When death comes first

PM’s package has come too late for many debt-hit Vidarbha farmers. More than 302 suicides have taken place after the announcement.

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When death comes first

VEGAON/YAVATMAL: Vegaon is straight out a postcard. But beneath its picturesque face, lies several dark tales. Durgabai and Nalini lost their husbands in a little over one year.  Now, the two women mourn the loss of a father and a son.  When Nalini’s husband Sanjay Kalaskar killed himself, it was the 26th suicide in Vegaon. 

“He’d run out of patience,” says Nalini of Sanjay, who took his life barely eleven days after the announcement of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special package for Vidarbha’s six most-affected districts. Singh had announced the package on July 1, 2006.  In April last, it was Sanjay’s father Babanrao who was staring at the crisis. This time, it was his son. “Sanjay had inherited loans with the land,” say Durgabai, Sanjay’s mother and Nalini’s mother-in-law.

A sense of anger now compounds the shock of the suicides. “Sanjay would have been alive had the bank officials not waited for the notification of the PM’s special package to formally come,” says Vijay, his younger brother. The Kalaskars were informed of the benefits to them on August 1, when the notification came from New Delhi.

“This time they came home to deliver the loan,” says Vijay. “What do I do with it, having lost both my father and brother?” he wonders. The bank did not ease any burden on Sanjay after his father took his life. Sanjay’s total loan liability with the Central Bank of Maregaon rose to Rs 110,000, besides outstanding bills of local inputs dealer and electricity dues. “We could not repay a single rupee last year after my father’s death,” says Vijay.  Babanrao had suffered huge losses in 2005 on his 17-acre land, half of which is for irrigation. “When the bank refused fresh credit, we borrowed from acquaintances (read moneylenders),” says Vijay. Sanjay thought he would repay the money once he got credit from the bank.

His hopes crashed when the officials declined his persistent pleas saying they had not received any government notification. “We were not in a position to buy fertilisers or pesticides that were crucial in this period,” he says.  Not far away, in Mendholi village of adjoining Wardha district, Shankar Thool, 45, and his son Sandeep, 21, ended their lives a few days ago. Across Vidarbha, as banks and babus deny loans to the desperate farmers, days after sowing operations ended and when the spraying season has just begun, farmers are killing themselves, ending days of desperation. On last count,  the figure had crossed 903 since June 2, 2006.

Ironically, the day the Union Cabinet approved the PM’ package on July 27, two farmers —Rambhau Thakre, 45, and Vasant Mohite, 40 — committed suicide in Mohi village of Wardha district.  “We are confused. Whom should we believe in? The finance minister says action will be taken within 48 hours against officials who do not release the credit, and the babus say they have no notification,” says 60-year-old Tatyaji Panghate at Ghonsa in Zari Jamni block of Yavatmal.

“This is my 15th trip to the bank, but he says I am not eligible for loan. He isn't telling me why? I've documents ready and no past dues,” says Natthu Dave, a five-acre farmer from Borda village, waiting outside the Indian Bank branch in Ghonsa. Tens of farmers queue up for loans in this bank and the branch of the district central cooperative bank next door.

Says activist Suresh Bolenwar: “Banks are still not giving credit to farmers and if they do, the sanctioned amount is insufficient. And farmers then borrow from private sources to bridge the gap, which reduces our returns due to huge interest component.” A bank official in Pandharkawda says: “It’s true we are actually under-financing the farmers. So while the number of those getting loans has increased, the actual disbursement of money is far from sufficient.”

For instance, in Jhamkola village, Santosh Kohare should get Rs100,000 in credit going by his land size—25-acres. “But no bank here is dealing with fresh cases,” says Bolenwar. “He won’t get more than Rs15,000 if his case is approved for loan owing to pressure.”  Adds Santosh: “I’ve borrowed from private sources at 60 per cent interest rate.” His loss at the end of the year on his returns would be Rs100,000.

Admits Suresh Ninawe, Indian Bank branch manager at Ghonsa: “We’ve to follow the credit limits as per the orders from higher ups.” Ninawe says his branch has disbursed over Rs 1 crore in credit to farmers this year, up from Rs70 lakh last year. “The demand is much more,” he says.

Rain-fed cotton farmers can get credit up to Rs10,500 per Ha, but they seldom get that much here. "Because cotton farming is not viable," says K G Nagpure, manager of central cooperative bank at Ghonsa. "Compare that with western Maharashtra. A farmer with 25 acres of land will easily get a minimum Rs300,000 loan as it is viable.”  A number of factors have hit the viability factor here: crashing cotton prices, rising imports and falling farm incomes. A new factor this season is adding to the woes — an unprecedented epidemic of Chikun Gunya in the countryside. Villages after villages are clamouring for medical aid. “Farmers simply can’t afford it,” says Vilas Raut in Wadki,a few km from Vegaon. “They are selling their land and gold to buy healthcare.”

The PM’s special package is not working. “Over 302 farmers have committed suicide in Vidarbha after the PM's visit,” says Kishor Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. 

July saw over 90 farmers commit suicide, and August, over a hundred —that's a ten-year record high. “This was expected,” adds Tiwari, “Because the PM's package fails to capture the problems of farmers on the ground. Now we hear the CM has no idea of dealing with the crisis. What else do the farmers do?”

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