Akola, Yavatmal, May:
Chaya Thakre, 38, is still to come to terms with the blows. Bruised, and shaken, she sits on a bed in Akola town’s general hospital, her two sons by her side.
“It was a close shave for her,” says her husband Sahebrao Thakre. “We’ve lost our land; I am lucky that my wife is still alive,” he says, completely shattered.
Two days ago, an “ideal” teacher in Lakhmapur village, some 60 km from Akola town, and his family tied Chaya by ropes and mercilessly beat her in her field.
Her fault: she had tried to stop her tormentors – the family of her moneylender from claiming possession of their farm and working it for the coming season.
“It is my land, they have grabbed it by deceit,” cries Chaya. “It’s the only thing we owned, and now it has been grabbed by this moneylender,” she complains.
Two years ago, when banks turned him down, a desperate Sahebrao borrowed Rs 20,000 from Sheshrao Sontakke, a recipient of President ‘ideal teacher’ award. In return, the teacher got him sign sale deed papers for his four-acre land.
A year later, as per the deal, Sahebrao repaid double his loan amount – Rs 40,000, to the teacher, and sought back the deed papers. But the Shylockian lender, who is alleged, to have in possession tens of acres of land grabbed from the distress-ridden farmers like Sahebrao against loans, coolly went back on his words.
Sahebrao lost his land, and money, but local Shiv Sena MLA Gulabrao Gawande won him possession of his land last year along with hundreds of others through a campaign against the moneylenders. Yet, legally, Sontakke still owns the land.
On May 22, when Sahebrao was away from his village, the Sontakkes entered the field and tried to claim possession of the farm. That’s when Chaya says she took on the moneylender and five others, including his wife Usha, and got thrashed.
This one’s a growing trend in Vidarbha – teachers turning neo-moneylenders.
In 2005, a farmer in Janunagaon village in Akola district, Santosh Sontake, lost both his father and land as a result of the growing racket of usurious lending. His father Gopal had “mortgaged” three and a half acres in the same fashion as the Thakres did to their moneylender. He too had borrowed only Rs 20,000 and in his case too, the lender was a primary school teacher and a big landowner.
“The land was worth Rs 5 lakh. He coaxed my father into signing the deed and staying with him for a while. The trouble began when I made my father see what was going on,” says Santosh.
Hired killers murdered Gopal Sontakke, and the police arrested Santosh. “The effort was to frame me for killing my own father.” However, the case collapsed the day one of the hired killers was nabbed. The teacher-sahucar is still free. And Santosh hasn’t got the deed of sale of his land scrapped. He has lost the land.
“It’s sad, but true,” says Congress member of Arni Panchayat Samiti in Yavatmal Vijay Raut. “If husband and wife both are teachers, they bring home Rs 30,000, and lending a huge chunk of it to desperate farmers guarantees high returns and land, if borrowers fail to repay loans,” he informs. “Interest rate could be as high as 60 to 120 per cent annually,” he says. “And that too at a compounded rate.”
Admits an executive member of the Vidarbha Madhyamik Skhikshan Sangh, an organization of middle-school teacher, in Yavatmal: “I’ve no hesitation in saying some of us are big moneylenders and land lords in villages, but that is not new.”
He says the recent Akola incident is a blot on the teachers’ fraternity. “Since the teachers covet respect in villages, the law enforcers often don’t look into the cases of money lending involving teachers. Now even gram sevaks are in the game.”
A teacher with the Zilla Parishad School at Dotodi village in Yavatmal’s Arni block admits on the condition of anonymity: “Many of us do lend money to the farmers in the village. Since we live here, we have to help them in their need.”
Mortgages are long out of the game; now legal sale deeds are in vogue. The state government ran a drive against moneylenders. Now it has been relaxed.
When you borrow money, you sign a deed saying you have 'sold' your land to your creditor. This deed is registered at the district deputy registrar's (DDR) office. The oral promise is that when you repay loan, your creditor tears up the document. But, he does not. And you find you have been robbed of your land.
Adds Raut: “Not all teachers, who lend money to farmers, are usurious though. But an overwhelming majority of them are into money-lending business.”
Explains farmers' leader in Wardha Vijay Jawandhia: “The governments awarded fifth pay scale to its emlpoyees as an acknowledgement of high-cost economy, but kept farmers in low-cost rural economy. This is one important factor that is aggravating the agrarian crisis and fueling the economic inequalities.” He says a farmer prefers to sell his 10-acre land and pay the fee of his son’s B.Ed. course, for, he feels a teacher’s salary is better than the returns from his agriculture.
Jawandhia says a Zilla Parishad teacher earns several times more than a small and marginal farmer does, annually. “Will the government ever realise this huge disparity and rectify it by giving farmers the prices in lieu of cost of living?”
Meanwhile, for Sahebrao, the episode has brought back the ugly memories of his father Gulabrao Thakre’s murder. Gulabrao was done to death on the issue of land grab allegedly by Sontakke’s relative in the same village, Govardhan.
“I am lucky to have my wife still by my side,” Sahebrao says.
Meanwhile, Gawande, a former minister, warns that there would be a bloodbath if the police don’t proceed against the moneylender and put him behind the bars.
But, Akola Superintendent of Police Shantaram Waghmare says he is helpless in this case. “The High Court has ruled in favour of the Sontakkes. Why did this woman try to stop them from tilling their land in the first place.” The verdict says Sontakke owns the land. “We can’t take action.” And that’s the saddest part.