On January 20, a farmer in Uttar Pradesh was crushed to death under his own tractor, allegedly by loan recovery agents of the company from which he had borrowed money to buy the vehicle.

According to reports, Gyan Chandra, 45, of Sitapur district, had borrowed Rs 5 lakh from a private financier a few years ago, and was yet to repay the entire amount. On Saturday, the agents tried to take away Chandra’s tractor, and when he tried to stop them, they ran over him.

While the police are probing the Sitapur case, the tragedy brings to focus a massive problem the central and state governments seem to be ignoring – debts are killing the country’s farmers, and loan waivers — though politically picturesque — are disastrously inefficient as they cover only those who borrow from the government, without recourse for those dependant on more exploitative private moneylenders.Uttar Pradesh, especially its drought-hit Bundelkhand region, has seen a spike in farmer suicides in the past few years. In April this year, the BJP government, in its very first Cabinet meeting, announced a Rs 30,729-crore scheme waiving crop loans up to Rs 1 lakh for small and medium farmers. Another Rs 5,630 crore was allocated to write off bad loans of around seven lakh farmers.

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This waiver, though putting a massive burden on the state exchequer, was in itself inadequate – a report states that according to the government’s own estimate, of UP’s 2.30 crore farmers, a little more than 86 lakh farmers alone benefitted from the scheme. Later, reports emerged that several farmers were handed over waiver certificates worth 19 paisa and 50 paisa and Re 1.

And this is only for farmers who had borrowed from state-run institutions. The government provides no relief to those – often small, marginal farmers – who, failing to avail institutional credit, turn to private moneylenders.

According to the All India Debt Investment Survey 2012, nearly 48 per cent farmers across the country took loans from informal sources such as moneylenders and landlords. A report states that the figure rose from 36 per cent in 1991 to 43 per cent in 2001. Among farmers who owned land parcels smaller than 0.1 hectares – the most needy – 85 per cent had pending loans from such informal finance sources.

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Another report cites a survey by IndiaSpend to state that institutional agencies held 56 per cent of rural debt in India in 2013, while non-institutional lenders, such as moneylenders, family or friends, held the remaining 44 per cent. Professional moneylenders held the maximum share of the rural debt (28.2 per cent).

One of the major reasons farmers turn to moneylenders is that government institutions ask for collateral – the loans have to be backed by pledge or hypothecation of their produce for a period not exceeding 12 months.

Marginal farmers find it tough to meet this condition. In addition, acquiring formal loans is a lengthy process – involving application, providing documents etc al, and private moneylenders become a more viable option for urgent cash requirements. Also, debts are not always incurred over farming needs, a lot of this borrowing is to meet other expenses such as health emergencies or weddings.

This problem is not new, nor difficult to comprehend. Yet, it continues to claim the lives of those who enrich not only our economy but also our palates.

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Without any delay, what is required is boosting farmers’ income by fixing a profitable minimum support price (MSP) and making agriculture a sustainable means of livelihood through investments in improved farming practices and better irrigation facilities.

Yet, successive governments, both at the Centre and in states, have failed to achieve this. As long as farmers die in remote villages, no one seems moved. When political pressure rises either due to protests or impending elections, governments resort to the quick fix of announcing loan waivers, which sound magnanimous and soothe tempers.

Journalist P Sainath once said that trying to solve the problem of farmer suicides through loan waivers without considering the larger agrarian crisis was like trying to mop the floor with all the taps open and running.

The Sitapur incident once again shows that the price of the governments’ failure is being paid in human lives. It is an indictment of not just the Yogi Adityanath government in UP, but of every government whose short-sightedness and lack of will are turning our farms into killing fields. #KhabarLive

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