The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Model farmer beats loan war drums

Mangalore, March 9: Venkita Ramana Bhatt was considered a model cultivator who practised the “future of agriculture”.

What he is doing now may be far from model but Bhatt is determined to fight for the cause of areca farmers.

The resident of Seethamgole village on the Kerala-south Karnataka border is now the leader of Kisan Sena, a new organisation of areca farmers who have decided not to repay their loans to nationalised, scheduled and cooperative banks till the government improves their lot.

The Indian Council for Agricultural Research had rated Bhatt a model cultivator. Specialists such as M.S. Swaminathan, R.N. Pal, P.K. Das and M.R. Hegde had led delegations of agricultural science students from across the country to Bhatt’s farm to learn.

Bhatt is now more “committed to defying law and practising banking disobedience” than remembering the “glory of the past”. The cultivator said he and his friends took to “banking disobedience” because of the economic distress of areca farmers.

The Kisan Sena has given chenda (drums) to all its members so that they can beat them when bank officials come to recover debts.

Within minutes, other Sena members in the village rush to their colleague’s house and prevent the officials from recovering the loan.

This strategy could, of course, trigger law and order problems, but the Sena is ready for it. “We have no option. We can either live outside (jail) without repaying loans or we can go to jail and live at government expense,” Bhatt said.

In the last five months, 34 areca farmers killed themselves in the border districts of Kasargode in Kerala and Dakshina Kannada in Karnataka.

The last occurred on March 4. Maloji Rao of Kundamkuzhi village on the Kasaragode-Dakshina Kannada border had borrowed Rs 85,000. Over two years, this loan amount had accumulated to Rs 2 lakh. Faced with bank officials’ demands to repay, he committed suicide. Even guarantors of loans taken by fellow farmers were committing suicide, farmers said.

The two districts have villages where all families are areca growers and debtors. Enmakaje is one such village where all 5,000 families are facing bank procedures to appropriate their land and assets. Kaatukukke has 3,000 families, all debtors.

Informal estimates by bankers in Kasaragode and Dakshina Kannada put the collective debt around Rs 400 crore. “We do not want any areca farmer to end his life fearing debt. Hence the disobedience movement of the Kisan Sena,” Bhatt said.

Areca farmers landed in the debt trap after the crash of areca nut prices, which hit a record low this year. The price ranged between Rs 38 and Rs 42 for a kg this year while the production cost was close to Rs 65 a kg.

Even in 1999-2000, areca farmers used to get Rs 130-160 per kg.

Farmers blame the government for importing the nut from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka though India produces 80 per cent of the world’s areca.

“It is the import policy combined with the so-called campaign against the harmful effects of areca that caused the crash,” said Sankara Narayana Bhatt, an agriculturist of Mangalore.

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