Mumbai: Five months after a Rs34,022-crore farm loan waiver, farmers continue to take their lives in Maharashtra. As per the data reported by the six divisional commissionerates across the state, 2,414 farmer suicides were reported in the state between 1 January and 31 October.
The Amravati division, which accounts for five districts in Vidarbha, reported the highest number—907—followed by the Aurangabad division in Marathwada with 789. Vidarbha and Marathwada, which together account for 19 of the total 36 districts in Maharashtra, are the two regions whose severe agrarian crisis prompted the farm loan waiver. But ministers, farm sector experts, and activists say bureaucratic bottlenecks and technical snags have hampered the implementation of the scheme, aggravating the crisis.
A minister, who did not want to be named, admitted that the government departments tasked with the implementation “had let the scheme down".
“One thing is absolutely clear about this farm loan waiver, which is that the government staff and bankers are not going to make money since there is not going to be any pilferage. But just as the online system has bared several problems and bogus accounts, it has also caused delays. Since there is no money to be made, there is no incentive for government staff and bank officials, especially the cooperative banks, to speed up the implementation," the minister said.
Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis announced the farm loan waiver on 24 June, which he claimed would benefit 8.9 million farmers, a figure based on the farm loan data from the State Level Bankers’ Committee (SLBC). But the online application system coupled with Aadhaar identification helped banks and the government weed out nearly 2 million names. The final list of eligible beneficiaries the government drew up has 5.6 million farmers.
Implementation began on 18 October with the government announcing that it would transfer the benefit directly into the accounts of nearly 1 million farmers on a single day. However, the rollout exposed new problems. In some cases, the Aadhaar number given was wrong, while in some other cases, identical Aadhar numbers were given by several farmers. The government could transfer benefits to only 2.5 lakh farmers.
On 25 November, Fadnavis said the government had transferred around Rs6,500 crore to the bank accounts of more than 1.5 million farmers so far.
Farm sector experts and activists say the agrarian distress persists despite the loan waiver because the core concerns—better remunerative prices for the farm produce, timely access to formal credit, protection against risks and price crashes, and social and financial security to cover for medical expenses—are not being addressed.
“The farmer suicides are symptomatic of a deeper malaise in the farm economy of not only Maharashtra but most other states. It would be unfair to blame this government alone for the suicides since the agrarian crisis is an accumulation of wrong strategies and mistakes made over a long period of time. But a better implementation of loan waiver would have helped," said a farm sector expert who did not wish to be named.
Of the 2,414 farm suicides reported till October end, the government has identified 1,277 cases as “eligible" for ex-gratia financial assistance. Of these, relatives of 1,246 farmers have already been given the assistance of Rs1 lakh each. The government has rejected financial assistance in 728 cases terming them “ineligible" and another 409 cases are being probed further.
“The farm suicide cases are probed using the parameters determined by the government. What we look at is whether a suicide has been committed directly due to agrarian distress or otherwise. Other reasons like ill-health, depression, failure to arrange daughter’s marriage which are fairly routine causes of suicides do not get counted as agrarian distress," said an official from the relief and rehabilitation department which compiles the data, on condition of anonymity.
In 2016, Maharashtra reported 3,052 farm suicides. The two years preceding 2016 saw a total of around 7,000 farm suicides. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), between 1995 and 2013, Maharashtra reported 60,750 farmer suicides. “There was a spike in farm suicides in 2016 and early part of this year because of issues like lack of better remunerative prices for farm produce despite record high yield compounded pre-existing problems like indebtedness, drought, crop failure, and social as well as medical expenses that farmers have to incur," said an official at the department of agriculture requesting anonymity.
To be sure, when Fadnavis announced the farm loan waiver, he had said that while it would provide temporary relief, it was unlikely to stop the farmer suicides.
Vidarbha-based farm activist Vijay Jawandhiya said the farm loan waiver has not yet made the desired impact because the government was not addressing the core concerns.
“Cotton farmers are selling the crop for Rs4,300-4,500 per quintal this year, a drop of nearly Rs1,000 per quintal compared to the price last year. Better minimum support prices for the farm produce is the real concern for farmers. In Gujarat, since the BJP is fighting an important election, the BJP government there has declared a bonus for cotton growers over and above the MSP. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has still not kept the promise he made during the election campaign in 2014 that farmers across India would be paid an MSP which factored in an additional payment of 50% over the MSP as profit. Measures like loan waiver are a short-term oxygen and necessary but the core concern is making farming profitable," Jawandhiya said.
He added that the suicides are continuing because farmers are losing faith in Modi’s intent to deliver. “Farmers had lost their faith in Manmohan Singh and hence they elected Modi with great hopes. But their faith in Modi is also dwindling now and that is why the suicides continue," Jawandhiya said.