Mumbai: When Maharashtra’s mega farm loan waiver was announced in June, it was initially planned to help 8.9 million indebted farmers. This was later wound down to cover 5.6 million farmers. Five months on, it has managed to reach just 1.7 million.

State minister for co-operation Subhash Deshmukh said on Tuesday that the state government has released Rs10,332 crore to banks for more than 1.7 million farmers. Of this, banks have scrutinized 943,000 accounts and had deposited Rs5,143 crore in those accounts till 5 December afternoon, Deshmukh said at the Mantralaya or state secretariat.

The minister, whose department of co-operation is the main government agency implementing the loan waiver, admitted to delays and problems in reaching the benefits to eligible farmers. “But we have been able to sort out most of the problems that cropped up at the initial stages and now, the implementation has gathered pace. Each day, more than one lakh farmers are getting the benefits transferred to their accounts. We will soon cover all eligible farmers," Deshmukh said.

He heads a ministerial sub-committee formed by chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to implement the loan waiver. Announced on 24 June by Fadnavis after an unprecedented farmers’ strike in Ahmednagar, Nashik, and Western Maharashtra, the Rs34,022 crore farm loan waiver has had a bumpy ride. Fadnavis called the loan waiver “a historic" one for its scale. To be sure, the online application system—which asked the farmers to quote their bank account numbers and Aadhaar—helped the state government weed out nearly 2 million bogus accounts. The government also discovered another 1.5 million names of farmers who did not meet the eligibility criteria—some of these were found not exclusively dependent on farming and some were ineligible government employees or elected representatives.

Finally, the multiple levels of scrutiny applied by government departments identified 5.6 million eligible applicants who quoted 7.7 million bank accounts. After the government announced 18 October as the day when the first list of 1 million farmers would get the benefits in their accounts, even this list showed serious discrepancies. The government, including Fadnavis, blamed banks for lack of due diligence.

A senior government official associated with the image-building exercise of the government, admitted to the “great amount of negativity" over loan waiver implementation.

The official added, “An inefficient bureaucracy and banks, especially the co-operative banks, have let the scheme down. It was good to have the farmers apply themselves but even those farmers applied who were debarred by the rider we have put in. Since more than 10 million farmers applied and the final eligibility count was revised to 5.6 million, there obviously were thousands of farmers who took part in the process even though they knew that they would not meet the parameters. The exercise to determine the eligible beneficiaries took a long time," said the official, requesting anonymity.

Opposition parties in Maharashtra and even Bharatiya Janata Party ally in government Shiv Sena have already made the loan waiver scheme a political issue ahead of the winter session of the state legislature beginning 11 December at Nagpur. While Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has said that he has stopped trusting the government’s claims and figures about loan waiver, senior Congress leader and former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan has written to the Reserve Bank of India governor Urjit Patel demanding an inquiry into the role of banks in thwarting the implementation.

Senior leaders of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) including former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, Baramati MP Supriya Sule and leader of the opposition in the state legislative council Dhananjay Munde are leading farmers’ protests in Vidarbha. On December 12, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who turns 77 that day, would lead a joint Congress-NCP protest march to the legislature building in Nagpur, demanding a blanket loan waiver without riders, purchase of farm produce at the minimum support price, and direct financial assistance to cotton farmers whose crop has been damaged by pink boll-worm infestation.

A BJP minister, who did not want to be named, said the NCP had “smartly" chosen Vidarbha as the ground of its protest since Fadnavis hailed from the region and the farm loan waiver was projected as providing greater benefit to farmers in the backward regions of Vidarbha and Marathwada as compared to Western Maharashtra.

“Two recent developments -- the instances of pesticide poisoning and pink boll-worm attack on cotton -- have also been reported from Vidarbha. We do not yet have the regional break-up of farmers who have received the loan waiver benefits, but it is obvious from the available data that the initial expectation that farmers in Vidarbha would benefit more has not been met so far. For the opposition, this has created a fertile ground for protest ahead of the session," said the BJP minister.

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