BOOK EXCERPT

First-hand account: This is how farmers in India are cheated at every stage

When IT professional Venkat Iyer decided to give up his career to become a farmer, he was completely unprepared for the rampant corruption in agriculture.

Corruption was a way of life in the village. Be it the local sarpanch, the talati or the ration shop owner, each one was out to fool the villagers and extract money out of them.

My first encounter with this was at the local ration shop. Since I did not have a card in the village I asked Baban if I could buy some kerosene using his card. I needed it to light the lamps in the evening when there was no power. He gave his card saying that he was entitled to 10 litres but needed only five so I could buy the balance. At the ration shop in Dhamatne, the next village, the man said I could only get five as the stock was less. When he charged me Rs 60, I was puzzled since I knew that kerosene cost Rs 9 or 10 a litre. When I asked for the bill, he refused saying no one took a bill in these areas. I glanced at what he had written in the register and saw that it was less than Rs 10 per litre.

It meant he had charged an extra Rs 2 per litre. When I protested, he told me, “It is none of your business. You got kerosene, that is good enough.”

I was enraged at this retort and told him that if he did not give me the bill I would complain to the officer. His reaction was a short guffaw, followed by a statement that he had been authorised by the officer to get more money for each litre. So the proceeds were being shared right up to the top. I returned to the village with kerosene that cost me Rs 60 while the official cost was Rs 48 odd. I called a few elders and explained to them how the ration shop owner was taking them for a ride and charging extra from each villager. They nodded wisely but told me they could not do anything about this.

The ration shop owner had a palatial house which he got painted every year. He had two sons who drove around in their jeeps and mostly behaved as if the village and its surrounding areas belonged to them. It was obvious that he had made a lot of money selling ration to the villagers since for every cricket tournament he would donate 50 kilograms of rice to be used for the food made for the players. It was as if he was atoning for the sins he had committed all year round.

The next incident was at the panchayat office where the entire village including me had gone to buy groundnut seeds from the government. The government was giving us a 50% subsidy on each sack. It was my first time at the panchayat office and I just followed the villagers. We all stood in a long queue waiting for our turn to pay the money and collect the receipt. The receipt had to be shown at the godown next door where we could collect our groundnut seed sacks. When my turn came, a rude officer pushed a register towards me and asked for my thumb impression. I said I wished to sign. He looked up in astonishment and thrust a pen towards my nose. I signed and paid Rs 600 for a 30 kilo sack. I bought two such sacks. He did not give me a receipt but just a piece of paper on which was scribbled “two sacks”. I noticed that the register where I had signed had nothing written on it except my name and the figure two.

We all went to the godown and collected our sacks. I was seeing them for the first time and examined them closely. I noticed that there was a small tag attached to it signed by an officer of the government of Maharashtra, which listed the name, date of manufacture, quantity and price of each sack. The price was listed as Rs 990 per sack. Considering that the government offered 50% subsidy, the price we should have paid was Rs 495 per sack, but we were charged Rs 600. I went back to the officer who had taken the money and asked him about the higher rate.

Mr Y, the officer, looked up from his register and said, “Can’t you see so many people are taking it without questioning? If you don’t want it, we can refund the money to you.”

I just walked out of his cabin and went to the Block Development Officer (BDO) who was the final authority in these matters. At first, the sepoy outside tried to persuade me to not meet him, saying sahib was busy and suggested I return the next day. I was about to leave when I noticed a board with the timings when the BDO would meet the public and it happened to be the very day I was there. The timings also matched and there was no way he could refuse to meet me. I pointed out the notice to the sepoy and told him that if the BDO was busy in a meeting, then I was willing to wait till it got over. I had learnt a bitter lesson earlier at the pranth office and knew the ways and means of the people working in these offices. Had I left and returned the next day he would have shown me the very same notice.

The sepoy reluctantly went in with my card and within a few minutes, ushered me into the cabin. A young BDO was staring at a presentation on his computer screen. I narrated the entire story to him and asked for his intervention in finding out the right price for the groundnuts. He claimed complete ignorance of the whole episode and summoned Mr Y. He arrived within a few minutes and glared at me for a good minute or two before asking his boss what the matter was. The BDO questioned him about the price. He asked Mr Y how he had arrived at the figure of Rs 600 per sack. His explanation was stranger than the one Mr Z at the revenue department had offered his boss.

Mr Y claimed he had never seen a sack of groundnut seeds before and was not aware that the price was written on it. He claimed he had received a circular from Thane, which was the district headquarters, stating the price as Rs 1200 and so he was charging Rs 600. I quickly went out of the cabin and summoned one of our village boys to bring a sack of groundnuts into the cabin. I told the BDO that I wanted Mr Y to now examine the sack in detail. Both the BDO and Mr Y gathered around the sack and examined it as if they were seeing it for the first time. They declared I was right and the price was indeed Rs 990.

The next request from the BDO was to see the circular which had come from the head office stating the price as Rs 1200. Mr Y calmly told him that the file in which he had kept the circular had been sent to the collector for some other work and he did not have it with him right now. He left saying that he had a lot of work and there was a long line of villagers waiting outside his cabin for the groundnuts.

An embarrassed BDO offered me tea and tried to cover up for his subordinate’s rudeness. He went on to explain how they were doing exemplary work in the taluk and invited me to see his presentation on the computer. I gently turned the topic back to the question of the price when he grandly declared that he would take it up with the head office since obviously the goof-up had happened there. He promised to keep me posted and in case there was a refund on the seeds, he would arrange to have it sent to the village directly. I invited him to our village and left.

Outside Mr Y had called a few guys he knew from the village and asked who I was and where I came from. He told them that I was raking up unnecessary issues and if this went on, the government would have to rethink the subsidy policy and may be forced to withdraw subsidy on groundnut seeds. A frantic group was waiting outside to ask me to slow down and let it be. After all it was only Rs 100 extra per sack that he was charging.

I tried to explain to them that Mr Y had no control over the subsidy and these matters were decided at the highest levels. It was of no use since the entire village looked at Mr Y as the messiah who gave subsidies to them.

I realised the futility of fighting the system alone and returned to the village. The system had ingrained corruption into the villagers so much that they felt it was okay if the government officials charged a bit extra. After all, they were only taking a bit, not all of it.

The next day, while chatting with Moru Dada, I casually asked him how much he had paid for the groundnut seeds. It transpired that they had been charged Rs 630 per sack the very next day after we had picked up our quota. I wondered what could have happened in one night to increase the rate by another Rs 30. Probably, another circular from the head office that could not be traced!

A few months later I happened to visit the panchayat office to check if they had any other items on subsidy which I could buy. I met a most cordial Mr Y who saw me and said, “Where did you disappear? You should visit us more often.” He then went on to offer me various items on subsidy like the sickle, the sprayer and many varieties of seeds. He even offered to enrol me in certain schemes where I could allegedly make money. He was kind enough to recommend a vendor close by who would provide me with a bill for a nominal fee of Rs 100. I just smiled at each suggestion of his and left the office in disgust. To ensure that I kept quiet he was trying to drag me into dishonest schemes in the guise of subsidy. Till date I have not received any reply from the BDO on the available subsidies and he makes it a point to avoid me each time he comes to the village.

The modus operandi of the government officers was very simple. Target the most influential person in the village and offer him some sop or scheme. Once he was bought over, he could not object when they went about looting villagers who were either too scared to raise questions or just did not have the time or money to follow up on these matters. A single visit to Dahanu would set back a villager by Rs 40 in 2004. Who would want to travel to Dahanu every once in a while to chase these officers? Everyone in the government knew this and used the simple tactic of procrastination to deter any villager who showed even a semblance of revolt.

Excerpted with permission from Moong Over Microchips: Adventures of a Techie-Turned-Farmer, Venkat Iyer, Penguin Random House India.

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