Presenting the annual budget for 1990-91, Union Finance Minister, Prof. Madhu Dandavate, said: ?Over the years, poor farmers, artisans and weavers have accumulated debt which they are unable to repay. They have been caught up in a vicious circle of indebtedness and low incomes which keeps them in perennial poverty.
?In order to relieve our farmers from the burden of debt, an assurance was given in the National Front'smanifesto?I am glad to inform the House that we are now ready with the scheme of implementation of debt relief to ?. redeem the pledge.?
The essence of that scheme was that overdue of up to Rs 10,000 on October 2, 1989, of loans taken by every farmer, artisan and weaver from public sector banks and regional rural banks would be written off by the central government and, with regard to credit co-operatives, the state governments were to share 50 per cent of the burden with the Centre. A sum of Rs. 1,000 crore was allocated in the budget for the purpose.
According to RBI'sannual report for 1991-92, the amount of loan waivers claimed by banks under the above scheme was Rs 7,800 crore. But Gurcharan Das, a former top corporate executive, wrote in his Sunday Times of India column of 9th March, 2008, that loan waiver was worth Rs 9,000 crore and, worse, the scheme killed most co-operatives and rural banks what with farmers stopping repayment of loans and banks stopping lending to them.
Clearly, Prof. Dandavate'sdebt relief turned out to be just a pain killer and not a cure for farmers? ills.
A striking proof of this phenomenon is the National Crime Records Bureau'sreport, Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India, 2006. It showed 1,66,304 farmers? suicides in a decade since 1997. Of these, 78,737 occurred between 1997 and 2001. The next five years, from 2002 to 2006, were worse, seeing 87,567 farmers? suicides. Thus, there had been one farmer'ssuicide every 30 minutes since 2002! Add the tragedies in the last couple of years, and the figure for the last decade will surely go above 2,00,000! This humongous quantum of human self-deaths in just about one decade has led to the coinage of the cruel phrase ??SEZ? or (Farmers) ?Special Elimination Zone? states comprising Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh (including Chhattisgarh)?states which account for nearly two-third of all farm suicides in the country.
It was curious, therefore, that, despite the experience of the 1990 scheme, over a lakh of farmers bid farewell to 2007 by sinking their loan documents in the sea at Rameswaran and took an oath to finish their longstanding indebtedness by the end of 2008. They wanted karjmukti because they were convinced that the loans are both illegal and immoral, caused as they are by the anti-farmer policies of the government, right from the time of Independence.
They believed that the government gave loans through credit institutions, on the one hand, and, on the other, depressed agriculture prices, making it impossible for the farmers to repay the loans. While getting remunerative prices for their produce was good for the future, the backlog of accumulated loans and interest had to be cleared first to prevent a ?chicken and egg? problem.
They believed that even the aggregate amount owed by the farmers to the credit institutions represents only a fraction of the losses caused by the government to the farmers. Cited in support was the data on agricultural subsidies submitted by the Commerce Ministry to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) wherein the government had admitted that under a system of negative Aggregate Measurement of Support (subsidies) Indian farmers suffered a loss of Rs 1,13,000 crore in one single year of 1996-97.
Sharad Joshi, Founder, Shetkari Sanghathana, and Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) had expressed the belief then that if the forthcoming budget does not make clear provisions for write-offs of farmers? loans, there was likelihood of a farmers? revolt.
So, now that the UPA government has announced its mega loan waiver, can we expect a happy kisan nation of some nine million households?
Impossible?as long as Joshi and his flock look upon New Delhi as their mai baap with state governments playing the ayah.
The brunt of all official programmes for agriculture in our country all these years has revolved on the union government'sannual budget allocations for it. Rarely has the focus been on what the states of our federal government have done, are doing and want to do for agriculture in their region. And my own ten-year experience till 2000 of cultivating a four-acre plot in a tribal village in Thane district of Maharashtra brought home the truth.
Right from the securing foolproof land ownership papers, there were problems galore. There was no local government help for (i) soil testing to determine the crop pattern for the hitherto hillock land and (ii) digging a bore well in the absence of any irrigation facility. Obtaining an electricity connection was a pain. Digging a well mechanically, buying a submersible pump and installing it, securing quality saplings of mango, cashew nut and coconut recommended by a horticulturist, installing a drip irrigation system, fencing the farm?all needed visits to places miles away.
Problems never ceased. Water from the well stopped when electricity stopped for days for reasons varying from carbon on the supply line to the farm to heavy rains and gusty winds. No local guidance was available for use of fertilizers and for curing plant diseases; spray insecticides recommended by the horticulturist were expensive; plumbing help involved 19 kilometres travel, and the required cow dung in truckloads had to be brought from 50-90 kilometres away.
And when, by God'sgrace, excellent fruit crops were reaped, no local market was available. None from the government office came to see what had become ?the talk of the town?. But government inspectors did often come to find fault and issue notices of summons. Bringing the crop by vehicle to Mumbai several times a year suddenly became a problem at the octroi point. Some government fiat wanted fruits and vegetables to enter Mumbai limits only via an agricultural market entailing a detour of some 30 kilometres.
It was economically and mentally frustrating. I had to sell what was developed with love and sweat and a heavy dip into savings.
So what had lakhs of crores allocated by the central government over several Five-Year Plans achieved? What had the state government done?
Precious little. Sadly, this has been generally true all over the country. And it has been so because everyone concerned has gone against the provisions of our nation'sConstitution.
There'sbeen disregard for Schedule Seven to Article 246 delienating the subjects falling under the jurisdiction of the union and the states. Believe it or not, ?Agriculture, including agricultural education and research, protection against pests and prevention of plant diseases?, ?irrigation and canals?, ?water storage and water power?, ?land improvement and agricultural loans??all these are exclusively under what is known as the ?State List?.
Truly has the union been the surrogate mother of the nation'sagriculture for five decades? Till the real mother takes much greater responsibility and shows commitment to its child, loan waivers will just be pain killers. A permanent cure lies only in the hands of each state of our federation.
(The writer is a noted social scientist and author can be contacted at Flat 202 Dosti Erica, Dosti Acres Complex, Antop Hill Wadala (E), Mumbai 400 037, E-mail: [email protected])