On the debt bed


When Mathivanan Periyasamy, 52, speaks of his farm, he mutters a small prayer. This small farmer, along with his brethren from Tamil Nadu, has been raising his voice against the practice of banks hiring goons to recover agrarian loans.

For a whole day, Periyasamy, from Athipattu village near Chidambaram district, drew all his energy to raise slogans before a bank in Thanjavur. That is all he could do. Unlike Kingfisher boss Vijay Mallya, he cannot flee to London or hire lawyers.

Periyasamy is not worried about his tractor being seized. He dreads humiliation at the hands of bank officials and the police.

“I do not earn anything with the tractor. It has been either drought or floods in these five years,” says Periyasamy. He has to repay the bank Rs 65,000 every year. “In the past 10 years, the debt of farmers like us has increased four-fold because of rising cultivation costs. But our income has not grown. My annual income is only Rs 60,000. Then how do I pay Rs 65,000?”

A. Azhagar, 26, from Orathur village in Ariyalur district recently killed himself, after bank officials humiliated him and seized his tractor. He had repaid the private bank Rs 5 lakh, but failed to repay the remaining Rs 2 lakh in time, says his cousin Bhagyaraj.

“Farmers who had taken his tractor on rent had not paid him. So, he met bank officials and sought more time,” says Bhagyaraj. “But recovery agents barged into his house on March 10, abused him and took the tractor away.”

G. Balan, 40, of Cholagankudikadu village is another 'tractor victim'. “I am not a habitual defaulter,” he says. “I promised to repay the loan within a month, but the agents and policemen thrashed me and seized the tractor.”

P.R. Pandian, president of Tamil Nadu Federation of All Farmers’ Associations, calls for action against the bank for the attack on Balan. “The bank should be blacklisted for violating the Reserve Bank’s guidelines for recovering loan dues,” he says.

At least 52 per cent of the farmers in India are indebted, says a recent report of the National Sample Survey Organisation. The worst affected states are Andhra Pradesh (92.9 per cent), Telangana (89 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (82.5 per cent). Notably, agrarian debts have grown by at least 10 per cent in the past 10 years.

A report of the National Crime Records Bureau in 2015 says 5,650 farmers and 6,710 agricultural labourers committed suicide. Most of them were bankrupt and indebted. Even states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where agrarian suicides were rare, are witnessing an upward trend.

“Suicide is too complex a phenomenon to explain in monocausal terms. However, studies have shown that debt is an important contributing factor,” says R. Rukmani, director, food security, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. “A complete reorientation of agrarian policies is needed.”

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