Saturday, July 2, 2011

Farm crisis: A bullock cart for Ramrao-DNA

Farm crisis: A bullock cart for Ramrao

DNA / Yogesh Pawar / Sunday, July 3, 2011 8:00 IST

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What is common to the black-and-white classic, Oh re taal mile nadi ke jal mein from Raj Kapoor’s Teesri Kasam and Gadiwale gadi dheere haak re from Mehboob Khan’s classic Mother India or any painting of a rural landscape? The humble bullock cart, of course, which has often been used to evoke idyllic visions of pastoral life.

But look anywhere in our villages and the bullock cart comes across as anything but romantic. Take the example of 52-year-old Ramrao Ranganna Tadpalliwar. This resident of Akoli village of Kelapur tehsil, Yavatmal district, in the heart of Vidharba’s suicide country is a worried man. His bullock cart axle has broken and the rains may hit his arid two and half acre field any day.

“This teakwood bullock cart has been in the family for 25 years now. But for a good axle, I’ll have to shell out at least Rs18,000, while the craftsman who makes and attaches it wants another Rs2,000,” he rues. The ramshackle bullock cart has seen many repairs to its side panels and the wheels, but investing in a new cart will mean spending between Rs2-2.25 lakh.

The noose around his neck

With two mouths to feed at home, and the interest mounting on a loan taken for marrying off his youngest daughter Sarika last year, he’s anxious to ensure he’s able to grow paddy this season. “I’ve not even been able to pay the interest to the moneylender for that loan. Every passing day feels like a noose tightening around my neck,” he says. He’s been using a neighbour’s cart to lug hay and farming equipment for now, but once tilling begins, the neighbour will want his cart back.

Tadpalliwar has spent the better part of the week going to the tehsil office and pleading with contacts so that he can get a loan from a money lender before it is too late. Ask him why he can’t go to a bank, and he laughs. “That is all for big people in cities,” he says. “There’s just one bank and after a week of running around there, I realised that it will take me really long just to get my BPL (below poverty line) papers done. Even if I get them and bribe all the right people, the loan could take several months to come through. The paddy season will have come and gone by then.”

Across the state, 390km away at Pangaon, near Barshi in Western Maharashtra, 32-year-old Narasayya Sadafule has been going from pillar to post trying to get a loan under one of the 27 official schemes which purportedly cater to the ‘BPL’ rural poor. All he needs is Rs72,000 to buy a bullock. “Even if I get some part of the money, I’ll pawn my wife’s jewellery to make up for the deficit,” says the farmer who lost a bullock a month ago. Ignoring a fever, he makes a round of the government offices every day in the hope that something will work out.

“If nothing works, I will have to ask my son to discontinue school this season and work with me on other people’s fields so that we can make ends meet,” he says. He remembers how when his son, who just moved to Std IX this year, was born there were plans to make him a doctor. “With worries about where the next meal is coming from now, all that will have to wait.”

In an unequal agrarian society, dominated by landlords, moneylenders and traders, land reforms, public investment and decentralised planning would have made a difference. “Unfortunately, the economic reforms after 1991 have only deepened historical inequalities,” observes agronomist Prof R Ramakumar from TISS.

As the country goes through what many agronomists call “its worst agrarian crisis,” loss of either the cart or bullocks can deal a body blow to the already tenuous link between poor farmers and their livelihood as it is often not only a mode of transport but also the only way to carry farm produce and equipment back and forth from fields.

The contrast

Away from Bharat, in an India that largely lives in its shiny new mall-multiplex megalopolises, the contrast with how easily funds are available to buy increasingly cheaper cars comes to mind. The excitement over the Rs1 lakh car has further escalated, with Maruti Suzuki, Hyundai, Tata Motors and now even Mercedes trying to rev up sales of petrol models with loans at 6.99%.

“Why can’t farmers also avail of loans as easily?” asks Kishor Tiwari, leader of the farmers’ advocacy group Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. “It’s strange that a man who makes only Rs25,000 or lesser and doesn’t even have a home to his name can walk into a bank and get a loan upto a lakh easily. Yet a farmer who owns 10 acres will either be refused outright or be offered a piddly Rs10,000 as upper limit for a loan.”

Unravelling why this happens will mean looking at the Union ministry of finance’s data, according to which only 5% of the country’s villages are “banked.” So, quite a lot of ground needs to be covered in taking public banking to the poor. The time-tested way to do this would be to open more public bank branches in rural areas.

When we did it right

In fact, public banking in India between 1969 and 1991 is a model for all developing countries. In this period, India managed to increase rural branches of commercial banks by nearly eight times. However, post-1991, as senior economist and faculty at TISS R Ramakumar points out, the framework provided to the banks by Indian public policy changed dramatically. “While the earlier policy had social objectives, the present one has solely business objectives. Thus, every policy measure that aims to expand financial inclusion is tested at the altar of profits and losses,” he points out. “It is then no surprise that there has been a sharp fall in the extent of penetration of public banks in rural areas.”

The steady shift favouring high-value, export-oriented and capital-intensive agriculture has seen large corporate houses and institutions receive a significant amount of loans, which get counted as agricultural credit. While they avail of tax benefits in the name of these agricultural loans, small and marginal farmers like Tadpalliwar and Sadafule are nowhere on the radar.

“With policies like these, is it surprising that on an average three debt ridden farmers commit suicide every single day,” Kishor Tiwari says, adding, “In 1961, when cotton sold for Rs350 a quintal, one could buy a tola (which was then 12 gm) of gold. Now, simply buying the monthly groceries for the house is not possible when prices stand at Rs3,500 a quintal.” (Incidentally, a tola of gold is now only 10gm and sells for a whopping Rs22,500.)

And yet, barely a month ago in Mumbai, while launching the social banking initiatives of Union Bank of India, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee told a gathering of bankers, “Financial inclusion is a key determinant of sustainable inclusive growth essential to building an equitable society and will help the rural hinterland with a growing India.”

Meanwhile, in that “rural hinterland,” only a miracle can ensure that Tadpalliwar gets his bullock cart up and running and yet have enough funds for seeds and fertiliser to ensure a bountiful crop. “One good paddy yield will pull me out of debt and solve our problems,” he says. If only the gods were listening...

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