The Supreme Court’s strictures against Vilasrao Deshmukh for interfering in the enforcement of a law that regulates private money lending while he was the chief minister of Maharashtra are not only a blot on the DF government in the state, but also a reminder of an unabated exploitation of the peasantry.
The strongly worded verdict that imposes a fine of Rs 10 lakh on the state government also comes as a major embarrassment to an already troubled UPA government, and particularly the Congress party, as Deshmukh is currently a union minister (for heavy industries) in the Manmohan Singh-cabinet.
The case, which highlights a victim peasant’s indomitable grit to take on the powers-that-be despite risk to his life, also brings to fore the political patronage private usurers enjoy, maiming the debt-trapped peasantry. The development is bound to raise a storm in the ongoing winter session of the legislature in Nagpur, though no immediate reaction was forthcoming on Tuesday from the Sena-BJP opposition.
It all began in 2006 with a letter that Shangdhar Singh Chavan, a 54 year-old victim peasant, wrote to the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court on behalf of the 55 debt-ridden farmers.
The beleaguered farmers said in the letter that neither the Buldana Superintendent of Police nor the collector was paying any heed to their complaints against Gulabchand Sananda, the usurer father of the Congress MLA from Khamgaon (Buldana district), Dilip Sananda. The farmers had alleged in their complaint that the Sanandas had usurped their farmland against the money they borrowed.
The high court suo motto converted the farmer’s letter into a writ petition. In March 2009, delivering its verdict, the high court flayed the then chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, for “the gross abuse of power” and directed the state government to pay Rs 25,000 to the petitioners as the cost of petition.
Deshmukh's then personal secretary had asked the police not to register a FIR on the complaint of the farmers, an instruction that got recorded in the police diary. Subsequently, he had instructed the district collector that he’d personally look into the matter before any action was taken against the Sanandas.
Chavan’s letter to the high court actually epitomized hundreds of farmers’ grievances against the private usurers across the crisis-ridden Vidarbha, particularly the ones indebted to the Sanandas. The Congress MLA’s family is alleged to be big moneylenders in Khamgaon, with a reign of terror in the region.
Elated by the SC verdict Chavan told DNA from Khamgaon over telephone, the government must help complainant-farmers get back the land from the clutches of the Sanandas. He said he lost 14-and-a-half acres of land in his native village Hingnakadegaon, near Khamgaon, to the Sanandas against the loans he took from them in 1993 and subsequently in 1995. He’s managed to keep three acres in his possession.
While the government reckons it needs to bring in stringent laws to reign in the private money lenders the amendment to the existing legislation has been pending. The government essentially wants to bring in 12 rules to monitor the private usury violating the laws and give relief to the trapped peasants. There are stricter punitive clauses, the draft Bill that has been referred to a joint select committee suggests.
The number of farmers who sought recourse to private lenders despite the loan waiver package rose to 574,046 (2008-09) in Maharashtra compared to 423,213, the previous year.
“It’s a political conspiracy against me,” a defiant Dilip Sananda told reporters in Khamgaon. “There is no mention of my name in the police records, and there was never any pressure from me or the then CM,” he maintained. He refused to comment on the Supreme Court verdict, saying “I am yet to read it.”
“The chief minister had no business to interfere in the functioning of the 1946 Act to regulate money lending in the state,” the Supreme Court said while dismissing the Maharashtra government's appeal challenging the Bombay High Court order and enhancing the cost of petition to Rs 10 lakh.
“This is historic decision,” Kishor Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, a farmers’ movement, said in a statement, urging the prime minister to sack Vilasrao and take legal action against the legislator.