The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Drums deal dignity death blow

Ahamedipur (Medak), June 9: The messiahs of death walk in to the beat of drums sometimes. That is how it was in this village where a wedding is taking place in the afternoon.

Loan recovery teams, accompanied by drummers walked through the village, right up to the square, announced the name of a defaulting farmer, walked up to his house and stripped it of all that was valuable, including family prestige.

They eye the family jewellery, utensils and sometimes even the women.

Helpless and humiliated, the farmer is often pushed to the brink. Repeated crop failures lead to bankruptcy. In Medak district’s Ahamedipur village, headman K.R. Agayya says there is little they can do. Indebtedness has led to 22 suicides in the district between January and April, according to Kodanda Rama Reddy, a human rights activist.

Ahamedipur is a village of about 1,000 households, a population of about 5,500 — almost entirely Hindus, segmented into castes. In a close-knit society such as this, with its religious mores and customs, there is pressure on every family to at least appear to be earning its keep.

But today, three farmer households are ashamed to attend a wedding ceremony at a neighbour’s. The women of these families do not have jewellery to wear or, if they do, they cannot show it. “There is no farmer in Andhra Pradesh who has not sold his wife’s gold,” says Pedireddy Chengala Reddy of the Federation of Farmers’ Associations.

They are known to have defaulted on loans. Sarpanch Agayya talks in embarrassed tones of Nirudilakshmi, a pauperised widow of a farmer who died recently after being unable to find work as an agricultural labourer, as a construction worker in Hyderabad or as domestic help in the village itself.

Reddy says there have been 10 starvation deaths, mostly by women. “It is only now that farmer suicides and hunger deaths have become newsworthy,” he says.

“They (loan recovery teams) take away utensils, pots, pans, anything that has any value. In almost all cases, they tore away the door of the house and walked away with it”, says Pedireddy Chengala Reddy.

The practice was — is — not illegal. In fact, in former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s scheme of things, ensuring a “healthy rate of return”, “imposition of user charges” and “recoveries of bad and sticky debts” were meant to make the farmer more “accountable”.

However, it has been suspended after the Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy government took over in Andhra and announced that it was considering a moratorium on farm loans. A state law, the Revenue Recovery Act, actually empowers moneylending cooperative banks to “tom-tom” the names of defaulters.

Agayya talks of a caste of private moneylenders in Telengana – the Kunchar Kalas. “There are instances when the moneylender will come and publicly insult the farmer”, he says. “His henchmen will harass him. He will tell the farmer: “I can see your wife is wearing jewellery, why don’t you sell some of that and repay your loans’'” Worse, there have been cases when a moneylender has come up to the farmer and told him: “Why don’t you repay me in kind — why don’t you send your wife to me'”

The rates at which private moneylending goes on are usurious for the farmer who has reported successive crop failures. In Telengana, the rates vary from Rs 5 to Rs 8 to Rs 10 per Rs 100 borrowed for the first six months.

“I come from a farming background and I can tell you that the last thing the farmer wants to lose is his self-esteem,” says professor Haragopal of Hyderabad Central University. Haragopal is also president of the Mahboobnagar Struggle Committee Against Famine.

His brother still works the family farm in Mahboobnagar district. He narrates the story of a colleague in the university, a junior lecturer, whose father lives in the village and tends the farm.

The old man had borrowed about Rs 25,000 from a moneylender to buy seeds and fertiliser. “That is pittance”, says Haragopal. “Roughly the equivalent of his son’s monthly pay packet. Repaying that amount should have not have been difficult at all. One day, the gentleman had gone to the town market where the moneylender chanced upon him and insulted the old man. He could not digest the humiliation. He returned home and committed suicide,” Haragopal recalls, still shaken.

“The farmer’s self-esteem has to do with the fact that he is not making easy money. It has to do with his land, that he tills and works so hard at to grow his crop.”

Kodanda Rama Reddy, human rights activist who works with the Ryotu Sahayaka Samithi, says the Left outfits — both moderate and extreme — failed to address the issue. “The CPI and the CPM don’t see the specificities of each case. The PWG focuses its movement against landlords but there are issues that do not come under that framework”.

The militant People’s War Group is easily the most influential political organisation in these parts of Telengana even if it does not contest elections.

Since the largescale arrests of its leaders and the rise in the frequency of “encounter killings” in an offensive ordered by Naidu, the space for alternative politics has shrunk.

Vara Vara Rao, a revolutionary poet who has been a negotiator for the PWG, concedes that the organisation abandoned its areas of influence. The upshot is that many of its constituents also abandoned the PWG.

In Mahboobnagar district, he says, out of a population of 14 lakh people, some 8 lakh migrated to cities.

“The Naidu government alleged that all the leaders and organisations taking up people’s issues were with the PWG. The leaders were arrested and tortured. For instance, K. Ram Reddy, president of the Ryotu Seva Samithi in Warangal was arrested and shown as a surrendered Naxalite. All of this happened between 1997 and 1999 and the PWG gradually withdrew into the jungles. That was also the time when suicides came to be reported in large numbers,” says Rao. “No farmer will commit suicide for a couple of lakhs in compensation. The farmer who cannot live with dignity can be pushed to suicide”.

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