Sreekumar was a 59-year-old farmer from Kerala’s Idduki district who cultivated vegetables, pepper and nutmeg on his small farm. His entire farm—an area of 2.3 acre—was destroyed in the deluge that swept Kerala in August 2018. Idduki was one of the worst-affected areas. Sreekumar’s son, Anoop S, said that his father owed seven lakh to the Federal Bank Limited, a private bank, and Rs 17 lakh to the Idukki District Cooperative Bank, or the IDCB—amounts he had no way of repaying after the loss of his farm. “Both banks had sent a series of repayment notices,” Anoop told me. His father tried to sell their land to pay the loan but he could not find a buyer because it was “declared mudslide prone after the flood,” Anoop said. Unable to repay the loans, Sreekumar consumed poison on 15 January. He died the next day.
The 2018 flood was the most severe deluge that Kerala had seen in almost a century. The United Nations pegged the total loss caused by the flood across the state at Rs 31,000 crore, and according to the 2018 Kerala Economic Review report, it resulted in crop losses of over Rs 3,500 crore. On 20 August 2018, the State Level Bankers’ Committee in Kerala, an inter-institutional forum where the government and banks coordinate on matters pertaining to banking developments, approved relief measures for flood-affected areas. The SLBC stated that the crop loss in affected areas was above 50 percent and decided the guidelines for a moratorium on loan-recovery proceedings for loans taken for agriculture, housing and education, among other purposes.
In October last year, the state government instituted the moratorium on recovery proceedings for agricultural loans, for nearly one year. But farmers in Kerala’s Idukki district have reportedly received notices from both commercial and cooperative banks, that threatened to attach or auction their assets as a part of recovery proceedings. According to Shaji Thundathil, a 52-year-old farmer and social activist, the pressure tactics of some of these banks have led at least eight farmers in the district to commit suicide this year. For farmers in Idukki, mounting debts have exacerbated the crises of fluctuating crop prices, and the destruction caused by a drought in the state in 2016 and the 2018 floods. Farmers are usually “strong” and “optimistic,” Thundathil told me. “Now, it seems they have lost hope.”