Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Irrelevant laws and futile exemptions


Budget can’t write off suicides

March 10: Ghanshyam Mirge, 38, of Akola in Maharashtra and 35-year-old Jayarami Reddy from Andhra’s Kurnool had a lot in common — both are young farmers owning around 8 acres, steeped in debt and not eligible for P. Chidambaram’s loan waiver.

The similarity doesn’t end there: both took their lives last week.

Satyanarayan Reddy, also from Kurnool, had around 4 acres, which qualified him for a waiver. But since most of his money was owed to moneylenders who had put him in jail and now threatened to get his wife arrested as well, Reddy, too, killed himself.

As did Kashinath Belure (60) of Bidar in Karnataka. He would have got a total loan waiver but for the fact that he was indebted to moneylenders.

Nearly 60 farmers have taken their lives in India’s death bowl since Chidambaram announced the farm loan waiver 10 days ago.

Questions have been raised about the largesse because the complete loan waiver is limited to the 3 crore marginal and small farmers owning up to 2 hectares (4.9 acres). Those with over 2 hectares — around 1 crore farmers — will get a 25 per cent discount for a one-time settlement.

Economists had also pointed out that farmers had borrowed heavily from moneylenders as well, and the government had no answers to that.

The highest number of deaths has been reported from Andhra, where 35 farmers have committed suicide since February 29, when the finance minister unveiled the waiver plan in the budget. Barring a couple, all the farmers owned over 5 acres, which meant they had to cough up 75 per cent of the money.

At least 22 farmers killed themselves in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, among the worst hit by the debt cycle, while two deaths have been reported from Karnataka. All the Vidarbha farmers had over 5 acres of land.

The Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, an NGO based in the Pandhakavda region of Yawatmal, the Maharashtra district with the highest number of suicides, said the announcement has had little impact on the farmers who grow cotton and are burdened with loans from banks as well as private moneylenders.

Like Kisan Uike, 32, who consumed pesticide in Khadki village, 50km from Nagpur. Uike, the owner of around 8 acres, had an outstanding loan of Rs 43,000, which had ballooned to Rs 75,000 because of interest accumulation.

“Twenty-two farmers have killed themselves since the budget. This indicates that the farmers have no faith in the government and its announcements,” said Kishore Tiwari, convener of the samiti, which maintains a “death register” of the suicides in six districts of Vidarbha.

According to the samiti’s records, 80 farmers had killed themselves in January, 66 in February and, in March, the figure could be higher.

Not all farmers are overjoyed by the waiver. Vidarbha’s farmers say their counterparts in western Maharashtra, whose land holdings are smaller and who have higher loan amounts, were likely to benefit more.

Prabhakar Reddy of Marrikunta village in Kurnool, around 700km away, echoed them. “We don’t want any charity or freebies. Let the government organise agricultural credit during harvesting, subsidies in seeds and fertilisers. We will ensure that the loans are repaid in time,” he said.

The majority of the deaths in Andhra has been of farmers badly hit by the recent unseasonal rain. Narne Rama Rao (45) had sown groundnut crop but the rains destroyed his livelihood and swamped him with loans of Rs 12 lakh. Narne did not take his life, he died of a heart attack.

Leaders from the Congress, which hopes to reap the benefit of the scheme in the spate of elections to be held over the next 12 months, tried to soften the blow.

Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said he would ask the Centre to either increase the ceiling to 15 acres or offset loans of Rs 50,000 for all farmers irrespective of land holdings.

“The suicides and the loan waiver have no link,” said a Congress spokesperson in Andhra.

With inputs from Anil Budur Lulla