Saturday, March 29, 2008

4,750 rural bank branches closed down in 15 years -P. Sainath

Date:28/03/2008 URL:

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4,750 rural bank branches closed down in 15 years

P. Sainath
In the same period, scheduled commercial bank branches in metros doubled

The figures muddy claims of massive increases in rural credit

More farmers being pushed towards moneylenders

MUMBAI: India has seen the closure on average of one rural branch of a scheduled commercial bank (SCB) every single working day for the last 15 years.

In the same period, bank branches in urban metros doubled, opening at a rate of more than one every day. The figures muddy government claims of massive increases in rural credit and plans to boost it.

The Reserve Bank of India’s Handbook of Statistics on the Indian Economy (2006-07) shows there were 30,639 rural branches of SCBs in 2007. That is, 4,750 less than the number in 1993. In other words, an average of 26 bank branches shut down each month, or one every working day.

However, branches in metros shot up from 5,753 to 11,826 in the same period. In other urban centres, the number climbed from 8,562 to 12,792 in this period, while also going up in semi-urban locations from 11,356 to 16,214.

Bankers and RBI officials argue that these are not all closures but “consolidation,” or “mergers” or the creation of satellite offices.

The fact remains, though, that there were 4,750 rural branches less in 2007 than at the start of the reforms period.

The trend holds through most of UPA years. Indeed, 2006 saw the sharpest drop, with 1,503 branches shutting shop at a rate of one every six hours, on average. The rapid decline has pushed more farmers towards moneylenders.

“If you ‘merge’ a couple of banks 200 kilometres apart,” says Devidas Tuljapurkar of the All-India Bank Employees Association, “how does this make life easier for villagers already journeying far to their banks? It just rules them out. And it is absurd to say that more ATMs have opened to fill the need. ATMs are mostly in cities.” Also, loans are not given at ATMs.

The share of rural credit as a percentage of total credit disbursed by all SCBs (including Regional Rural Banks) stood at just around 7.93 in March 2007. Less than the previous year’s 8.39 per cent. Much less than the 10 per cent it stood at in 2001. And farmers account for only a part of it. ‘Rural credit’ includes many sectors beyond agriculture.

The 2001 Census says 72 per cent of Indians live in rural areas. However, the share of urban and metro regions in total credit went up to 82.32 per cent in the same period as the closures.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Farm bonanza fails to save India's dying farmers-reuters repo rts

Farm bonanza fails to save India's dying farmers

Thu Mar 13, 2008 8:03pm EDT

By Krittivas Mukherjee

PIMPARKHUTI, India, March 14 (Reuters) - Just before India's finance minister was announcing a massive farm bonanza last month, Narendra Totaram Chauhan quietly slipped into his cotton fields, opened a bottle of pesticide and drank it.

By the time the minister finished announcing a $15 billion loan waiver to give a new lease of life to millions of indebted farmers, the poison had snuffed the life out of Chauhan.

Over the next few days, while experts debated the efficacy of the staggering relief package, 60 farmers killed themselves, adding to a morbid official statistic: more than 150,000 Indian farmers committed suicide since 1997 unable to repay crop loans.

Though the crisis has been building for years, it presents a grave challenge for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ahead of national polls next year. Farm distress and soaring prices helped turf out the previous government in 2004 and put Singh in power.

So, Singh's government came up with a plan in the 2008-09 budget: cancel debts of small farmers with loans overdue on Dec. 31, 2007, and which remained unpaid up to Feb. 29.

The write-off came with riders. Beneficiaries can own up to two hectares (five acres) and only bank loans will be cancelled.

This has meant nearly a quarter of 40 million targeted farmers will not benefit because most borrowed from rapacious moneylenders or they own larger tracts of land.

"It's a lose-lose proposition. This will not relieve farmers' distress," said Kishor Tiwari, who leads a campaign against farmers' suicides across the arid plateaus of central India.

A map of the region, known as Vidarbha, hangs on Tiwari's office wall. Its most prominent markings are a profusion of black skulls, forming a grim diagram of death.

Here, across the black cotton-bearing soil of Vidarbha, far from the gleaming malls that symbolise India's economic boom, three million desperately poor farmers are fighting for survival.


More than 30,000 farmers have killed themselves in the region alone since 1997, making it the epicentre of India's grimmest agrarian crisis in recent memory.

But relief is still a distant dream for a majority of farmers here because their average holding is just above two hectares. And small and marginal farmers will not benefit because most of them borrowed from moneylenders and relatives.

Its the same story in the northern Punjab state, considered India's food bowl where rising cultivation costs are distressing farmers and leading many to commit suicide or to abandon farming.

As in Vidarbha, the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, which have reported thousands of farmers' suicides, have dry croplands where large holdings are unviable for a farmer with limited access to irrigation and loans.

The National Sample Survey Organisation says almost half of India's 100 million farming families are in debt.

India's stunning urban-centric economic growth has bypassed the farm sector where growth is estimated to have slowed to 2.6 percent in the year ending March 2008, from 3.8 percent the year before.

Even though farming supports 60 percent of India's 1.1 billion people, it contributes only a fifth of gross domestic product and accounts for only around 15 percent of bank credit.

Economic liberalisation since 1991 has not helped either, with duties being gradually phased out and farmers facing tough competition from heavily subsidised European or American growers.

In the past, farmers used to sell to the government at a price fixed in advance, but that safety net was removed for cotton growers in 2005, leaving them at the mercy of middlemen who often browbeat them into unprofitable sales.


Bad weather and falling prices only compound debts.

Farmers are often underfinanced by banks, forcing them to turn to private lenders whose usurious interest rates bind them to a never-ending cycle of debt. Many also borrow unwisely to fund lavish spending or to pay for weddings.

Unable to get credit, Kisan Vithalrao Rahate used a plastic rope to hang himself from a tree at the threshold of his mud house in this Vidarbha village this month.

Rahate lost two batches of seed to a bad monsoon. Last year the crop was good, but still not good enough to pay off his debts and then subsist with his family of six until the next harvest.

"We fought over money but he never threatened to kill himself," Kunda Kisanrao, his widow, told Reuters, squatting on a mud courtyard fenced with twigs and thorny shrubs.

Rahate carried two debts at the time of his death: a $350 bank loan and $1,250 borrowed privately to buy expensive genetically modified seeds and fertilisers to stay competitive.

A 2006 study by the Mumbai-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, found that 86.5 percent of farmers who took their own lives were indebted -- their average debt was about $835 -- and 40 percent had suffered a crop failure.

But Prime Minister Singh is defending his scheme.

"It will allow the fresh flow of institutional credit to farmers, it will clean up bankers' balance sheets, it will stimulate economic activity in rural areas, and I don't make any apologies on this," he told the parliament this month.

The scheme will benefit farmers in the states of West Bengal in the east and Kerala in the south where sweeping land reforms left farmers with smaller holdings.

Agricultural scientists say state support for agriculture is imperative, calling for help with soil and water management, timely credit and subsidised seeds and fertilisers.

"In the name of liberalisation state support was withdrawn completely and the vacant space has been occupied by the private sector in an unregulated manner," said K. Nagaraj of the Madras Institute of Development studies.

In Pimparkhuti village, Rahate's wife cares little for the hair-splitting debates. For her, it's a struggle to survive with her two daughters and a 2-year-old son.

"My mind is blank, I don't know what to do," she said, staring at the tree her husband hanged himself from.

"He escaped his misery. Now what do we do?"

(Editing by Simon Denyer)

© Reuters 2007. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content,

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Budget can’t write off vidarbha farm suicides

Budget can’t write off suicides

March 10: Ghanshyam Mirge, 38, of Akola in Maharashtra and 35-year-old Jayarami Reddy from Andhra’s Kurnool had a lot in common — both are young farmers owning around 8 acres, steeped in debt and not eligible for P. Chidambaram’s loan waiver.

The similarity doesn’t end there: both took their lives last week.

Satyanarayan Reddy, also from Kurnool, had around 4 acres, which qualified him for a waiver. But since most of his money was owed to moneylenders who had put him in jail and now threatened to get his wife arrested as well, Reddy, too, killed himself.

As did Kashinath Belure (60) of Bidar in Karnataka. He would have got a total loan waiver but for the fact that he was indebted to moneylenders.

Nearly 60 farmers have taken their lives in India’s death bowl since Chidambaram announced the farm loan waiver 10 days ago.

Questions have been raised about the largesse because the complete loan waiver is limited to the 3 crore marginal and small farmers owning up to 2 hectares (4.9 acres). Those with over 2 hectares — around 1 crore farmers — will get a 25 per cent discount for a one-time settlement.

Economists had also pointed out that farmers had borrowed heavily from moneylenders as well, and the government had no answers to that.

The highest number of deaths has been reported from Andhra, where 35 farmers have committed suicide since February 29, when the finance minister unveiled the waiver plan in the budget. Barring a couple, all the farmers owned over 5 acres, which meant they had to cough up 75 per cent of the money.

At least 22 farmers killed themselves in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, among the worst hit by the debt cycle, while two deaths have been reported from Karnataka. All the Vidarbha farmers had over 5 acres of land.

The Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, an NGO based in the Pandhakavda region of Yawatmal, the Maharashtra district with the highest number of suicides, said the announcement has had little impact on the farmers who grow cotton and are burdened with loans from banks as well as private moneylenders.

Like Kisan Uike, 32, who consumed pesticide in Khadki village, 50km from Nagpur. Uike, the owner of around 8 acres, had an outstanding loan of Rs 43,000, which had ballooned to Rs 75,000 because of interest accumulation.

“Twenty-two farmers have killed themselves since the budget. This indicates that the farmers have no faith in the government and its announcements,” said Kishore Tiwari, convener of the samiti, which maintains a “death register” of the suicides in six districts of Vidarbha.

According to the samiti’s records, 80 farmers had killed themselves in January, 66 in February and, in March, the figure could be higher.

Not all farmers are overjoyed by the waiver. Vidarbha’s farmers say their counterparts in western Maharashtra, whose land holdings are smaller and who have higher loan amounts, were likely to benefit more.

Prabhakar Reddy of Marrikunta village in Kurnool, around 700km away, echoed them. “We don’t want any charity or freebies. Let the government organise agricultural credit during harvesting, subsidies in seeds and fertilisers. We will ensure that the loans are repaid in time,” he said.

The majority of the deaths in Andhra has been of farmers badly hit by the recent unseasonal rain. Narne Rama Rao (45) had sown groundnut crop but the rains destroyed his livelihood and swamped him with loans of Rs 12 lakh. Narne did not take his life, he died of a heart attack.

Leaders from the Congress, which hopes to reap the benefit of the scheme in the spate of elections to be held over the next 12 months, tried to soften the blow.

Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh said he would ask the Centre to either increase the ceiling to 15 acres or offset loans of Rs 50,000 for all farmers irrespective of land holdings.

“The suicides and the loan waiver have no link,” said a Congress spokesperson in Andhra.