being able to support him further.
Pavithra, their daughter cooks, cleans and cares for the household. Pavithra’s wedding prospects appear bleak, says her father, as the family can no longer afford the expenses that come with a marriage.
“I have to pay a one-way fare of Rs. 500 to take her to the hospital, and then there will be medicines and x-rays. I have already spent all our life savings and more on treatment so far. Where do I find more money,” a helpless Subbaiah says.
He still rues the loss of the tree. “It was a tree I planted and raised. I wish I didn’t have to sell it. But what choice did I have?”
The prolonged treatment Mahadevamma requires is not something the family can afford. They need funds to be able to pursue qualitative medical treatment and see it through. And they need more funds to regain custody of their land, look into their two children and get back on their feet.
“I can’t even walk to the front yard without help,” a visibly upset Mahadevamma says.
“I am the only one working to feed a family of four adults and it is never enough. I wouldn’t wish this fate on my worst enemy. I see no end to our misery,” Subbaiah says, looking forlorn.