Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan

Big Landowners Steal Benefits of Govt. Anti-Poverty Schemes

The peasant woman sobs as she recalls how her family was duped with a promise of help by the village headman, who said this was being offered under a government scheme for people like her in this rural north Indian district.

But instead of getting the promised goats, Ramrati Kols household now finds itself saddled with a 17,000 rupees (about 380 U.S. dollar) debt for a loan it never took. This is more than the annual income of her eight-member family, which includes six daughters.

Loan recovery officials from the rural branch of the government- run bank say they have documents with thumb impressions of the illiterate woman and her husband, showing the bank had loaned them 10,000 rupees a few years ago.

Ramrati now knows why the headman, who was chosen by the villagers in an election, had asked her and her husband to put their thumb marks on some papers and got them photographed. It was not as she was then told, to enable them to apply for free goats under the rural development scheme, but for a government loan meant for poor people like her.

Instead of giving the money to her, the landlord, in collusion with corrupt bank officials, had pocketed the money himself.

We have never seen this kind of money. How can we even think of paying back such a loan, a loan that was never taken, says Ramrati, speaking in the local language.

The loan recovery official has threatened them with arrest if they do not repay. He has advised Ramratis family to sell off its small farm lot, which yields far less than is needed to feed the large family. Like many other peasant households, Ramrati, her husband and grown up children, also work on the fields of big landowners.

The village headman has refused to help them. Can you imagine what he told us? He said, It is none of my business. It is your worry, you handle it yourself, she says.

Ramratis family is not alone in being duped. Scores of peasant households in several villages of Chitrakut, which lies in one of India's poorest regions, have been similarly cheated of the benefits of government-run rural poverty alleviation schemes.

Like in several other parts of the mainly rural nation, powerful landowners and corrupt rural development officials in Chitrakut are duping illiterate villagers to siphon off funds meant to raise living standards of the poor.

At least nine other families in Ramratis village have been defrauded in similar ways.

We live constantly in terror of loan recovery officials. As soon as we hear that a recovery official is coming to the village, we flee to the fields, says Hiranya Kol of the same village who was also fooled into signing documents showing that he took a large loan from the bank.

A peoples group, Akhil Bhartiya Samaj Seva Sansthan (ABSSS) is trying to help the duped villagers. Their case has also been taken up by Indias National Commission For Women, which has organised a public hearing on the issue in the area.

As a result, the headman of Ramratis village was sent to jail for some weeks. But he has since come out and the tricked families still fear penal action for defaulting on loans they never took.

The people live in terror, says ABSS chief G.P. Gopal. Some have been arrested. There is also the threat that their small farms will be auctioned off, he says.

On the one hand, the government speaks of redistributing surplus rural land among the poor and on the other, these people can lose their land for loans they never took, says Gopal.

Chotu Kol, who lives in another village of Chitrakut, cannot understand why the big landowners, who already have much land, want to cheat the poor. Like Ramrati, Chotus family too was trapped into debt by the village headman who is a big landowner.

He told us he would get loans for us on very easy terms. He got our pictures and thumb marks on paper. After 15 days, we were told there was no loan as the scheme had been cancelled. So we forgot about it till we got a recovery notice for 14,000 rupees, he recalls.

Munna, Chunna, Lalji, Hari and Krishna, who belong to different families in other villages, tell the same story. A few years ago, two peasants in Chitrakut killed themselves when they found themselves in debt for a loan they never took.

The top district government official in Chitrakut, Jagannath Singh, admits that there have been several cases of fraudulent loans under rural development schemes. Singh says he has ordered a temporary halt in the recovery of loans in cases where it is clear that these were obtained by deceit.

However, as Gopal points out, this is only temporary relief for the cheated peasants. The government should order a detailed probe into the affair and where fraud is established, the debt should be written off permanently, he says.

But it is more important to punish the guilty to deter those who would otherwise continue denying the benefits of rural anti-poverty schemes to those in need, he adds.

Bharat Dogra, Grassroots Media Network
Courtesy of InterPress Third World News Agency

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