The notice board of the Sultan Bathery branch of Kerala’s mighty State Bank of Travancore (SBT) looks similar to that of notice boards in police stations displaying mug shots of wanted criminals. On the board, are pinned several pictures of small-scale and medium-scale farmers with a screaming headline which marks them as those who are ‘cheating’ the bank. According to the bank staff, this public humiliation is the latest ‘strategy’ of the new branch manager, MK Snehajan, to shame defaulters.
Sultan Bathery is a part of the backward Wayanad district which, like Vidharbha and Anantapur, has seen a high number of farmer suicides in the last two decades. Instead of providing respite from private money lenders and local landlords, who have exploited farmers for centuries by their oppressive loan recovery tactics, these nationalised banks are adding to the woes of the farmers in the region.
Such humiliation and harassment cannot possibly be a part of any loan recovery strategy. The issue was brought to the attention of the main branch of the SBT but to no effect. Snehajan is not ready to relent. According to him, defaulters among farmers are wilful cheaters who have diverted loans for meeting wedding expenses and the educational needs of their children.
“It was in the year 2004 that 130 farmers committed suicide in Wayanad, mainly because of harassment by crazy managers of nationalised banks,” says K Narayanan, a social activist from Mananthavady. “The number has gone down in the following years, not because of any improvement in the living standards of farmers but only because of stiff resistance from farmer organisations against recovery measures. The once powerful Farmers Relief Forum (FRF), led by its firebrand leader AC Varkey, physically prevented bank managers from harassing families of farmers. Now the FRF is weak and recovery specialists in banks are violating all rules for legal recovery to harass and torment farmers,’’ he adds.
The SBT promises incentives to managers who can ensure maximum debt collections. Therefore, managers like Snehajan have undertaken questionable methods of debt collection.
Last week, a Palakkadbased journalist visited the SBT branch in Sultan Bathery. He saw the photographs of the ‘wanted farmers’ on the notice board and clicked pictures of it from his mobile phone. This infuriated the manager who ordered the bank security to seize the mobile phone. When the journalist challenged the manager to hand him over to the police, the manager backtracked.
Mangers harassing farmers has become a commonplace thing. “Last month, a bank manager came to my house and showered abuses at me for not paying the borrowed loan,” says S Sarojiniyamma (name changed), a farmer from Kallur near Muthanga. “She said that I had built my house by cheating the bank. I pleaded with her that I would repay the debt once we get a better harvest but she continued abusing me,’’ she adds.
Echome Gopi of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) says that the authorities are conveniently forgetting the fact that even nationalised banks are pushing farmers to suicide. “It was not long ago that Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh found failed love affairs, dowry disputes and impotency as reasons for farmer suicides. Nationalised banks have gone a step ahead of even private money lenders with their debt collection methods,” says Gopi.
Farmers contacted by TEHELKA have also named other banks such as Canara Bank and the Kerala Grameen Bank, which adopt similar methods for harassing farmers. It is one of the reasons why suicide attempts by farmers are on the rise in the region. Kerala’s much hyped Debt Relief Comission is also failing the indebted farmers because of its lacklustre attitude. “It is true that certain farmers diverted agricultural loans to provide for the education of their children. They hoped that a good yield would help clear the loans easily. However crop failures and price instability have dashed their hopes,” says Gopi. But, should the consequence of this be strategised harassment and humiliation so that an already vulnerable group is pushed towards suicide? We need to ask this question to our national institutions.