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1,000 murder suspects. One pain

Multi-crore loan waiver packages have failed in Vidarbha — because what’s driving farmers to suicide is often the moneylenders acting outside the law. Dharmendra Jore reports.

india Updated: Apr 08, 2009 23:25 IST
Dharmendra Jore

A Maharashtra village filed a rather unusual petition in June 2006. Over 1,000 adult residents wanted to be charged for the murder of two unlicensed moneylenders in Akola district, Maharashtra.

The two men had been killed in a scuffle that started with one family but quickly turned into a mini riot, with the rest of the village joining in.

Desperate, indebted, plagued by failing crops, the determination to free themselves from moneylenders’ clutches — or die trying — is perhaps the strongest explanation yet for why numerous multi-crore relief packages and loan waivers have failed in Vidarbha.

An average of two farmers are still committing suicide here every day.

“The real problem is not the loans they’ve taken from the banks, some of which are now being waived,” says Shrimant Mane, who has written extensively on farm suicides and the illegal moneylenders. “It’s the mounting interest — often as high as 75 per cent — and the impossibility of every repaying the capital they’ve borrowed from the illegal moneylenders.”

As the interest piles up and the rains stay away in the six drought-prone, poorly irrigated districts of Vidarbha, farmers walk into their scorched fields and end their lives.

Or turn in anger on the moneylenders — and end up in prison.

Last month, a local court sentenced nine of a Pimpalgaon family to life.

The government’s response to the booming illegal business — a number of such lenders are now moving to Maharashtra from neighbouring Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh forseeing better business — has been feeble.

Just weeks before the Akola lynching, then deputy chief minister R.R. Patil had announced that illegal moneylenders would be “dealt with severely” if they did not return seized land to the original owners.

He even issued directives to property registrars’ offices.

But no action followed, because the laws against private moneylending do not allow for such ‘returns’ of land.

There has been a rise in the number of cases filed against moneylenders — over 2,000 cases are pending — as farmers became emboldened by Patil’s promise. But most of them are buried in paperwork by the wealth lenders’ lawyers.

Sometimes, the paperwork isn’t even necessary.

Gokulchand Sananda, a businessman and alleged moneylender and father of sitting Congress MLA Dilip Sananda, allegedly used his affiliations with then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to pressurise the local police to go slow on an investigation against him.

Farmer Sharangdhar Chavan wrote a letter to the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, which admitted it as a petition.

Hearing the petition in early March, the high court passed an unprecedented directive: It rapped Deshmukh and his personal assistant Ajinkya Padwal for gross abuse of power in asking the police to go slow in the Sananda case.

It also asked the state to pay Rs 25,000 as costs and directed it to take prompt action in cases against illegal moneylenders.

Most farmers aren’t that lucky.

“So many have sold part of their plots to pay for legal expenses as they struggle to get back land snatched by moneylenders,” says Sumant Mankar (42) a farmer from Pulgaon in Wardha district. “Often, they end up losing it all. The only way out is if the government intervenes.”

Back at Akola’s Pimpalgaon-Chanbhare village, there is little remorse for the killings.

“I was working on the fields when moneylender Balu Wakhare was murdered,” says an old woman, refusing to give her name. “He deserved it.”