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Centre preparing biggest-ever agriculture debt relief package

Centre preparing biggest-ever agriculture debt relief package

Mumbai: The Union government is planning the largest farm-loan relief package in the country’s history—totalling at least Rs32,000 crore—and proposals to this effect will be unveiled when the Union Budget is presented on 29 February.

The package, which could end up totalling as much as Rs90,000 crore depending on the final shape of the proposals, is at the core of efforts by the ruling United Progressive Alliance and its largest constituent, the Congress party, to revive Indian agriculture—and hopefully ride back to power in elections due in about a year.

People familiar with the process of creating the package say it will have several components—from a waiver of interest on some loans to the complete writing off of not just stressed assets (or bad loans) but even those loans that have been rescheduled.

As on 30 March 2007, the exposure of commercial banks to the agriculture sector was Rs2.3 trillion. The total value of agricultural loans could be to the tune of Rs3.62 trillion, including loans of cooperative banks and regional rural banks (RRBs).

The UPA came to power in May 2004 riding a promise of a “new deal for rural India" by increasing investment in agriculture and stepping up credit flow to farmers.

Commercial banks have non-performing agricultural loans of more than Rs7,500 crore. However, cooperative banks and RRBs, major dispensers of farm loans, have larger non-performing assets (NPAs) related to agriculture, and industry estimates put overall NPAs in the sector at around Rs31,000 crore. And at least another Rs30,000 crore worth of farm loans have been rescheduled thus far under various schemes. Loans that have not turned into NPAs but are “overdue" for repayment add up to another Rs40,000 crore. The government plans to address this chunk of more than Rs1 trillion of farm loans through its relief package.

Any package aimed at the agriculture sector has significant political ramifications, especially given that the UPA government could choose to go to the polls before the end of its five-year term. That means, Budget 2008-09 could well be this government’s last. The previous government, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, lost the last elections after running a high voltage “India Shining" campaign that backfired in rural India.

The exact contours of the scheme are still evolving but people associated with it are emphatic that it will not require banks to make a huge sacrifice. While there will be interest waivers and write-offs, the government will bear the burden by making a budgetary provision for these and RBI will monitor the entire process. It will pass on the money to individual banks on the firm understanding that they will extend fresh loans to farmers. “There will be no compromise on this," said one expert who has been consulted on this. Currently, farmers get small loans up to Rs2 lakh at a concessional rate of 7% but government offers 2% subsidy on such loans to banks through RBI.

“Banks may have to forego a small part of their exposure to the sector which (has) turned bad and for which they have already made provisions," the expert said. The other critical feature of the package will be a nominal amount (it could be 10% or more) that borrowers will have to pay as a precondition to have their loans written off. Finally, there will be a cut-off point for farm loans to be eligible for such benefits. “The entire process will be transparent," said a government official who did not wish to be identified.

Timing of the package

This is not the first time the Indian government has doled out concessions to farmers in the Budget but what makes the planned package unique is its magnitude. In 1989, the Janata Dal government, a coalition of several parties representing socially underprivileged and lower castes and farmers, floated the first ever agriculture loan write-off scheme. A brainchild of the then deputy prime minister and minister of agriculture Devi Lal, the Agriculture and Rural Debt Relief (ARDR) Scheme, 1990, waived loans up to Rs10,000 issued to farmers, landless cultivators, artisans and weavers by state run banks. Till 1992, more than 44 million farmers benefited from this scheme to the tune of Rs6,000 crore.

By law, Indian banks are required to allocate to agriculture 18% of the amount they give out as loans. Those banks that fail to meet this target have the option of investing the shortfall in the Rural Infrastructure Development Fund (RIDF), managed by Nabard. In 2004-05, India’s finance minister P. Chidambaram exhorted banks to increase agricultural loans and asked them to double the quantum of such loans in three years. Over the past two years, till 2006-07, the number of agricultural loans rose by 36.4% and the amount loaned by close to 80%.

However, these measures have proved insufficient and the indebtedness of farmers has grown on account of rising input costs and low returns. Between 2001 and 2005, 86,922 farmers committed suicide; of this number, 54% were from four states—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra. The suicide rate among male farmers rose from 12.3 per 100,000 in 1996 to 18.2 in 2005. And incidence of farmers’ suicides in these four states between 2001 and 2005 were far higher than the national average of 17.5.

Immediately after coming to power, in June 2004, the UPA government rescheduled about Rs20,000 crore worth of farm loans. It asked banks to add overdue interest to the principal amount and recover the money in five years with a two-year moratorium.

Again, in July 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a relief package for distressed farmers in 31 districts across Andhra Pradesh (16 districts), Karnataka (six districts), Kerala (three districts) and Maharashtra (six districts). The total package was worth Rs16,978.69 crore— Rs10,579.43 crore as subsidy and Rs6,399.26 crore as loan. The critical component of the package was the waiver of interest on overdue loans up to July 2006 to the tune of Rs2,718 crore. This was shared equally between the Centre and the states. The government also rescheduled overdue loans to the tune of Rs9,052 crore over a period of three to five years with a one-year moratorium. And commercial banks gave fresh credit commitments over Rs20,000 crore to these affected districts.

“The first instalment of loans rescheduled in 2004 and 2006 would be due by the end of the current fiscal year after the moratorium period is over but the farmers are in no position to pay," said an agricultural banker, explaining the motive behind the planned relief package.

Lagging industry

The government’s concern over farm loans is understandable in the context of a sharp decline in the share of agriculture in India’s gross domestic product (GDP), from 41% in 1971-72 to 19.6% in 2005-06 and an estimated 18.5% in 2006-07 and 17.47% in 2007-08. However, in terms of employment, agriculture’s share has declined, but much more gradually, from 73.9% in 1972-73 to 56.6% in 2004-05.

According to people familiar with the development, the relief package has taken into account recommendations of the Expert Group of Agriculture Indebtedness, chaired by R. Radhakrishna, director, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research. The group, created by the finance ministry in August 2006, submitted its report last year. The group’s recommendations include rescheduling of farm loans to all affected families, disbursement of fresh loans, and waiver of interest liability by up to two years for both short-term and long-term loans with the burden to be shared by the Union and state governments. The group also said that in the event of crop failure for one year, loans should be rescheduled and fresh loans made available. And should the crop fail for a second consecutive year, in addition to rescheduling of loans, interest for the extended year should be waived.

The group also recommended a one-time measure of providing long-term loans by banks to farmers to enable them to repay their debts to moneylenders.

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