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And Don't Touch That Helpline

Bribe or Die

by P. SAINATH

When Boya Madhiletti approached the Andhra Pradesh government’s `helpline,’ the bankrupt farmer never thought it would land him in hospital and even jail. Madhiletti, 29, went by the advice of well-meaning neighbours. "There is an official helpline for farmers in distress," they told him. "So even if you are deep in debt, do nothing rash. Contact the helpline and they will do something."

So he did. Mr. Madhiletti’s brush with the helpline–which saw a revenue inspector harass him for a bribe–convinced him that suicide was the only way out. The indebted farmer tried killing himself right at the Collectorate in Mahbubnagar. He failed and wound up paying thousands of rupees in hospital costs. And the man who had gone to the helpline for aid, languished in jail on the charge of attempted suicide until his hard-up village took out a collection and raised bail for him.

The day he decided to kill himself, Mr. Madhiletti walked into the Red Cross Centre at Mahbubnagar town–to donate blood. "I thought if I am going to end my life, let someone benefit from it," he told us at his home in Rajouli village. "The Red Cross people said `we can’t give you money for your blood.’ That made me angry since I had not asked for any. I told them I was not doing it for payment. So they took my offer." He shows us the certificate dated August 11, 2005, confirming his blood donation.

"All I wanted from the Government was help with a bank loan. My family has 12 acres, after all, and surely we should get a loan against that land? But we could not." He is the eldest son in a family of 12.

"I tried for months to meet the officials and tell them of my problems," says Mr. Madhiletti. Rising costs and crop failure in successive seasons had left him Rs.3 lakh in debt [1 lakh = 100,000; $1 = c 44 rupees; so this debt was about US$6,800, eds]. This Mahbubnagar farmer grows sunflower, cotton, and maize. He also supplies seed to a private corporation. "The company gives us some advance money, towards input costs, through a middleman," says a neighbour. "Our risks are high, but the losses are never shared by the company or the middlemen." For Mr. Madhiletti, those losses just got too much. He had also spent close to Rs.3 lakh on two borewells and a pipeline.

"I approached the Chief Minister with a petition," he says. "He said he was handing over my plea to the District Collector and I should follow up there. I did, but it seemed impossible to meet anybody." Meanwhile, his debts were mounting and so was pressure from the middlemen. At one point, he says, he even saw the Collector. But "he did not speak. And I had no chance to explain." Nor was accessing other officers any easier.

After some weeks of this, when he was really depressed, the helpline idea came up. That was set up in 2004 by the newly elected Congress Government. Andhra Pradesh had witnessed thousands of distress suicides by indebted farmers since 1998. The idea was to counsel, advise, and assist farmers, and to stop them from taking the extreme step.

"Finally I got through to the MRO [Mandal Revenue Office]," says Mr. Madhiletti. "I was told a Revenue Inspector would enquire into my case. What is there to enquire, I asked. I am just seeking a bank loan and you can see my documents of land ownership right here."

"Next, the revenue inspector called me and asked me for a bribe. He said: `if you want a report in your favour without any fuss, pay me Rs.2,000. [i.e., about US$50] ‘ As simple as that." Mr. Madhiletti did not pay the bribe. "While I was out of town for a day, the RI went ahead and made the visit."

"Firstly," says Mr. Madhiletti, "my family did not want that sort of public exposure of our troubles." More importantly, "that visit of the officer scared off all potential creditors. Those who might have loaned me something now would not."

The bribe demand and all that followed it drove the farmer over the edge. "I tried meeting the Collector again, but failed. I also went to the Red Cross and gave blood."

Mr. Madhiletti returned to the Collectorate and waited hours but was still unable to meet anyone. That was when he consumed the pesticide he had bought the same day. After an attender at the office found him lying in agony, he was bundled into a car and rushed to the Nizam Institute of Medical Sciences (NIMS) in Hyderabad some 100 km away. All this was done in a matter of hours by officials who had had no time to meet him in months. "One officer went all the way to Hyderabad with him," says a neighbour.

"He spent nearly two weeks at NIMS," says his father Easwaranna. "The costs came to over Rs.10,000." Mr. Madhiletti came home on August 23. The distraught farmer had not yet recovered from his ordeal when the police showed up at his door and booked him for attempted suicide. "I spent one night at the station and was produced the next morning in court," he says. He then went to jail for about 15 days. He might have stayed in longer since he had no money for bail. "But we got together a collection and helped him out," say his neighbours

So Mr. Madhiletti emerged from jail thanks to the few thousand rupees put up by his friends. He’s been summoned to court twice since then. "But each time, the case was adjourned without a hearing. The last date was January 7 this year." He again failed to meet the Collector. But after news of the event spread, officials ensured he got a bank loan of Rs.20,000 at eight per cent interest.

The villagers, though, have drawn a bleak lesson from this saga of a little farmer and the mighty apparatus of state. "From their point of view," says a local journalist, "none of this would have happened if he had paid that bribe of Rs.2,000. He would have had no problem." But Mr. Madhiletti has little time for reflection. He has to fulfil his contract with an unsparing seed company.

 

And Then The Sequel

HYDERABAD, March 20.

Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy has directed the Mahabubnagar District Collector to inquire into the incident in which a 29-year-old farmer landed in jail after he attempted to commit suicide frustrated by the indifference of the administration in coming to his rescue.

"Deeply upset" after reading the article by P. SAINATH in The Hindu on March 16 on the plight of the farmer, B. Madhiletti, the Chief Minister directed the Collector to submit immediately a detailed report to him, according to a press release from his office.

Expressing concern over the "indifference" of some senior officials at the district level towards the grievances of the rural poor and farmers, Dr. Reddy said Collectors and other officials should maintain direct contact with NGOs, leaders and farmer groups on a regular basis to get an insight into their problems. Such interaction would enable the officers to take correct decisions and help the weaker sections and oppressed classes.

He directed the Collectors to interact with people more frequently to hear their grievances and receive petitions. Exhorting them to play the role of facilitators in solving the problems of people, he said they should become role models for others by observing high standards in public life. He said: "My Government is dedicated to the welfare of the farmers. I do not want any farmer, however, small he may be, to be denied justice and turned away by officials."

He asked the Collectors to strengthen the helpline at the district and mandal levels to hear the problems of farmers, women, dalits and students. He asked them to make night halts in mandal headquaters or villages to get a grasp of the problems and set up a mechanism to brief the media regularly. They should also make surprise visits to keep a check on the implementation of Government programmes and works.

The Chief Minister appreciated the performance of some Collectors, including those of Ranga Reddy, Khammam and Guntur districts in redressing grievances of farmers, women. He lauded the pro-active measures taken by Collectors of West Godavari and Krishna in removing encroachments from the Kolleru lake

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu (where these two pieces initially ran) and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.