Ashok Kumar was only 15 when his father passed away. A young, carefree Ashok was forced to drop out of school to feed his family consisting of his mother and five younger siblings. He started cultivating jowar and soya bean on the one-acre field that his father had received as his share of family land.
Over the next 10 years, Kumar worked hard to fulfill his responsibilities. He took care of the education of his siblings, married off his sisters and built a pucca house for his family. But plummeting income from agriculture, couple with successive droughts in his village in Nanded district of Maharashtra, meant that Kumar had to take numerous loans to meet these expenses. He owed Rs 2,50,000 to money lenders.
Kumar never showed his concern about unpaid debt to his family.
"He battled with the financial hardships alone and never discussed it with anyone in the family" said Amit, the eldest of the siblings after Kumar. "In the last few days of his life, he became very frail. He had stopped eating or speaking to anyone. Our mother was constantly scared of him hurting himself."
Despite the massive unpaid loan on his head, the one thing that kept Kumar going was hope that his name would appear on the list of beneficiaries of Maharashtra government's loan waiver scheme. He would show up at the village computer centre every day to check if the list was out.
On the afternoon of October 27, 2017, Kumar killed himself by hanging from the roof of his house. It was more than a week since he had found out that his name was not on the list.
Kumar was one of the many debt-ridden farmers in Maharashtra who were force to end their lives after the coveted farm loan waiver scheme failed to come to their rescue. All of them were struggling to repay the loan that they had taken from banks and other informal sources to support farm operations.
In June 2017, Maharashtra government had announced a loan waiver of Rs 34,022 crore for 89 lakh farmers. After five months, procedural row between the state and the banks over who will give the funds to settle the debt and erroneous list of beneficiaries submitted by the banks to the state government, the government finalised the first list of just 2,39,000 beneficiaries on October 27, 2017.
Officials from the state government, who had been struggling to bring out a clean error-free list of the beneficiaries, said that of the 2.39 lakh accounts, 1.01 lakh are debt-ridden farmers for which the government will be disbursing Rs 671.16 crore and the remaining 1.38 lakh are accounts that will get the cash-back incentive of upto Rs 25,000 for regularly re-paying their loans, for which the government will require Rs 227.95.(www.timesofindia.com)
Kumar clearly did not make it to the list of 1.01 lakh debt-ridden farmers who were to receive benefits in the first phase of the scheme. Who is to be blamed for this? Was it the state government that insisted on an online system that while eliminating the scope of bogus accounts and multiple beneficiaries from the same family caused delays? Was it the IT department that struggled to verify every bank account with the data that they procured from the SLBC? Or was it the banking officials that entered data not knowing that the lives of millions of farmers was dependent on it?
Five months after the farm loan waiver' announcement, farmers continue to take their lives in Maharashtra. As per the data reported by the six divisional commissionerates across the state, 2,414 farmer suicides were reported in the state between 1 January and 31 October.
The Amravati division, which accounts for five districts in Vidarbha, reported the highest number—907—followed by the Aurangabad division in Marathwada with 789. Vidarbha and Marathwada, which together account for 19 of the total 36 districts in Maharashtra, are the two regions whose severe agrarian crisis prompted the farm loan waiver. But ministers, farm sector experts, and activists say bureaucratic bottlenecks and technical snags have hampered the implementation of the scheme, aggravating the crisis. (www.livemint.com)
What wrecked the scheme?
To appreciate what went wrong it is important to understand the process devised by the government for generating a master list of farmers eligible for the waiver.
The broad eligibility criterion was this: The government would waive up to a maximum of Rs 1.50 lakh per farmer- family. This would ensure that one, the loan waiver would reach as many families as possible and two, that rich farmers would be kept out and only small and marginal farmers would benefit. Farmers who had paid up their loan would get an incentive of Rs 25,000. If there were cases of loan waiver and incentive within the same family (loan taken by different family members, some paid up some defaulted), the total outgo would still be capped at Rs 1.50 lakh per family.
To ensure purity of process and identification of beneficiaries, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis insisted on linking the bank accounts with Aadhaar numbers of the farmers. This would be a challenge because banks had given out loans as early as 2009 when there was no Aadhaar and the seeding of Aadhaar with bank accounts is at a very nascent stage even in urban areas. But Fadnavis was insistent on Aadhaar linkage because he wanted a high fidelity disbursal unlike in 2009 when the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) pointed out enormous leakages.
A two-way process was devised to collect data. Farmers across Maharashtra were asked to apply through the Aaple Sarkar portal. At the other end of the process banks across the state were asked to submit their list of defaulting farmers. Innowave, the government's IT vendor tasked with designing MahaOnline's direct benefit transfer (DBT) for more than 40 government schemes, was pulled into creating the processing system for the loan waiver scheme as well.
Top sources in the IT and Cooperation departments said that Innowave designed both the data-capture forms – one for farmers to fill in their details and one for the banks. The form given to the banks was extensive to say the least. Banks normally store the data of their loan accounts under 46 fields (name, age, city, loan amount, amount repaid, overdue etc). But the form they received from the Cooperation Department had 66 fields – 20 more than their own forms. But the information required in all these fields was such that the banks would have it with them, except of course Aadhaar (in some cases).
Having collected the data from both farmers and the banks, the job of the system integrator, Innowave, was to develop a software to match the two lists and come up with one master-list of beneficiaries. The software – rule-based engine in IT jargon – was developed on the basis of an elaborate allotment policy drawn up by the Cooperation Department. Such a master-list would be of high fidelity and perhaps set the template for governments across the country for leak-proof disbursal of farm waivers.
But thanks to the banks, it was not to be. Farmers had to register with their Aadhaar numbers which would be instantly verified on the Aadhaar central database even before they could access the form. So all the Aadhaar numbers provided by farmers were clean. The Aadhaar numbers supplied by the banks were another sordid story altogether.
Top officers supervising the work, SS Sandhu (additional chief secretary, Cooperation), V K Gautam (principal secretary IT, now sent on leave), D K Jain (additional secretary, Finance) and Praveen Pardesi (additional chief secretary to CM) put together a PowerPoint presentation to highlight the complete lack of integrity of the data provided by the banks. They pointed out as many as 11 major types of errors, not to mention the umpteen instances of entering invalid characters (such as dash, hyphen, asterisk, back slash etc). Here is a selection from that list of errors:
1. Using same saving account number for two related persons, husband and wife
2. Using same Aadhaar number for two unrelated persons
3. Wrong Aadhaar number for multiple entries
4. Wrong saving a/c number, same Aadhaar number for two unrelated persons (each name entered as a single string)
5. One name, one Aadhaar number, savings number and loan a/c numbers repeated over and over
6. Inconsistencies in bank data about status of loan
What potentially caused the errors?
According to a report published by Firstpost, banks outsourced the task of data entry to groups of college students and recent graduates, all of whom handled sensitive personal information without having signed a non-disclosure agreement or a formal contract.
The account that follows was gathered over the course of two days and resulted from a series of interviews conducted in Yavatmal district. While it is representative of a systemic failure in one bank, it points at two important aspects that merit consideration:
1. Banks hired young freelancers to vet data after 13 October, just five days short of 18 October, the day the loan waiver was supposed to be inaugurated with fanfare. This indicates that they (banks) were the ones who mangled the list of beneficiaries in the first place – even though they had more than four months to prepare the lists, which anyway should have been ready on day one considering that the government set the size of the loan waiver at Rs 34,000 crore based on information supplied by the banks.
2. Yavatmal is emblematic of a more widespread malaise; some of those we interviewed reported that banks in the neighbouring districts adopted a similar method to verify data.
The report underscores another important fissure in the government's project: The abandoning of one of its formative principles; that the process would be predicated on digitisation. What happened in Yavatmal was a reversal of the procedure by the banks, a return to tedious, error-prone manual data entry that almost entirely went against Fadnavis' stated objective.
Instead, students were handed hard copies of bank data, and, for an average fee of Rs 5 to Rs 6 per loan account, told to enter this information in Microsoft Excel sheets. Many of these young men barely slept four hours a day, and some of them processed up to 700 farmer loan details per day during that period. These youngsters worked on the data entry fete in the bank, along with bank officials. Almost all the freelancers admitted that they had little time to verify if the data was error-free, or indeed if repetitive entries had been made — a defect that had permeated the entire system.
Amol Jiddewar of Nagpur, who holds a Bachelor's degree in commerce and has studied C++, a computer programming language, and who was YDCC bank's go-to person for the entire data entry process in Pandharkawda, described how the system itself became infected.
Jiddewar said the government had set an "extremely difficult" deadline for the bank branch where he worked – keying in details of about 7,500 applications in just three days. This was after the government sent a list to the bank on 13 October. With 66 columns to be filled, each name took around 15 minutes on an average. Eleven people were hired by the bank for this task, and work went on nearly round the clock for three to four days, he told us. The freelancers were asked to fill the first 46 columns, while they were asked to write 'N/A' (not applicable) in the rest of them.
However, given that 11 people worked on the same data set simultaneously, the scope of error took on virulent proportions.
"Given the complexity of the data involved and the limited time at hand, it was no wonder so many mistakes happened," Jiddewar told FirstPost. "One cannot say for sure who is to blame for the confusion that has arisen. But it has caused difficulties to everyone concerned – farmers, bank officials as well as people like us."
"Difficulty" is putting it mildly. What this unravelling exemplifies is a schism that cleaves the fundamental nature of a scheme such as the one launched by Fadnavis; where a set of cascading missteps, ill-informed decisions, political constraints, and just plain daftness of the banks has undone what is essentially a sound policy.
The implementation of the loan waiver scheme still leaves a great deal to be desired. Due to glaring inconsistencies in the data submitted by the banks, the IT department of Maharashtra is struggling to verify bank details with application received from the farmers.
As of now, the scheme has benefitted 31 lakh farmers and loans worth Rs 12,262 crores have been waived. A total of 77 lakh farmers had applied for the loan waiver, out of which 69 lakh were found to be eligible for the scheme. Considering that only 31 lakh of them have received the benefits of the scheme, it is evident that for many farmers, the wait for the loan waiver may be a long one. (www.firstpost.com)
Although the government has assured that the scheme would be in place until the "last eligible farmer is included", the point is how many debt-ridden farmers of the likes of Kumar have the stamina to put up with the time taken by the government to rectify the errors in the scheme?