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.”
In the wake of the suicides, the Kerala cabinet convened a special meeting on 5 March, in which it decided to extend the moratorium till 31 December this year. The next day, Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of the state, asked banks to halt the recovery proceedings in line with the moratorium order and have an “empathetic approach” towards farmers. But Tom Jose, the chief secretary of the state, did not issue the necessary order to extend the moratorium within two days, as stipulated in the Kerala Secretariat Manual, a set of rules and procedures for the state government. Meanwhile, the Election Commission’s model code of conduct for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections came into effect on 10 March, restricting the “announcement of new schemes/projects and also grant of new reliefs.”
As a result, the government then had to approach Teeka Ram Meena, the chief electoral officer of the state, for clearance of the proposal. Meena sought an explanation from the government about why it wants to pass the order when the model code of conduct is in place. Vijayan reportedly criticised Jose for failing to issue the order about extending the moratorium on time. On 30 March, Meena said that he had referred the matter to the Election Commission of India along with his recommendation favouring clearance. The order is yet to be passed. “It is not the failure of government officials, it exposes the lack of will ruling party in easing the agrarian crisis,” Roshy Augustine, a member of the Kerala Congress (M) and the Idukki constituency’s member of legislative assembly, told me.