| Like many of his ilk, when Ramchandra Deokar, a cotton farmer in Vidarbha, took a loan of Rs 20,000 from Madhyavarti Sahakari Bank at an interest rate of 15 per cent in 2000 to pay for high quality seeds and fertilisers, he didn't expect it would drag him in the red. But his crop failed. A further Rs 15,000 loan taken from the local moneylender at an interest rate of 120 per cent to meet Diwali expenses in 2004 couldn't be repaid as excessive rains destroyed his crop again. |
By the end of 2005, Deokar was saddled with four failed crops and constant notices for repayment of loans. Having lost all hope, he chose the easy way out and gulped down pesticide hoping his family would at least get a compensation of Rs 1 lakh promised by the government. But even that was not to be. The families of a number of farmers who committed suicide expecting official compensation have not received any money till date.
In the past five years the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra has witnessed 1,041 farmer suicides. The number has risen from 41 suicides in 2001 to 390 in 2005 with the worst affected districts being Yavatmal and Amaravati. Repeated crop failures, indebtedness and inability to meet the rising cost of cultivation have driven the farmers to the precipice. But the Government has done little to improve the plight of the farmers. Poor roads, lack of irrigation facilities and a little over two hours of electricity a day, describe the poverty-stricken region of Vidarbha.
The Government's perennial complaint that farmers do not come to it to sell their produce also does not stand scrutiny. Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh recently announced a special package which promised post-reaping credit and cattle benefits to farmers. In the hope of getting a better price through the package, the farmers held back their produce till December even after the markets had opened. But the package was delayed and the farmers had to eventually sell their produce in the open market.
| INTERVIEW | R.R. PATIL |
"Farmers should co-operate with us"
The state's deputy chief minister spoke to Prerana Thakurdesai about his government's crackdown on illegal moneylenders in the state.
Q: What prompted this action against illegal moneylenders?
A. A few months ago an MP from the state told me that in his constituency an illegal moneylender had kidnapped a farmer's wife and daughter for non-repayment of loan. We decided that we couldn't tolerate this nonsense.
Q. How has this action helped the farmers?
A. Ever since we took this action, fewer farmers have committed suicide.
Q. Are you taking any measure to check the growth of illegal moneylenders?
A. That's the job of the deputy registrar of the region. I can't keep check on every moneylender.
Q. There is still no real investment in the agriculture sector.
A. We have provided needy farmers a credit of Rs 25,000. We will also be providing them cattle and help during a bad crop.
Q. What do you have to say on 'Farmers' Kidney Sale Centre' in Shingnapur village in Amaravati?
A. I feel that even though farmers are in deep trouble, they should co-operate with the state and not hold grievances against it.
Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil on the other hand has been crusading against illegal moneylenders in the region, who he believes are the main culprits behind the farmer suicides. In the past three months, over 300 illegal moneylenders have been arrested in the "Sahukar Nirmoolan Andolan". Patil claims this campaign has reduced the number of suicides. But, 195 farmers have committed suicide since the Andolan started. In fact, contrary to Patil's claims, statistics show that illegal moneylenders are not entirely to blame for suicides. Till date, at least 724 farmers have committed suicide due to bank loans, while only 252 have been driven to the extreme step because of the debt of moneylenders (the figure includes, licensed and unlicensed moneylenders).
Interestingly, farmers are also not very happy with the government's crackdown on moneylenders. In most cases they are the last credit option for them. "I complained against a moneylender and had him arrested. People are now scared to lend any money," says Mahadeo Doodhkohor, 75, a farmer from Khatkheda village in Wardha district.
In a population of 15 lakh farmers, there are about 700 odd licensed moneylenders. Unlicensed ones therefore flourish providing larger credit and in turn exploiting the farmer. "What is ironic is that even though Maharashtra pioneered the co-operative society movement, over 600 such credit societies in Amaravati are bankrupt. The farmers are, therefore, forced to borrow from moneylenders," says Deshonnati Chief Editor Prakash Pohare, who has led several campaigns against farmer suicides.
Professor Ajay Dandekar who on behalf of Tata Institute of Social Sciences undertook a research project on the factors responsible for suicides by farmers says, "Arresting and blaming moneylenders for all the difficulties agriculture is facing today is a superficial move. The real problem is of credit crunch and the Government must pump in investment in this sector."
In the 2005-06 Union Budget, the allocation for agriculture was increased by almost 30 per cent. But experts say this increase is deceptive. "The Centre's spending on agriculture had fallen so steeply during the liberalisation era that in 2004-05 it was, in real terms, about 20 per cent lower than in 1990-91. Even after the increase in the 2005-06 Budget, the figure is almost the same as the allocation of 1990-91 in real terms," says Dandekar. The Government's spending on agriculture has fallen from 0.49 per cent in 1990-91 to 0.21 per cent of the GDP in 2005-06.
The Planning Commission might have rightly lebelled Maharashtra a 'failed state', but the Centre too cannot absolve itself of its responsibilities.