Madhya Pradesh farmers' strike: Poverty and politics of loan waivers reek of cold-blooded populism
The killing of unarmed, protesting farmers in Madhya Pradesh made the intentions of the state very clear with a brutal candour. In essence, this death is no different from the thousands of farmers who have committed suicide across the country.
The killing of unarmed, protesting farmers in Madhya Pradesh made the intentions of the state very clear with a brutal candour. In essence, this death is no different from the thousands of farmers who have committed suicide across the country due to their inability to repay agricultural debts. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 3,02,116 farmers in India had committed suicide from 1995 till 2014.
Their deaths in the forgotten corners of our busy country has had little impact on the political conscience, or its governance apparatus. In contrast, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) revealed that banks had given up Rs 1 lakh crore by writing off bad loans to corporates, between 2007 and 2013. The largest loan waiver to farmers ever was Rs 60,000 crore.
The question is, why should the waiving of the loan of a poor farmer be the patronising act of the state that discovers them before every election and forgets them afterwards?
Research in Vidarbha, by this author, shows that cotton farmers live in the fear of defaulting bank loans. Every rupee they save is added to the sum of repayment, sometimes at the cost of health and education requirements of their families. Such calculations are carried in the worn-out pockets of their clothing, and consulted every day. Every rupee that the farmer repays to the bank is stained with the farmer's sweat and tears, and yet, his/her commitment is neither recognised nor rewarded.
Farmers are commonly blamed for borrowing when they know they cannot repay. Instead, the truth was that farmers did not take bank loans that they could not repay. Yet, it takes just one non-payment for the farmer to be declared a defaulter, and leave him vulnerable to the machinations of the private moneylenders.
These facts and figures have been killing the farmers in India since early 2000s and before. And yet, farm loans continue to be given at interest rates unaffordable for the farmer, despite the knowledge of the difficulties the farmers face in cultivation of almost every crop that grows in India.
Farmers today are aware of the thousands of those who had killed themselves on the fields. They understand that they are alone in their hopelessness; they have seen promises turn to lies too often and for long. They have only one thing of value left with them, their vote, and the electoral democracy has devised ways to ensure that even this does not belong to the farmer.
Loan waivers have been opposed on the grounds that they are a temporary solution, and that they did not improve the conditions of the farmers and that they disturbed the repayment discipline. Such objections, however, do not survive the political needs during elections. So, when the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister kept his election promise and announced a loan waiver to farmers of Rs 36,000, the move had different impact on Madhya Pradesh that goes to elections next year and the neighbouring Maharashtra that is in the middle of its elected tenure.
It is a heartless democracy that thinks of dying farmers as a vote-bank, or to begin the fight for loan waivers just before the next elections. This cold-blooded populism cuts across parties and applies as much to the government as the opposition parties who are courting arrest on the roads of Madhya Pradesh. The discovery of the plight of the Indian farmer is an opportunistic performance by the politicians that should no longer convince the voter.
The politicisation of the loan waivers may be one of the reasons why it has been ineffective in helping the state of the farmers. Auditing the 2008 loan waiver of the central government, the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) covered 25 states involving a field audit of 90, 576 farmers' accounts. The report had found that of the farmers checked nearly 13.5 percent were eligible for the scheme but were not considered by lending agencies. The CAG had also found that of the 80,299 farmers given loan waiver, 8.5 percent were not eligible. In 2,824 cases with loans worth of Rs 8.64 crore, there was found tampering of records.
About 1500 farmers were deprived of benefits of Rs 1.91 crores while in some states micro-finance institutions were reimbursed against rules. Across 22 states, the government repaid interest worth Rs 5.33 crore to lending agencies, which they had not paid in the first place. But most importantly, over 34 percent farmers were not issued certificate of loan waivers, which would have entitled them for fresh bank loans.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of loan waivers as an election sop to desperate farmers does not seem to offend politicians. The Congress in Gujarat had stated that it will waive farm loans if it came to power in the state in the elections later this year. The Bahujan Samaj Party promised a loan waiver of Rs 1 to Rs 2 lakh if it won elections in Uttar Pradesh earlier in 2017.
The state support like loan waivers must be de-linked from politics and delivered as a regular relief to the farmers. Then, the nation will be able to take pride in the fact it cared for its most hardworking, honest and sincere citizens in some way.
In the end, it takes courage to be a farmer in this country. Despite the great rivers that flow through India, a vast part of the agriculture is rain-fed and is not served by irrigation projects. Despite a large pool of indigenous seeds that are perfectly suitable for Indian conditions, the farmer must struggle with foreign seeds which are expensive and vulnerable. The country recently sampled farmers' resolve in the agitations in Madhya Pradesh, and earlier in the demonstrations of farmers from Tamil Nadu in Delhi. A nation can forget only this much and no more.
The author is a published writer, independent researcher and writes on farmer suicides and electoral democracy
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