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Inadequate response

Print edition : Oct 10, 2003 T+T-

OFFICIAL Karnataka has reacted to the sharp rise in suicides amongst farmers at two levels. First, there is an effort at downplaying the seriousness of the issues involved. Several State Ministers have alleged that the Opposition parties are "politicising" the issue by "misusing" the statistics provided by the government. At a recent meeting of intellectuals called by Chief Minister S.M. Krishna to discuss the issue of suicides, sections of the media were criticised for "glorifying" the phenomenon.

At another level the State government is taking action to stem the suicide rate by announcing a set of relief measures. These have not been effective for a number of reasons. The compensation of Rs.1 lakh for the next of kin of suicide victims announced by the State government is a case in point. Of the 276 reported cases of suicide by farmers between April 1 and September 19, only 220 have been placed before the official committees appointed in the districts to decide upon "genuine" claims. Of these, 133 claims or more than half have been rejected as ineligible for compensation. Of the "genuine" cases, only 33 families have actually received the money.

The parameters set by the government for compensation are so rigid that it is not surprising that most cases do not qualify as genuine. The guidelines explicitly state that the farmer must have committed suicide owing to his inability to repay his loan from a bank or any other government-recognised credit institution. It is more than obvious to whoever cares to investigate that farmers are committing suicide owing to their inability to repay loans to private financiers, and not to banks. The failure or unwillingness of the State government to recognise this has made a mockery of the compensation process in the State.

In Haveri district, the next of kin of just four out of the 14 persons who committed suicide have been given compensation. The family of Dundappa Puttappa Masali, for example, was not given compensation. Masali, a 28-year old farmer from Narayanpur village in Shiggaon taluk, committed suicide on September 18. He and his three brothers jointly owned three acres of land, but were unable to get a bank loan. The bank gives crop loans against the land as surety, but one of Masali's brothers was unavailable to sign the papers as he had moved to Goa. So try though he did, Masaliwas never able to get a bank loan. But he was in debt to a private financier for Rs.75,000, and his fear and frustration at the loss of his crop this year drove him to suicide. The committee decided against giving his family compensation after his death as he was not in debt to any bank.

The family of Thirkappa Mudukappa Sadar of Devihosur village in Shiggaon taluk also did not receive compensation although Sadar owed Rs.15,000 to the Malaprabha Gramin Bank, and over a Rs.1 lakh to private creditors. Sadar had two families from two wives, and because both families laid claim to the compensation, the committee came to the conclusion that family discord had driven him to commit suicide and therefore no compensation should be made! Shekayya Hiremath of Ganjigatti village in Shiggaon taluk had mortgaged his lands for 45,000 to a private financier. He had repaid his bank loan last year and had taken another bank loan of Rs.10,000 which was only due for repayment next year. He was, however, in debt for a total sum of Rs.90,000 to private financiers, and the burden of debt led him to commit suicide. The committee came to the conclusion that the pressure to repay his bank loan was not the cause of his death so rejected the case for paying his family compensation!

In Davangere district where 30 farmers have committed suicide, the next of kin of just four persons have been given compensation. To tackle the problem of usury in the countryside, the State government issued the Karnataka Prohibition of Charging Exorbitant Interest Ordinance, 2003. This Ordinance bans usury and makes illegal the charging of an interest rate above 23 per cent in the case of an unsecured loan and 21 per cent in the case of a secured loan. It is the registered moneylender who, if at all, is likely to be affected by this Ordinance. As most private financiers are landlords who are not registered moneylenders, and do not enter into any written agreement with their creditors, this measure is unlikely to have much impact on usury.

The Crop Insurance Scheme jointly implemented by the State government and the General Insurance Company (GIC) has run into problems with the company withholding disbursements alleging "fraud" in a sizeable number of claims. "We have taken strong objection to this as a number of the so-called cases of fraud are in fact quite genuine. Because of the failure of rains, many farmers changed their crops from paddy to maize midway through the season, and these changes were not reflected in the records", Vijay Gore, the Karnataka Development Commissioner, told Frontline. The government has asked GIC to go ahead and release insurance payments for 40,000 claims over which there is no disagreement, and that the remaining claims could be verified again. Had crop insurance payments in the six districts of Haveri, Tumkur, Belgaum, Hassan, Shimoga and Gadag been made on schedule, it would have provided much needed relief to farmers in extreme distress.