Out of the bank, into the money-lender's trap
"Will you come in now?" screams 50-year-old Tanhibai Kale of Ganeshpur village in Jhari Jhamni tehsil of Yavatmal, the heart of Vidarbha's suicide country. Lightening streaks across the darkened skies, followed by loud thunder. Her drenched nine-year-old grandson Nandu comes in from the downpour and tries to slink in but not before getting two slaps. "Next, you'll fall ill and we'll have to go looking for money to treat you," the matriarch scolds as he whimpers.
The crying seems to spark something. "Why don't we all die? Then all our problems will be over for good," she says angrily wiping her own tears.
It has been a week since her 53-year-old husband Jhabaram committed suicide by consuming pesticide. "He wouldn't sleep at night, and kept worrying about how we could raise money to repay the Rs1.5 lakh we had borrowed," she recounts.
The family ran into problems after rains ravaged their crop earlier this year. They re-sowed the fields, but the rains wouldn't let up and the second crop also began wilting. Jhabaram got anxious about raising money to repay his loan to the local Yavatmal co-operative bank. "He tried going to local money lenders but when they refused, he went to the field and drank pesticide…" her voice trails off. The anger comes back. "This boy (pointing to her 27-year-old epileptic son Sachin) is useless. All he's done is produce a child (Nandu). And this girl (pointing to her 19-year-old daughter Suvarna, a XII-std failure) is a lodestone around our necks. No boy will marry her without a sizeable dowry, and where do we get money for that from?"
To make matters worse, the local talati (village officer) Suresh Dhavale wants a bribe of Rs10,000 to recommend them for the state government relief of Rs1 lakh given to families of farmers who commit suicide due to agri-debt.
In village after village, we encounter the same story: Of dead farmers whose bereaved families are being made to run from pillar to post to get even basic compensation. Figures at the Yavatmal Collectorate show that since 2001, there have been 2,184 farmer suicides. Of these, only 648 have got the Rs1 lakh compensation. "Look, the rules were not made by me. These guidelines and criteria have come from the Central government and we have to go by them," says Yavtamal Collector Shravan Hardikar.
Fifty kilometres away at Hevra Barsa village, we meet Balwant Namdeo Devalwar, 40, who's caught in a debt spiral. After crop failures in 2005, he didn't have enough money for seeds the next year, and borrowed Rs60,000 from the Central Bank. As luck would have it, excessive rain was followed by poor rain in 2006 and his crop failed again, leading him to default on his debt. "The debt kept mounting and I would run out the back door whenever I heard the officials coming to make enquiries," he says.
This carried on till the Agricultural Debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme (ADWDRS) launched by UPA-I in 2008 assured him of a 25% waiver. The scheme allows only farmers who own less than 5 acres a complete waiver. Since he owns 17 acres, he couldn't benefit.
These criteria have often been criticised but the government refuses to change them. "In Western Maharashtra, a farmer who owns five acres can own two cars and a tractor, and is well-off. Here in Vidarbha, even a 20-acre farm owner is living hand to mouth," points out Mohan Jadhav of the farmers' advocacy group Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti.
A National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) survey earlier this year found that despite the Rs65,318.33 crore already doled out to farmers under the ADWDRS, nearly 43.42 million (48.6%) of the 89.35 million farmer households in India are still indebted. According to the survey, the figures for Maharashtra stand at 54.8%, despite the ADWDRS.
Devalwar borrowed from a local money lender and sold off his bullocks for Rs35,000 so that he could repay the outstanding amount of his loan and apply afresh. "I got Rs95,000 from the Central Bank in August last year. I've now been hiring bullocks at Rs500 a day for my field and successive crop-failure means I am in default with the both the bank and the money lender."
Despite their reputation, money lenders find many takers. Devalwar explains: "The bank keeps making you go back and forth 20-25 times and yet there is no guarantee you will get the loan in time. A few farmers who applied in early April are getting the loans only now, in September, when the kharif season is over. Though we know how ruthless money lenders are, we are left with no choice."
Collector Hardikar says he had a meeting with the banking heads in the district and told them to process farm loan applications on priority. "The banks have distributed over Rs750 crore this year alone," he points out. But Hardikar cannot explain why poor farmers are left out. "This needs to be systemically addressed at the policy level," is all he offers.
Meanwhile, farmers in urgent need of compensation to repay the bank and the money lender find that the only way out of this debt trap is death.