The dried up Aghalaya lake. CM Kumaraswamy announced a  ₹213-crore package to fill up dried up lakes around Aghalaya after a local farmer recently committed suicide. Sharan Poovanna/Mint
The dried up Aghalaya lake. CM Kumaraswamy announced a 213-crore package to fill up dried up lakes around Aghalaya after a local farmer recently committed suicide. Sharan Poovanna/Mint

Loan waivers barely scratch the surface of rural distress in Karnataka

  • PM Modi’s direct transfer of 6,000 per acre per year, for all farmers is yet to reach the drought-hit Aghalaya village
  • Successive governments have been easily drawn into capital intensive, big-ticket irrigation projects that have not proven to be very successful in mitigating the effect of drought

An infant, no more than a year old, chuckles while playing with anything he can lay his hands on, rolling and tumbling on the cool red-oxide floors in the dimly lit hall. Three old women stare emptily at the child, whose laughter is unable to lift the spirits in the house that has just witnessed a death.

Suresh, a 48-year-old farmer in Aghalaya village, a hamlet of around 1,000 people in Mandya district of Karnataka, took his own life, unable to cope with rising debt and lack of water to grow crops on his modest one acre holding.

In a video recording, discovered after he was cremated, Suresh makes a heartfelt plea to Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy to fill the 188 acre Aghalaya lake that last had water almost a decade ago and now is plush green but has no water.

News channels were quick to play up the video and Kumaraswamy rushed to speak with the family and announced a 213 crore package to fill dried up lakes around Aghalaya. He also gave 5 lakh as compensation to the family and promised a government job to Suresh’s 29-year-old son, Chandrashekar.

“We had no idea that he had so much debt," said Chandrashekar, who drives a cab in Bengaluru. Chandrashekar is among thousands migrating to urban centres such as Bengaluru, which offer some source of livelihood.

The compensation given by the state government will be used to pay off part of the 10 lakh loan taken from informal sources, including friends and family. Only 50,000 had been waived off by the loan waiver announced by Kumaraswamy, raising questions about the efficacy of short term, ‘quick fix’ interventions as opposed to more sustainable and long-term steps to deal with the deepening agrarian crisis across India and in drought-hit Karnataka.

More than 30% of all finance has been provided by informal sources in Karnataka, of which moneylenders, who charge anywhere between 35% and 60% interest, are the biggest players, according to a February 2019 report by the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC) for the Reserve Bank of India.

“It takes about 2-3 lakh to cultivate one acre of land for a year. We have limited access to institutional credit and are forced to borrow from all possible sources," said 48-year-old Ganesh of the same village.

Aghalaya, like most other villages in Karnataka, and India, has been unable to free itself from the tightening grip of the agrarian crisis fuelled by failing rains, plummeting crop prices, lack of guaranteed income, excessive pressure on land, shortage of water and rising debt.

Successive governments have been easily drawn into capital intensive, big-ticket irrigation projects that have not proven to be very successful in mitigating the effect of drought. Karnataka’s irrigation budget has registered an average annual growth of about 6% from 1,600 crore to 16,000 crore, from 2002 to 2016-17, while area under irrigation has risen from around 2.45 million hectares (ha) to around 3.1 million ha, government data shows. Farmers have thus had to depend on failing rains.

Political parties have been quick to announce waivers, but few have come up with long-term solutions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s direct transfer of 6,000 per acre per year, for all farmers is yet to reach Aghalaya.

“We don’t want their money. Give us water and good prices," said a woman of the village.

Ganesh said he had to sell tomatoes for 7 per kilo but has to pay 25 for a bottle of water. “There is no water. We bathe once in 20 days," he said. Exploitative measures such as digging borewells, most of which fail, have only added to farmer debt.

“We are not agnostic to their problems and give them legitimate ways to end existing loans," said a senior bank official, asking not to be named. Fearing a backlash, some banks have stopped issuing notices in Mandya and have instructed their staff to make personal visits or phone calls to the debtor and enquire about the loan, without making it seem like a recovery effort.

For now, Aghayala has something better to hope for though it came at a hefty price, with Suresh’s video forcing authorities to act. “My brother committed suicide in 2008. No one came then nor did we get anything. At least now, we hope this stops," Ganesh said.

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