Debt and bureaucracy deal death blow to MP farmers reeling from Covid impact

“The farmer also wants to live, sir! But he is forced to take a loan. This is done not once, but over and over again. First, to sow the crop, one has to take a loan. Then a loan has to be taken to eliminate weeds, to apply medicines, to apply fertilizers. If the crop is ruined, then you have to take a loan. When the crop is ripe, loan has to be taken for harvesting and threshing. If the crop is ripe but not sold, then loan has to be taken and if the right price is not available according to costs incurred then again loan has to be taken.

In this way the farmer gets buried in debt and in the end he is left with no option but to commit suicide. There is an entire chain working behind to make the farmer indebted, burying him under the debt burden and forcing him to commit suicide”.

A young farmer Raju Singh’s eyes start tearing as he says all and yet he cannot keep quiet either. The choked voice emanating from his throat indicates how farmers, who were already doomed by various problems,  were further ruined by the Covid epidemic. Whatever was left has been taken away by government officials involved in the  corrupt bureaucratic system.

Farmer Raju Singh is a resident of Betul district of MP. His cultivation is in the Multai region adjoining Vidarbha of Maharashtra. He tells Covid Response Watch, “ I had to take a loan for harvesting the wheat crop and threshing it. My wheat crop is standing in the field, it has to be harvested and threshing is to be done. All this costs money”.

COVID Response Watch LogoRaju Singh, who is a typical farmer in the region, has three and a half acres of agricultural land. He says that he had insured the Kharif and Rabi crops for the year 2019-2020 out of fear that it might get spoiled. This insurance was done under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana. The insurance amount of Rs 23000 thousand has come into his bank account in March 2022. He is unable to access the money because he has a  loan of Rs 40, for the fertilizer and seeds purchased for sowing wheat in the year 2020-21. Bank officials say unless you return this loan to the Tribal Service Cooperative Society or TSCS , which gives the fertilizer and seeds, then we will not let you withdraw the crop insurance money.

The bank officials wanted him to get a letter from the TSCS stating they had no objection to his withdrawing the money. The agriculture committee however did not want to make this statement in writing and instead asked him to clear his other outstanding debts first. He promised to return the loan of Rs 40,000 in a lump sum after selling his harvest this year but the bank and the committee both did not agree to his proposal.

“I have been running from bank to cooperative society and society to bank, but I was not allowed to withdraw 23000 rupees deposited in my own bank account. I have now taken a loan of 20 thousand rupees from a local moneylender at 8 percent interest.” says Raju Singh.

Raju Singh had taken a loan from a money lender during the Covid period too. If the banks refuse to give loans farmers have no option except to turn to moneylenders who charge exorbitant rates of interest.

There is a big network of tribal service cooperative societies in MP. These are co-operative societies of the government which are registered with the Cooperation Department of the state government in the districts. These committee societies also give fertilizers, seeds and loans to the farmers. They charge interest on the prices of fertilizers and seeds but do not charge any interest on loans given for six months. The government gives subsidies to these societies in lieu of loans given to farmers.

These societies, which give loans and fertilizers, also deduct the premium of crop insurance from the farmers. These societies do business with the farmers by taking money from the district cooperative banks and in return they get commission. The accounts of farmers are also maintained in these societies and also in the branches of district cooperative banks.

There are lakhs of farmers in Madhya Pradesh who are in debt and are being stopped by banks from withdrawing their own money. According to a survey by the National Bureau of India, there were 85 lakh small, marginal and medium farmers in MP three years ago. Now their number is more than 90 lakhs and has been increasing continuously, though the amount of cultivable land available is not enough for all of them.

In February 2022, MP state agriculture minister Kamal Patel made a statement on a television channel that his government had transferred Rs 7600 crore of crop insurance money to the accounts of 49 lakh farmers. It is true that the insurance amount has been deposited in the account of the farmers. However, farmers are not being allowed to withdraw the money as this is being blocked by officials from the District Co-operative Central Bank, which are meant to provide banking to the rural hinterland for the agricultural sector.

The officials of these banks are not allowing farmers to withdraw the crop insurance money under the guise of outstanding loans, despite the fact that there is no such restriction on disbursement of the money from the government. The government has in fact extended the deadline to repay previous loans till April 15 this year and also waived interest on the loans taken by the farmers in Kharif season.. However, it is also true that the government or its representatives are not speaking up in the interest of the farmers or intervening with bank officials in this regard either.

Roop Singh is a farmer of Narmadapuram district, earlier named ‘Hoshangabad’. He says that he has a loan of Rs 1.6 lakhs. He told Covid Response Watch that in the past also he had a debt which he has been repaying. He needs money now to cultivate his wheat crop but bank officials are not allowing him to withdraw the 14 thousand rupees he has in his bank account.

According to Roop Singh  representatives of the government are not paying attention to the needs of farmers at the grassroot level and only showing off their ‘achievements’ on television channels.

“The government is claiming to protect the interest of farmers, and claims it has disbursed t 7600 crore rupees of crop insurance to them. The government should come down to the ground and see whether the farmers are getting the benefits or not” says Surendra Singh Rajput, a farmer with around 20 acres of land, his face turning red with anger.

He is an active member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union and fights for the farmers in his area. He knows every problem of the farmers of his area. He is so aware that he has campaigned against his own fellow farmers who set fire to stubble on their lands and  cause damage to neighbouring farms. He has asked the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of the area for details about such farmers so that everyone can be told how the farmer is becoming an enemy of his own land.

According to Rajput farmers have been hit hard by Covid and are so deeply in debt that it will take them no less than eight to ten years to recover. He says everyone is waiting to rob the farmer. When the crop comes, the traders drop the price, claiming that the support price has been fixed. There are many other obstacles placed before the farmer too. Traders refuse to purchase wheat, is not fully cleaned of other residues or soil. They also refuse to buy more than 25 quintals of gram from each farmer.

“How will the farmer survive under such conditions. Now petrol and diesel too have become expensive, while the wages of laborers are also touching the sky. The price of the crop has not increased in that proportion at all” he says angrily.

Apart from not being allowed to withdraw the crop insurance money farmers in MP are also not being paid in full for the paddy crops they sold in the Kharif season. They are being given only the amount left over after adjusting for previous loans. Those who had loans bigger than the selling amount are getting a single rupee this season.

When the farmer sells wheat to the TSCS, they will make an account of the wheat purchased and send it to the banks and from there the money will be deposited in the farmer’s account. A majority of  the societies and banks have paid  for the grain sold by the farmers only after deducting the loans taken by them. This has resulted in the condition of the farmers worsening. There is however, also a rich section among farmers who do not have any loan and they are not facing any problem in withdrawing their money.

Pannalal, a farmer of Chhatarpur, says that he sold 26 quintals of paddy to the Tribal Service Cooperative Society two months ago, which was worth Rs. 52000 at the rate of Rs. 2000 per quintal. The entire amount he says was deducted in debt. He says that no consent of any kind was taken for this whereas the RBI’s guideline says that no change can be made in the amount paid to the farmer without his consent.

According to another farmer Badami Lal, only those farmers who can get a letter from the local Tehsildar stating that there is marriage or other religious and cultural programs in their homes are being allowed to withdraw their money. For all others the frustration of not being able to  their dues is forcing them to consider  committing suicide.

Ashok Kapse is a journalist based in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

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