For Rampal Mujalda and other farmers in Rampura village near Kukshi town, it has been a while since they walked debt-free, away from the clutches of money lenders.
“Life has been difficult. The installments are huge. I have exhausted all my resources in paying off the debt, but I am yet to recover the jewelry which I mortgaged,” Mujalda says.
It is a common practice among farmers of the ‘Bhilala’ tribe to mortgage silver ornaments of their women for farming purposes in their marginal land holdings, says Dhar zilla panchayat member from Kukshi, Virendra Singh Baghel, who has been working in the region for decades.
A Bhilala woman generally wears ancestral silver ornaments that are generations old and weigh an average of two kilos. “We are into this arrangement since generations, it is convenient,” says Prem Singh Dodoye, a farmer from Kukshi.
At the time of harvest, the sahukar or the money lender himself procures their cotton and wheat, sells it in the mandi (market), makes profit, deducts the principal and interest on the sum, and returns the mortgaged ornaments and the money, whatever amount is left, Baghel said.
The sahukars manage the accounts of hundreds of farmers in the region, but later defraud them. Being illiterate and poor, these tribal farmers become easy victims, he said.
“There are hundreds of them. They (moneylenders) prey on the innocence of illiterate tribals,” says Mahendra Kannoj, a local tribal youth leader.
He said the farmers also keep their savings with the lenders, treating them like a bank. While they think their deposits are safe with him, they are being charged an inflated interest rate and trapped in a vicious debt.
One such case is of Tarun Rathore, who is said to have impounded over 100 kg of silver and cotton produce of more than 100 farmers, and has now filed for bankruptcy before a court, apparently to get away from returning the only wealth of the farmers.
Rathore first gained their trust by lending money at nominal rates and “at any time we were in need”, Dodoye said.
But over some time since, Rathore started delaying the payments, and then finally said that “he does not owe us back anything—neither our silver jewels nor the dividend of the produce”.
Rathore, however, refuted the allegations, saying he had lent them money because of “my personal relations” with them, and “not on mortgage”. On the bankruptcy, he said he had incurred losses in his cotton and mahua business.
Left with no option, the farmers – 22 from Birlai village, 46 from Rampura, 15 from Nahavel, six from Paliya and others from Kadiya Kheda – approached the district collector.
Shriman Shukla, Dhar district collector, has promised strict action in the case and also against other money lenders under MP Money Lenders Act 1934.
“Despite our best efforts to reach out to remotest households with the ‘financial inclusion’ plan, it is very concerning to know farmers prefer borrowing money from local moneylenders,” he said.
But farmers claim that even seven months after the complaint, nothing has been done to get their jewels back.
Some of them are thinking of taking the law into their hands, but others warn them against it, saying it will be their families who will have to bear the consequences.
Suicide is an alternative, but would be the last one.
With only a handwritten chit having a name and amount scribbled on it as proof of their claim, they are at their wit’s end. “Collectively, we hope we can stand against him and reclaim our money and ornaments,” Dodoye said. “But the question is when?”