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By the farmers, for the farmers

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment
The farmer’s leader: A.C.Varkey

Farmers Relief Forum remains the only ray of hope for poor farmers who are threatened by money lenders and recovery prodecures from banks.

Pulpally, Jan 7 : Subhadra would have had to leave her house and the 85 cents in which it stood, if not for the intervention of the Farmers Relief Forum (FRF).Seven years back her family had taken an agriculture loan of Rs.75,000 from the Urban Co-Operative Society in Pulpally. Now the debt had added up to about Rs.3 Lakh – an amount they can not even figure out. They had taken the loan to cultivate pepper and ginger. Errant monsoon and resultant crop failure has driven them into severe poverty. “Earlier we could make enough money from farming. But the crops failed repeatedly”, explained Subhadra. 

 Her husband suffers from acute asthma and diabetes. All he can do is to sit and sell lottery tickets. Subhadra’s health does not allow her to go to work either. Her only daughter has been married off to a farmer. Subhadra had got her daughter to study till B.Com and Health Inspector Course, but she could not find a job. With tears in her eyes Subhadra said, “This house and the land is the dowry of my daughter and if the bank recovered it her husband would abandon her.”

Tales such as hers are common in Pulpally. Jose Pazhukkal of Padichira and Mini of Seethamunde couldn’t repay their loans as the turn over from farming had touched rock bottom. It was the FRF’s efforts that saved them from their house and land being recovered by banks and money lenders.

It was the Frontline Magazine report (March 15- 28, 2008 issue) that estimated that: ‘Between mid-2004 and May 2007, amid crop damage, falling prices and mounting debt, Kerala reported nearly 2,000 peasant suicides, the majority of them in the hill districts of Wayanad and Idukki’. According to media reports, 130 farmers and agricultural workers have committed suicide in 2004 alone.

A.C.Varkey, Chariman of FRF, said that the banks tricked illiterate people into signing documents and converted agriculture loans in to housing loans so that loan waivers could be avoided and more interest could be extracted. Poor illiterate farmers who are unaware of all these procedures fell easily into this trap.

Birth of FRF

There was a time the farmers in Wayanad had dedicatedly followed the political parties in the hope that they would help the farmers solve their problems and support them when in distress. The election manifestos with loan waiver schemes and farmers relief measures gave them high hopes and assured them solutions to all their problems. But the changing Left and right governments forgot them as soon as they came to power. In 1986, they had participated in the hunger strike organised by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) asking to write-off agricultural loans, but when E.K.Nayanar came to power this issue was not considered. The United Democratic Front (UDF) also remained unconcerned when it came to power. That is when these farmers decided to leave the mainstream organizations and form a group of their own to find solutions to their problems.

It was A.C.Varkey, a revolutionary leader who had been fighting for farmer’s rights in association with Congress(S) who believed that to work realise farmer’s rights, the farmers will have to break away from big political parties. In 1989 he organized the farmers ,with the help of Thengil Ibrayi, to form the ‘Karshika Kadashwasa Samithi’ which had a membership of 1500 farmers. The implementation of the V.P.Singh Government’s agriculture loan waiver scheme of Rs.10,000 was much delayed in Kerala. Despite the loan waiver scheme, the banks sent recovery notices to farmers and even tricked the illiterate farmers into renewing the loans. The Samiti got a stay order for six months from the High Court in 1992. But the farmers had to get Collector’s approval for getting the loan waiver. Those farmers who met at the Collector’s office formed the ‘Farmer’s Relief Forum’(FRF). Varkey, the Chairman of FRF, became the heart and soul of this organization.

Local loan fund – an initiative of the FRF was also the brain child of Varkey. The members paid Rs.200 each and this money was used to repay the loans of poor farmers. It became a huge success with 44 units in Wayanad. FRF then turned to small production initiatives like umbrella making (Farm Umbrellas) and note book production which were distributed through ‘family schemes’. A stationary shop was started at Nadavayal by collecting shares of Rs.1000, with an aim to sell quality products at reasonable prices. A public distribution chain was started in Koodarenji and people’s trade centres at Anakkampoyil and Punnakkal.

 As the FRF stated to extend its activities outside Wayand, a State Co-ordination committee was formed to organize and regulate its activities. FRF garnered the support of other organizations, social workers, writers and artistes. With Varkey’s untiring efforts the FRF organized agricultural seminars to understand new and evolving issues in agriculture. FRF leaders were also invited for the Inter Continental Caravan ’99 which was an effort to organize protests and uprisings in 35 countries across the world against the globalization of economy. They raised their voice for justice, equality and liberty for farmers all over the world.

It was the FRF’s timely intervention which resulted in the ‘Neera samaram’ (Neera Strike) in 2001 that rescued many coconut farmers from being bankrupt.. The price of coconut had declined sharply and there was widespread attack of a disease called ‘Mandari’. FRF held demonstrations for the right to tap ‘neera’ (a drink of less alcoholic content) from their coconut trees which was otherwise controlled by the State government.

 When the doors of justice closed on them, the FRF members resorted to innovative methods to fight against banks and authorities. In protest against the recovery of property by the banks, farmers under the leadership of FRF took crops, farm animals and household goods to banks and income tax offices. They marched to banks beating drums, mocking the insensitive bank recovery procedures. FRF members even tied up bank employees and demanding release of poor farmers who were jailed for their failure to repay loans.

 Soon the Local Loan Fund and the family funds had to be closed as many failed to repay the money. The membership fee was returned. ‘Farm Umbrellas’ and the shops couldn’t function further because of lack of funds.The banks were hesitant to give loan to the Forum since it comes under the Charitable Society Act. The FRF’s political wing is known as ‘Karshaka Janakeeya Munnani’. Though they were defeated in the elections (2004) ,they got a good number of votes against leading political parties and in some places even more than them. In the next panchayat elections three FRF candidates won in Pulpally. Despite the financial difficulties, arrests and court procedures against its members, FRF still continues its fight for justice for the farmers and lends its helping hand whenever the need arises.

 

Written for the ‘Covering Deprivation’ section of ACJNewsline.(http://acjnewsline.asianmedia.org.in/index.html)