RBI diktat notwithstanding, moratorium on Kerala farmers' loans to stay

RBI diktat notwithstanding, moratorium on farmers' loans to stay
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Agriculture Minister V S Sunilkumar said on Thursday that the government would do whatever was necessary to ensure that farmers enjoyed moratorium till December 31 on all kinds of loans they had taken. The minister's statement comes close on the heels of Reserve Bank of India's reported disapproval of the extension of the moratorium till December 31 this year.

Sunilkumar even hinted at combative steps to protect farmers. He said Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself will talk to bankers on June 25 and tell them of the need to keep the moratorium going till December 31. “If they disregard our request and arbitrarily go ahead with attachment of farmers' properties under the SARFAESI Act, the government will not cooperate with them,” the minister said in the Assembly on Thursday.

He said he was even willing to meet the RBI governor to apprise him of the specific issues faced by farmers in the state. “I had tried to meet him twice but was unable to get an appointment,” he said. It was opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala who suggested that the minister should meet the RBI governor.

RBI diktat notwithstanding, moratorium on farmers' loans to stay
Farmers were among the worst hit during the 2018 floods.

Nonetheless, the minister said the RBI's decision was not a cause for worry. “What the RBI has said is that it will not further extend the deadline for the rescheduling and restructuring of farmers' loans beyond December 31 last year,” the minister said. “As for the moratorium, the RBI has said the State-Level Bankers' Committee (SLBC) could take a decision at its level,” he said. Meaning, the moratorium will stay if the SLBC is game.

This is why, he said, the chief minister had called for a SLBC meeting on June 25. It was a special cabinet meeting held on March 5 this year that had decided to extend the moratorium on loan-recovery proceedings on agricultural loans to December 31 from the earlier deadline of October 31. By then, 13 farmers had committed suicide in Idukki and Wayanad districts in the aftermath of the floods. Given the crisis in the agriculture sector, the SLBC had agreed to the government's request.

RBI diktat notwithstanding, moratorium on farmers' loans to stay
Agriculture Minister V S Sunilkumar

The banks, however, had to get the approval of the RBI before putting the moratorium in place. The RBI's latest diktat came when the banks approached it seeking sanction for extending the moratorium. “We will ask the bankers to use the discretion that the RBI has now given them,” the minister said.

He said other grave issues would also be taken up during the SLBC meeting. “Under article 31 (i) of the SARFAESI Act, agricultural land is exempted from the extraordinary provisions of the Act. But banks in Kerala consider only paddy fields as agricultural land, treating all other farmers - spices, rubber, fruit and vegetable - just like ordinary people. This has to change,” the minister said.

He said the banks were blindly attaching farmers' properties even after the floods that the government had to constitute sub-committees in Idukki and Wayanad, districts most affected in the floods, and ask the banks to route their SARFAESI claims through these sub-committees.

RBI diktat notwithstanding, moratorium on farmers' loans to stay
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan

Perhaps as a negotiating point, Sunilkumar hinted that the performance of banks were not above board. “Most of the loans given to the primary sector are agricultural gold loans. But these are not availed of by farmers. It is not as if the banks are not aware of this,” the minister said. “We will insist that such loans should be given only to bona fide farmers, only to those who submit a certificate from the agriculture officer,” he said.

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