Mumbai: Thanks but no thanks.
Gopal Gharkele, who has been growing cotton on his 3.5 acre farm, sums up his response to the farm loan waiver of ₹ 1.5 lakh that he finally received last month as thus. The farm loan waiver scheme was launched by the Maharashtra government in June last year following a farmers’ strike that quickly spread to other states.
“It’s a relief," Gharkele agrees, “but..."
But, 45-year-old Gharkele’s old troubles are not over. And new ones are unfolding. A loan he took to construct a well is still to be paid.
The well failed to yield water. Then, he must repay high-interest informal loans. He did not get a fresh bank loan this year. “I got a waiver now, but no new loan."
In Maharashtra, the farm loan waiver package has moved at a slow pace, placing farmers such as Gharkele in a spot. Eighteen months after announcing the farm loan waiver, the state has managed to waive ₹ 16,980 crore in crop loans and incentives to farmers who had repaid their loans on time, compared to ₹ 34,022 crore promised initially. More importantly, as farmers hopeful of a farm loan waiver stopped repayments, fresh credit issued by banks dropped significantly: banks disbursed less than ₹ 23,000 crore in crop loans compared to a target of ₹ 53,000 crore in the 2018 kharif season. So far, less than half (4.08 million) of the 9 million small and marginal farmers who availed bank loans benefited from the scheme. About eight million farmers had applied for the waiver.
Whatever they earned, Gharkele’s wife Rekha says, has gone into repaying private loans, including five small loans she took from different self-help groups. Now, she says, they will have to find work to run the family for the next seven months, until the 2019 kharif season arrives with the monsoon rains.
“We may have to borrow more money over the next few months," she says, “if we do not find work here." Squatting on a mat in front of Gharkele’s modest house at Dorli village in Wardha district, fellow villagers say their financial challenges are growing. Last year, a devastating attack of pink bollworm damaged their cotton crop. The previous year, it was mayhem due to demonetisation. And this year—drought. In 2005, Dorli, a village of 350, put itself up for sale to protest its inability to make ends meet, drawing national attention.
“I got neither a waiver, nor a fresh loan," butts in Pandit Shankar Mohite, a septuagenarian who farms on 2.5 acres of unirrigated land and owes banks ₹ 1.4 lakh. “I don’t know my status," he says. “Bank won’t tell me." Mohite’s troubles compounded with a medical exigency: his grandson needed to be operated on for a kidney ailment, which meant that the old man had to go around begging to fund the surgery.
Says Dharampal Jarunde, a farmer and former sarpanch: “My son got a waiver of ₹ 57,000, but my mother and I haven’t—and while he got fresh loan from another bank, we did not get crop loans since the bank said both of us are defaulters and must clear old loans to be eligible for fresh loans."
In 2008, when the then United Progressive Alliance government announced a national farm loan waiver, Dorli’s peasant farmers got almost a 100% relief—all their outstanding crop and allied sector loans were waived. But by 2012, nearly half the villagers failed to repay their new loans again, following two successive years of drought and stagnant cotton prices. By 2014, where was a change of guard in New Delhi, the village was back to where it was before 2005, albeit with unpaid debts three-four times over. When the Devendra Fadnavis-led Bharatiya Janata Party government announced a farm loan waiver in 2017, there was renewed hope. Today, they are anguished.
Gharkele, Mohite and Jarunde highlight three different types of gaps in the much-trumpeted 2017 waiver scheme—named the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Shetkari Sanman Yojana—not only here, but also all over the state. Gharkele got his ₹ 1.5 lakh loan in a nationalized bank waived a year after he applied, but only after he paid the interest of ₹ 10,000. Mohite isn’t sure when he will get a farm loan waiver, if at all. The third person says his son got a waiver, but he remains a defaulter given that he has not repaid loans hoping that he would get the waiver benefit. That also meant Jarunde did not get fresh institutional credit in 2018.
Abha Shukla, principal secretary to the department of cooperation, Maharashtra, which is in charge of implementing the waiver, did not respond to calls seeking a comment.
Kishore Tiwari, an activist and chairman of a state government-appointed task force on farm distress, agrees that implementation of the scheme has been poor and hit the disbursal of fresh credit, forcing farmers to moneylenders’ doorstep. “Neither bureaucrats, nor the government took it seriously," Tiwari says.
The Maharashtra farm loan waiver was marred by the complexity of eligibility conditions and staggered payment of money from the government to the banks. Farmers stood with their spouses in long queues, filing digital applications for days during winter last year. Then they waited endlessly for the benefit. “I had to take my old mother on my motorcycle every day to fill up her application form," Jarunde says. “It took me four days to finish her application formalities in November 2017."
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“It’s a glaring pan-Maharashtra fallout of a badly implemented programme," says Ajit Nawale of the All India Kisan Sabha. “There is no clarity about next year’s (2019-20) loan disbursements." He says the actual benefit was half the first estimate as the terms excluded those who owned more than five acres and tenant farmers.
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“We have stopped waiting for the farm loan waiver," Jarunde says. There are bigger challenges ahead, he says. Maharashtra is in the throes of a biting drought: crop yields have dwindled, commodity prices are falling, drinking water woes are about to get worse, and distress migration has started from drought-hit areas of Marathwada, Vidarbha and western Maharashtra.