The Congress is looking at Bundelkhand as the base camp from which to conquer UP. Brijesh Pandey finds out that it is corruption and not drought that the party should target
WELCOME TO a land in utter neglect. Where collusion between God and government ensures that farmers are just one step away from death. Rarely do you meet so many people, so ready to die. Here, every family is more wretched than the last. And every death a slap on the idea of a 21st century India.
There are good reasons why Rahul Gandhi has toured Bundelkhand 3-4 times in the past three years, the last time being end-April. And also good reasons why firsttime MP from Jhansi, Pradeep Jain, 48, was made a MOS for rural development in the Union Cabinet. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has travelled to Banda and made big-ticket relief announcements
If the Congress can bring development to the region — not on paper, but on the ground — it will reap a rich harvest of votes. Right now, the party has only three Assembly seats out of 21 from Bundelkhand. The Samajwadi Party has long had a negative profile here. And people are fed up with the BSP. When Mayawati demanded a Rs 82,000 crore package for the region, the Planning Commission responded by pointing out that when Rs 800 crore was given to UP, it utilised only Rs 71 crore.
As elsewhere in India, this region’s indebted farmers too have been committing suicide. Together, as on 31 March, more than 1.2 lakh small and marginal farmers have outstanding agricultural loans of Rs 740 crore. They were unable to pay Rs 450 crore to banks in the last financial year.
There is piquancy in the fact that corruption is so entrenched and the place is such a backwater that much of the Rs 7,266 crore relief package is not being utilised or is being siphoned off. Ordinary people are not being uplifted by development but are exploited and cheated in new ways, and political parties don’t have enough of a grassroots presence to stem the rot.
And the rot goes deep. Take the case of Shyam Singh, 29, who hanged himself to death at his home in Gajapati Ghurkala village, Banda district on 25 June. In the week before his death, he was depressed, haunted by the Rs 66,000 loan taken by his mother Deshwati via Kisan Credit Card from State Bank of India (SBI), Attara, in September 2009. Due to the drought-like situation, they could not pay the dues. The bank issued a notice asking them to pay Rs 48,000 by 30 June. Shyam was disturbed by the letter’s tone, shocked at the prospect of his land being auctioned. After agonising over how make the repayment, he saw the futility of it all and ended his life.
One more farmer was thus added to an already shocking list of about 520 dead in Bundelkhand this year alone. Ironically, this happened 13 days after the Allahabad High Court asked the Central and state governments to furnish details of how Rs 7,622 crore was spent on the 13 districts that form Bundelkhand. It also laid down that no dues be collected and no notices given to farmers for loan realisation.
The suicide of Munshi of Garha village is another example. On 18 May, his daughter Suman and son-in-law Ashok had come to visit him. Munshi, who had already taken a loan of Rs 50,000 for the marriage of his daughter, was completely broke at the time — he could not even offer a meal to the couple. He tried, in vain, to borrow food or money. Then, out of sheer shame, he committed suicide. His father Suraji is now a broken man. He gives a wry smile when asked about the thousands of crores of relief offered to the region. “Must have gone to God as we can’t see even a paisa of it,” says Suraji.
The further you travel into the droughthit and debt-ridden districts of Banda, Mahoba, Hamirpur, Jhansi and Chitrakoot and listen to the woes of farmers, one thing becomes clear. More than drought, it is the debt dragnet that is killing the farmers. If lack of rain was the enemy before, tractors are the mascot of death now. According to the villagers, it is the vice-like grip of bank touts and tractor manufacturers that is driving them to the point of no return. On paper, there are several relief measures, but their execution leaves a lot to be desired.
Take the Centre’s Agriculture Debt Waiver and Debt Relief Scheme formulated in 2008. To help farmers facing both drought and debt, the finance minister announced three terms of eligibility for debt waiver relief: that the loans should have been disbursed between 31 March 1997 and 31 March 2007; that they should have become overdue on 31 December 2007; that they remained unpaid until 29 February 2008.
Under this scheme, farmers holding less than 5 acres of land would be considered small farmers and their whole debt would be waived. In the case of landholding of more than 5 acres, the debt waiver would be 25 percent. While the scheme sounded like a real cushion for small farmers, the implementation part was found wanting on many fronts.
Indrapal Tiwari, a small farmer of of Khurhand village in Atarra district, is a victim of this system. In 2004, Tiwari was told by bank officers and touts that if he bought a tractor, it would revolutionise his farming. Lured by the prospect of a better future, he took a loan of Rs 2.87 lakh to buy a tractor. His first shock came when, instead of a brand new tractor, he was given a second-hand one. When he tried to complain, he was threatened by goons. Later, because of the drought, he was not able to pay his dues. In 2006, with the help of Sahay Associates, a collection agency, the SBI seized his tractor and auctioned it for Rs 1.99 lakh. It also sent a recovery notice to the tehsil for recovery of the outstanding amount of Rs 1.88 lakh on 4 July 2007.
When the debt waiver scheme came into force, Indrapal found he was eligible for complete waiver and applied for a waiver of Rs 1.88 lakh. However, he was told that the outstanding against him was only Rs 543 and that amount has been credited to his account. Somehow, he still owes the bank Rs 1.88 lakh.
Indrapal wrote to the district magistrate (DM), Banda, about his plight. He forwarded the complaint to the bank on 8 June 2010. After a month, the lead bank cell wrote back that as per its calculation, the outstanding against Indrapal was only 543 and that has been settled. The letter did make a mention of the recovery notice send to the tehsil but it did not elaborate why it does not come under the debt waiver scheme. Indrapal has written to various officials narrating his plight, but no answer has been forthcoming. He seems caught between the loan sharks and his dry fields, with his outstanding amount pocketed by somebody in the system.
ON 17 MAY, relief came for Parshuram Lodhi of Puraini village, when the court ordered a registration of case against bank officials for forcibly seizing his tractor, bought with a loan from SBI in 2006. However, due to a series of bad crops, he was not able to repay his debt on time.
When TEHELKA approached AK Dixit, the lead bank officer of Banda district, he said he is not authorised to talk to the media. The assistant general manager of the lead bank cell, Muktinath Patel, claimed he was not aware of this particular case but his bank strictly follows the guidelines laid down by the RBI and the Centre.
Pushpendra Bhai, a social activist, laughs at the reply. “Don’t take my word for it,” he says. “Please go to every household of Bundelkhand that is burdened by debt and please ask why they bought tractors at all. They will tell you how bank officials and touts convinced them tractors would change their lives forever.”
Once the farmer, already reeling under drought, succumbs, he is done for life. Money is paid to touts by banks, no loan is issued without the customary ‘cut’ to the bank officers and if there is any delay in repayments, his tractor is picked up with the help of goons. There has been some improvement after the courts issued guidelines against such forced seizures but by and large the situation remains unchanged.
To top it all, until now, cash relief measures have been nothing but a cruel joke. Farmers were initially given cheques worth Rs 15-20, which later on went up to a princely sum of Rs 250, conveniently overlooking the fact that just to cash the cheque, they would need to open a bank account. The amount increased to Rs 1,000. Travesty of justice is in the distribution of the Rs 1,000.
On 6 December 2007, Umesh Sinha, Secretary Relief, sent a letter to all DMs of UP that as per the new order, bearer cheques would be issued for amounts less than Rs 1,000. For amounts more than that, account payee cheques would be issued. It is the responsibility of the DM to ensure that the cheque is given only to the legitimate recipient. He also stated that gazetted officers in charge of distribution will be held responsible for bearer cheques.
Within months, it came to notice that crores had been bungled in drought relief fund distribution, managed under account 14283 by Mau Tehsildar Dhirendra Kumar. He insisted his deputy Kishorilal was the authorised signatory. On 13 May 2008, Kishorilal informed the tehsildar that his signature on the cheques were forged.
CASES OF fraud are also commonplace. Girdhar, a farmer from Chitrakoot, approached the court against the tehsildar and two others in a case operating out of account 2033 at Triveni Bank. The court found merit in his petition and on 15 November 2010, it asked for an FIR to be registered. Despite the order, no FIR was registered. Girdhar moved court again asking for the initiation of contempt proceedings against the circle officer (CO).
As on 31 March, more than 1.2 lakh small and marginal farmers in Bundelkhand have outstanding agricultural loans of Rs 740 crore
What the CO told the court unravelled the mystery of how the relief fund has been handled till now. According to his statement before the court on 7 April, the CO said that he had registered a case against several people, after which chargesheets against Virendra Singh Lekhpal, Munnu Singh Lekhpal and Mohd Khan have been filed. But he could not move against the tehsildar, his deputy and VK Mishra, senior branch manager of Allahabad Bank, as he had no official sanction. On 13 April, the court said he should file an FIR based on the complaint given by Girdhar.
A senior administrative officer, on condition of anonymity explains: “Cases like these are examples of how funds are fudged and how relief meant for farmers is usually siphoned off at the tehsil level. Instead of pumping in more funds, effort should be made to ensure that whatever has been allocated reaches the right people. Our biggest problem is that the pipe leaks so much that when the water (relief ) reaches the farmers, it’s not even a trickle.” He strongly feels that the government shouldn’t dole out more money, it should instead ensure implementation.
Another big area of concern for Bundelkhand is the scam in tree plantation and mining. Though crores of rupees are routinely spent in tree plantation, in 2008- 09, the UP government thought up a special plantation scheme: to plant 10 crore saplings to improve water conservation, rainwater conservation and the overall environment to benefit the whole region.
The aim was noble; unfortunately, the implementation wasn’t. This time the government was extra careful to ensure that maximum plantation was done, therefore they appointed various monitoring committees. One such committee was headed by PK Singh. “When we went there, the biggest problem we faced was that we couldn’t make out which saplings were new,” he says. “After a great deal of trouble when we finally finished the counting, it was not more than 50 percent of the target. Cost of maintaining one plant was close to Rs 600, so you can imagine how much money was siphoned off.”
This report was sent to the DM and the state government but nothing happened. It’s the same story every year.
On condition of anonymity, a senior forest officer says: “About half the money is siphoned off. If even 50 percent of plantation had been successful, this region would have been Harit (Green) Pradesh. If the government is serious about saving Bundelkhand, just declare it a no-go area where mining and felling of trees will not be permitted.”
SINGH GIVES an example. Trees as old as 100 years were felled to make way for the Hamirpur-Kanpur stretch of NH-76, but there was no effort to plant new saplings. “Every year there is big project, big money,” he says. “When we inspected a PWD project, untrained people were planting trees. Go to jungles, you will find thousands of plant dried up for want of water and thousand of saplings floating in dams. The government could have easily paid farmers and they would have taken such wonderful care of plants that we might have scripted one of the biggest environment revolutions, and would have helped them financially.”
‘People are fed up with Mayawati’s governance. Her bureaucracy does nothing. The time for youth has come,’ says Kishor, a student
Water scarcity is a perennial problem of this region. The government has not helped matters either. “Chakbandi (land distribution scheme) is one of the biggest reasons of losing on water conservation. Several crores are being mindlessly spent to make new ‘model’ takes. The government should spend more money to revive old lakes and wells instead of just installing tubewells,” says Pushpendra Bhai.
It is this situation that Rahul Gandhi, who the Congress has positioned as saviour of Bundelkhand, is trying to exploit. While most people TEHELKA interviewed felt that the Congress scion is trying his level best, some felt that more effort is required. Ravi Kishor, a student of Bundelkhand University, feels that Rahul’s efforts will show results in next year’s election. “People are fed up with Mayawati’s style of governance. Her bureaucracy does nothing while peoIt is this situation that Rahul Gandhi, who the Congress has positioned as saviour of Bundelkhand, is trying to exploit. While most people TEHELKA interviewed felt that the Congress scion is trying his level best, some felt that more effort is required. Ravi Kishor, a student of Bundelkhand University, feels that Rahul’s efforts will show results in next year’s election. “People are fed up with Mayawati’s style of governance. Her bureaucracy does nothing while people die. How many times has Mayawati visited us? The time for the youth has come,” he says
A local Congress functionary, on condition of anonymity, says despairingly, “Where is the party infrastructure to corner the government? When we are not able to tell the people of this region about the kind of work Congress is doing or trying to do for Bundelkhand, how can you expect us to corner the BSP?”
Ordinary people echo this sentiment. Like Purushottam Singh of Hamirpur, who says, “I know Rahul can’t come every day and enquire about our well-being but surely his men can. They are hardly visible.”
So the party will have to match the energy and ambition of its leader. If only to save the people of Bundelkhand from worse exploitation and more misery.
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.