A simple RTI (right to information) query has confirmed the worst fears of planners and activists regarding implementation of the prime minister’s and chief minister’s special relief package for distressed farmers in suicide-prone Vidarbha
Social activist and journalist Vilas Wankhede, who put in an RTI application a month ago, has unearthed what appears to be a huge scam relating to relief schemes for the families of farmers who committed suicide in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. The revelations point to large-scale corruption and irregularities in implementation of a subsidised cattle scheme in Yavatmal district, known to be the epicentre of farmer suicides. The prime minister’s Rs 3,750 crore package and the chief minister’s Rs 1,075 crore package cover six districts of Vidarbha.
Wankhede alleges that the scheme, in which 50% of the cost of buying a cow or a buffalo is subsidised by the government for poor, bereaved farmer families, is being abused by undeserving beneficiaries including a six-time former Member of Parliament (MP), relatives of a sitting Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and several former MLAs.
The information, provided by the deputy commissioner of Yavatmal’s animal husbandry department, says former Congress MP Uttamrao Patil and members of his family got 10 cows, sitting MLA of Digras Sanjay Deshmukh’s wife and mother got a cow each, ex-minister and former guardian minister of Nagpur district Shivajirao Moghe’s relatives got eight cows, four relatives of Wani ex-MLA Wamanrao Kasawar’s got eight cows, while Congress leader Suresh Lonkar’s relatives bagged six cows. The contractor who supplied the cows, Amol Kshirsagar, also got a subsidy on two cows!
The cattle scheme was put in place to help the families of indebted farmers who were the sole breadwinners and had ended their lives. Also, BPL families living along the state dairy’s milk procurement route. Its purpose was to enable distressed families to supplement their income as farming had become uneconomical in Vidarbha’s unirrigated cotton-growing hinterland.
Wankhede said the “well-off and influential” beneficiaries also took advantage of funds provided for fodder; many availed of insurance by claiming that the animals had died. The information provided in response to the RTI query further showed that despite distributing thousands of mulch cows, each costing around Rs 14,000, milk collection in the district had declined. The collection figure on June 1, 2006, was 6,521 litres; on the last day of that month it was 5,359 litres.
The Narendra Jadhav committee report on implementation of relief schemes in Vidarbha had mentioned widespread corruption and the supply of relief material at inflated costs, and activists are now demanding a CBI probe, besides seeking the prime minister’s intervention. “If the government fails to order a CBI enquiry we will file a public interest litigation,” said Wankhede.
In response, Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh ordered an inquiry by a panel to be headed by Gopal Reddy, director of the V P Naik Mission for Farmers. “Deshmukh has asked for comprehensive information on beneficiaries of the special package for the entire Vidarbha region. Once we get the details we will decide on the course of action to be taken against those who have wrongfully helped themselves to the relief measures,” said a top official in Mumbai.
A preliminary inquiry has revealed that the cattle was distributed during the tenure of Harshadeep Kamble, former district collector of Yavatmal. There are specific guidelines for selecting beneficiaries by a four-member committee, headed by the collector and comprising the chief executive officer, a zilla parishad member, a district animal husbandry officer and a deputy commissioner (revenue) who is a member secretary of the panel. “From the RTI data it appears that the panel did not verify the credentials of the applicants and wrongly chose beneficiaries,” the official said.
Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region has recorded an extremely high number of farmer suicides in the past decade or so. According to National Crime Records Bureau statistics, one-fifth of the 1.66 lakh farmer suicides between 1997 and 2005 have been in Maharashtra. Close to 2 million people in six districts were officially recorded as living “under maximum distress”. Another 5 million were said to be “under medium distress”.
When the packages were announced by the prime minister and chief minister, in 2005, they were called “insane” by Planning Commission members and farm activists. Giving quality cows to thousands of poor farmers in the six most troubled districts of the region was a high profile element in the relief packages. The first aimed at bringing 40,000 new cows to the region in three years; the second, 18,000 in the same period.
Expensive cows were given to poor farmers who had to fork out quite a sum on their upkeep. Many complained that the animals had been forced on them and were eating more than “our entire families”. “It takes Rs 45 a day to keep that creature alive,” Vijay Jawandia, the region’s leading thinker on agriculture, pointed out. “So, on an increase of one litre, the farmer loses Rs 30 a day in the added cost the cow brings.”
Critics are demanding strict action against those involved in the scam. Farmer leader Kishor Tiwari has demanded that criminal cases be filed against politicians, holding them indirectly responsible for the continuing farmer suicides in the region.
Tiwari said seven farmers had committed suicide during the Ganesh festival in Vidarbha, taking the number of suicides in 2008 to 562. He claimed that the suicides were continuing because the benefits did not reach needy farmers. “They are being appropriated by politicians as the cattle distribution scam shows.”
Source: http://agrariancrisis.wordpress.com, September 2008
http://vidarbhajanandolansamiti.blogspot.com, September 2008
The Hindu, July 14, 2006