Maharashtra polls: In Wardha, farmers deadlocked by no loan waivers and no scope for fresh crop loans

Parth MN

Ramhari, 65, and Sita Bansod, 60, have a bank loan of Rs one lakh each. Both husband and wife are waiting to benefit from the Maharashtra government's farm loan waiver scheme. "Bank officials do not give a clear-cut answer," says Sita while cleaning wheat in the living room of her home in Waigaon village of Wardha district. "Sometimes they say it will happen. Sometimes they avoid meeting us. Unless we get a loan waiver, we cannot apply for a fresh crop loan," she adds.

Until recently, farmers in Wardha could avail of a crop loan without having to run from pillar to post. Under the supervision of the administration, every taluka would hold a crop loan fair. Each of the nationalised banks operating in the region would have a stall, and an official representing the bank would sit behind it. "Farmers could approach the stall with their bank account, and the bank representative would help them with a loan based on their previous transactions," says Avinash Kakade, a farm activist based in Wardha, "The village accountant would be present right there so they could get whatever land documents they needed on the spot. The bank representative would help farmers restructure old loans, and issue fresh ones."

Sita Bansod. Firstpost/Parth MN

Sita Bansod. Firstpost/Parth MN

The fair would take place every summer €" in April or May €" so the crop loans could be disbursed before the cropping season began by June or July. "It gave us enough time to buy inputs €" seeds, fertilisers and pesticides €" ahead of sowing," says Sita.

None of that happens today. "The fairs reduced after 2014," says Kakade, "And they have become rarer since 2017."

In the financial year of 2017-18, the agriculture credit disbursement halved from what was distributed the previous year, according to the May 2018 report of the State Level Bankers Committee (SLBC). The targeted crop loan disbursement for 2017-18 was Rs 54,221 crore, but the banks only managed to disburse Rs 25,322 crore, which is down 40 percent from the Rs 42,173 crore disbursed in 2016-17. Crop loans constitute a major part of agriculture credit.

The year 2018-19 saw marginally better disbursement of crop loans at Rs 31,237 crore, but still down from what it was in 2016-17.

To undo the credit crisis mushrooming over the past two years, in May 2019, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis okayed a Rs 87,000 crore credit plan for agriculture. For Wardha, the crop loan disbursement for the Kharif season was targeted at Rs 880 crore. But, the achievement stands at a dismal 36 percent as of 15 September, 2019. In the agrarian region of Vidarbha €" in which Wardha falls €" the disbursal is 41 percent, four points below the disappointing state-wide average of 45 percent.

Requesting anonymity, an official with Wardha's District Cooperative Bank says the bank officials at crop loan fairs would even inquire about farmers that did not apply for a crop loan. "The farmers would be asked if they have voluntarily opted out or if they are having trouble availing of a crop loan," he says, "The fairs meant farmers could raise capital when they needed it."

Wardha's District Cooperative Bank has not been disbursing crop loans since 2013. "The NPA is at 99 percent," notes the bank official, "But after 2017-18, the nationalised banks have also stopped disbursing crop loans."

The trigger was the announcement of the farm loan waiver. In June 2017, Fadnavis announced the "biggest-ever" farm loan waiver worth Rs 34,000 crore. The initial draft of the loan waiver indeed turned out to be the biggest-ever. But only in terms of caveats. It ended up marginalising farmers who needed relief the most. It riled up farm activists, leading to severe agitations.

Fadnavis gradually withdrew some of the conditions one after another, but it prolonged the implementation of the waiver, which meant the banks could not give further loans until the existing ones were cleared. The target of Rs 34,000 crore is nowhere near fulfilled over two years later.

Yet, most farmers in Wardha say they would vote for Fadnavis. Currently, out of the four Assembly constituencies, the honours are split between the ruling and the Opposition alliance.

Ramhari and Sita say their decision is made easier by the fact that the election results on 24 October are a forgone conclusion. "Everybody knows Fadnavis will be the chief minister," says Ramhari, who plants turmeric in his farmland, "Why vote for anybody else and waste it? We could have considered voting for the Opposition if it seemed like they were in the game."

Wardha, home to Mahatma Gandhi's Sewagram Ashram, is also known to be one of the leading producers of turmeric. Ramhari, who used to plant it in two out of his 10 acres of farmland, has reduced it to an acre in the past two years. "The rainfall was inadequate," he says, "And turmeric is a six to nine month crop. It requires consistent water."

After planting the crop in June, turmeric is harvested in December. The immediate harvest is wet. Farmers with better resources spend three more months to process it, and sell the powder, which is sold at a much higher price.

Pandurang Ghumde, 62, a farmer from the same turmeric belt in Wardha, says he used to process it, but has started selling the raw product to the factory for the past few years. "You need to hire labourers, and that is expensive. The production cost for an acre of turmeric is Rs. 50,000," he says.

Ghumde has a loan of Rs two lakh that has not been waived, which makes him ineligible to apply for a new loan. "It is increasingly getting difficult to raise capital," he says, "And I don't see the crop loan fairs returning anytime soon."

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