With temperatures touching 46°C in late April, the parched stretches of land along the Chandrapur-Gadchiroli state highway looked bleak and forlorn. On April 28, Ashok Kaurase left his home in Gondpimpri, Chandrapur district, and walked towards Kothari. It was hope that made the farmer, walk the 35-km stretch. Someone had told him that the government compensation for his crop losses had been credited to his account in a Bank of India branch in Kothari.
He walked back crestfallen, his hope lost. Kaurase collapsed on the road, about 10km before his home. Instead of the promised money, what reached the Kaurase household was the news of his death. The postmortem report said there was not a grain of food in the 50-year-old farmer’s stomach. Kaurase had become the first victim of starvation this summer in Maharashtra.
Kaurase and his family—wife Shila, daughter Nageshwari, 15, and son Bharat, 13—hadn’t had a morsel for two days. When he heard about the compensation, he thought he would buy food for the family to survive the two months before monsoon. But when he reached the bank, he was told that no money had arrived. On April 30, as newspapers reported the starvation death, the much-awaited compensation of Rs4,200 was credited to his account. “He had gone to the bank seven to eight times since March to get the compensation, but he was always told that it might take months for the government to give money,” said Janakiram Nikhade, Kaurase’s father-in-law. “We don’t know how the compensation was credited within 24 hours of his death making headlines.”
Kaurase used to till his three-acre farm in Palse village during monsoon and worked as a day labourer for the rest of the year in Gondpimpri, his wife’s village. Around eight years ago, he shifted to Gondpimpri after a dispute with his parents and lived with his wife and children in a rented one-room house. While Shila feeds the family doing odd jobs on farms, Nageshwari is awaiting her board exam results and Bharat, who is blind in one eye and losing sight in the other, is in class eight. Shila’s elder sister, who lives in Chandrapur, pays Nageshwari’s school fees.
“Kaurase was really worried about the future of his kids,” said Shila’s brother Santosh. “The floods last year had damaged his entire crop. He used to keep a part of the produce for his consumption and the rest for sale. But he lost everything. The local revenue officials like the talathi and the bank officials are apathetic.” Wamanrao Chatap, a farmer-activist, said, “These officials do not record the losses correctly. They have not paid a penny to the farmers whose farms suffered erosion in the floods. Their names do not figure in the list of affected farmers prepared by thetalathi.” Also, the bank officials are not interested in crediting the amounts in time as it does not bring business for them, he said. The banks, he said, discriminate between ‘clients’ and ‘beneficiaries’.
District Collector Deepak Mhaiskar ordered an inquiry, led by Deputy Collector Chandrabhan Parate. Parate asked for a report from the tehsildar, Mallik Virani, who said that the compensation had been credited to Kaurase’s account on April 28. “But Kaurase had gone to the bank on the same day and was told that no amount had been received. The bank credited the amount on April 30. Kaurase would not have died had he received the money on the 28th,” said Santosh.
Sudhir Mungantiwar, the BJP legislator from Chandrapur, said that there was a cover-up by the revenue and bank officials. “One of them is surely lying and, in that case, they should be booked for causing the death. This bureaucratic lethargy is the real killer of the poor and neglected farmers,” he said. He noted that the local revenue officials deprived real victims and favoured ineligible beneficiaries.
Erosion due to the floods had rendered Nikhade’s 40 acres on the banks of the river Wardha into a rocky stretch no longer cultivable. “Nearly 22 farmers who own land on the riverbanks suffered. But none of us received compensation,” said Santosh. According to Mungantiwar, instead of paying compensation, the block development officer suggested that the rocky land could be made arable by topping it with cultivable soil and that the work could be done under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. But such a solution deprives the farmers of compensation money that they need urgently to survive till the monsoons. “We have to pay off our debt; we need to buy seeds, fertilisers and pesticides for the new season. We don’t have a penny to do that,” said Santosh.
Parate, the deputy collector, later visited the Kaurases. “He said he would give monthly pension meant for widows,” said Shila. Her only worry, she said, was her children’s future. “Bharat needs treatment for his eye, which I cannot afford,” she said. And Nageshwari wants to continue her studies. Said Nikhade: “She also can’t get the Rs1 lakh compensation, as government officials say that this is not a suicide case and there is no compensation scheme forstarvation deaths. It is really sad that the government creates schemes for suicides and starvation deaths instead of trying to avert such circumstances.”
THE WEEK visited the Manora branch of Bank of India, which is close to the Kothari branch. Hundreds of old, poor and helpless villagers had gathered in front of the bank. Kavadabai Ghonghade, 78, was crying, with her passbook in hand. “I am entitled to a pension of Rs600 under the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana,” she said. “My husband died years ago and there is no one to look after me. I have not received the pension for the last 16 months.”
The villagers said that the bank staff was rude. “When we ask them to check our account, they ask us to go to the place where our husbands died and look for money,” said Shevantabai Tikale. Said Mandabai Pasekar: “We haddeposited money in our self-help group’s account and asked for a loan. Self-help groups are entitled to a low-interest loan but the manager here gave us cash credit limit, which costs us high interest rates.”
Mungantiwar led a protest against the bank staff in Manora in May. Many villagers complained that the manager had diverted NREGA remuneration towards repayment of crop loans. “My husband committed suicide two years ago and he had a loan of Rs30,000. This manager diverted my pension of Rs600 for the loan repayment,” said Krishnabai Pipare. She also does not get the additional Rs300 per month for her daughter, who is a minor.
Mungantiwar spoke to the bank’s zonal manager based in Nagpur. “This [Manora] manager’s behaviour is outrageous,” said Mungantiwar. “His acts of transferring NREGA remuneration and pensions towards repayment of loans, crediting smaller amounts than the entitled amount are all illegal and call for criminal action.” The manager gave a letter of apology to Mungantiwar, assuring him that all accounts would be corrected within eight days. “This assurance of correcting all accounts itself is an admission of the illegal acts the bank staff has done. They should be booked for this,” said Mungantiwar.
The villagers, however, were apprehensive despite the assurance from the bank manager. Lahuji Patil, sarpanch of Manora village, said that 80 per cent of the villagers, who were illiterate, were dependent on the bank officials for their transactions, because of which they were easily exploited.
Lack of irrigation has worsened the plight of the farmers. “With no irrigation available, agricultural activity happens only during monsoon,” said Mungantiwar. “Farmers don’t earn enough to live a respectable life and they don’t get any private employment for the remaining eight months. They depend on NREGA and various other government schemes.” This has become a huge problem in the dry areas of Vidarbha and Marathwada. All this has an effect on their psyche, too. “They can’t provide education or health care for their children, and years of living a life like beggars take a huge toll on their mental health,” said Mungantiwar.
According to Chatap, Kaurase’s death will create some ripples in the government. However, he said, “They will again treat the symptoms but will never treat the disease, forget treating the cause of the disease.” Announcing a policy to compensate starvation deaths will certainly not be the solution. After suffering huge losses last year, most farmers in Vidarbha have somehow managed to stay alive. If they do not get monetary help to buy seeds and fertilisers for the next season, Chatap said, “a series of suicides will begin”. The Assembly elections are slated for September; Kaurase’s death is a wake-up call for the government to buckle down soon.
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