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Maharashtra farmers, a crossed lot - DTE - Section - A.2

Maharashtra farmers, a crossed lot - DTE - Section - A.2

              THE paddy farmers of the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra are in a quandary. They are receiving as assistance from the government crossed cheques for sums as small as Rs 50. They are in the totally in the dark about how to process these paper elephants. 

               Suicides by and malnutrition deaths of farmers in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra have been in the news for quite some time. The developmental backlog of that region has been patent for a much longer time. The modus operandi of the neo-colonial exploitation of Vidarbha are the depressing prices of the prime produce cotton and paddy, paltry compensation for the resources such as coal and electricity, and the grossly inadequate budgetary allocations for the development of water resources and infrastructure. The loss to the farmers of Vidarbha on account of inadequate prices over the last 30 years is put at around Rs 33,300 crore. The budgetary backlog over the last 40 years is about the same. The million-dollar question is: How will the Maharashtra Government compensate for all this? 
               In the pre-election flush of populism, the Congress-NCP Government, under Mr Sushil Kumar Shinde, had announced a special assistance package for Vidarbha. It included a grant of Rs 20 crore to paddy growers with holdings of less than two hectares at the rate of Rs 295 per hectare. The sum was apportioned between the various paddy-producing districts of the region. The share of Gadchiroli district came to a mere Rs 2 crore. The district administrations had specific instructions to make payments to individual peasants only through crossed cheques, to ensure that the amount reached the intended beneficiary alone. If Rs 2 crore were to be divided among 1,00,000 paddy farmers of Gadchiroli district, the average endowment per head works out to less than Rs 200. The minimum for an individual peasant is Rs 50 and the maximum Rs 590. 
"Remember this is a crossed cheque in your own name," the poor payee was told. 
               "You cannot get cash for it over the counter of the bank on which it is drawn. You will have to deposit it in your account; if you do not have an account, you will have to open one. You will, henceforth, be a proud holder of a bank account." 
               When a poor, often uneducated, farmer takes the cheque to the nearest post-office or the bank, he is told that it can be cashed only at one of the branches of the bank, on which the cheque it is drawn. 
               The peasant drags himself to the appropriate counter in the bank, where he learns that for opening an account he has to fill an application form with the recommendation from an existing account holder in the same branch and has to make an initial deposit, in cash, of Rs 200 at least. 
"Is not a cheque from the government as good as cash?' he wonders. 
               "By no means," he is told bluntly. "First, the cheque amount is less than the minimum required to open an account (in most cases). Further, there have been instances in the recent past of government cheques issued to cotton farmers being dishonoured for lack of funds." 
               Further, he is told that he has to attach two passport size photographs to the application for opening an account, as proof of identity. 
"Where can I get them?" he asks. 
               "Go to any nearby studio. These days, you get instant photos in any digital studio for as little as Rs 30 (three-four copies). Attach two to the application and you will have a couple spare for future use," is the kind advice. 
               So, to realise a cheque for Rs 50, the poor farmer realises that he has to spend at least Rs 250. And, at the end of the day, there is no guarantee that the government cheque will be honoured. 
               A poor paddy peasant from the economically most-backward tribal district, on whom is dependent his family, gets a relief assistance of less than Rs 100, and to lay his hands on it, he has to spend Rs 300. 
10.11.2004                                                                                                                       - Sharad Joshi