Even as banks have given an assurance to the Punjab & Haryana High Court that they would return blank cheques taken as informal security from small and marginal farmers against loans of up to Rs 10 lakh, there is continuing tension brewing in Punjab’s agrarian landscape. And that’s coming from kurki or attachment of farmers’ land by banks in the event of their defaulting on loan installments.
The Indian Express had in a report on February 18, detailed instances of farmers facing trial or even conviction in criminal cases of cheque-bouncing filed by banks under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act.
The banks had allegedly taken signed blank cheques from farmers without their informed consent at the time of granting loans, and subsequently resorted to coercive means of recovery through invoking Section 138. On February 22, the State Level Bankers’ Committee, a body representing both nationalised and private sector lending institutions in Punjab, told the high court that banks had, “in principle”, decided to return such cheques collected from farmers with landholdings of less than five acres and having loan liabilities up to Rs 10 lakh.
However, relief on that front hasn’t solved the equally serious problem of kurki of agricultural lands belonging to farmers.
Subeg Singh, who owns just over five kanals (eight kanals make an acre) in Mansurpur village of Patiala district’s Nabha tehsil, had taken a Rs 2.5-lakh loan from the Punjab State Cooperative Agricultural Development Bank in 2013, after pledging his entire land. When he couldn’t repay the loan, the bank got a kurki order from the court of the Civil Judge (Junior Division) at Patiala, allowing it to attach the property and auction the same.
“They came to auction my land first on December 22 and then again on January 22. If they take my field, what will I do? The only thing that I know is farming,” says the 46-year-old. He was saved only by activists from the Bhartiya Kisan Union’s (BKU) Dakaunda faction, “who drove the bank officials away”.
But it’s not only banks. Even arhatiyas (private commission agents/traders) are using “pronotes” (promissory notes) to obtain kurki orders, observes Sukhdev Singh Kokri Kalan, who heads a parallel Ugrahan wing of the BKU. A Pronote is basically a written document taken from a farmer containing a signed undertaking by him to repay a loan — in this case, taken against the security of land.
Kurkis are executed under Section 60 of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908. If a farmer fails to repay, the land that is pledged by him to the bank or arhatiya gets registered in their name through court order. The lenders, in turn, either take possession of the land or have it auctioned to recover their money.
Kulwant Singh (50) from Barsat village of Patiala district and tehsil has received kurki notices thrice on his 4.5-acre land, again from the same local civil judge’s court. This was against a Rs 4-lakh loan he had taken from an arhatiya in 2007. “I had repaid the entire loan and yet he managed to get kurki orders, the first of it on November 17, 2017. But the BKU (Dakaunda) and village panchayat people got the kurki stopped. After checking the arhatiya’s bahi-khata (ledger book) and establishing that there were no outstanding dues against me, he was forced to strike a compromise and take back the kurki cases on July 9, 2018,” states Singh.
Bhim Singh is not so lucky. The 38-year-old from Nabha tehsil’s Birdwal village has also received kurki notices thrice. The civil court at Nabha has fixed the next kurki auction date for his one-acre land on March 11. “I had taken Rs 1 lakh loan from the local sahukar (moneylender). I repaid this, but made the mistake of not taking back the pronote signed by me from him. He used that to get the kukri order passed against me, that too, to recover an amount of Rs 3.30 lakh,” laments Singh.
“In the last one year alone, we (the various farmer organisations of Punjab) have stopped dozens of kurkis from taking place. But despite that, several kurki cases are being heard by courts — mainly in the Malwa belt districts of Patiala, Sangrur, Barnala, Mansa, Bathinda, Moga and Faridkot,” claims Darshan Pal, state executive member of the Krantikari Kisan Union.
Ironically, all this is happening even as the ruling Congress party, in the run-up to the February 2017 Punjab Assembly elections, had given the slogan of “karza kurki khatam, fasal di poori rakam (end to indebtedness and kurki, full price for crops)”. After taking over, the new government under Captain Amarinder Singh even declared the abolition of kurki — by issuing a notification on July 21, 2017, deleting the provisions under section 67Ã of Punjab Cooperative Societies Act that enable cooperatives to recover unpaid loans through auctioning of land mortgaged by farmers.
“The lacuna in the notification was that commercial banks (both public sector and private) and arhatiyas were not covered under it. They are, then, continuing to obtain decrees from courts for attaching the lands of defaulting farmers,” explains Jagmohan Singh, general secretary of BKU (Dakaunda).
According to Kesar Singh Bhangoo, professor of economics at Punjabi University in Patiala, kurki is not a new phenomenon. The real issue is lack of transparency vis-à-vis loans extended by private moneylenders and arhatiyas. “The crisis among small and marginal farmers is especially acute in Malwa. In our field surveys, we have come across numerous cases where farmers have paid back more than twice the principal loan amount, and are still being issued kurki orders. This system of making illiterate farmers sign pronotes has to stop,” he points out.
Agrees Sardara Singh Johal, renowned agricultural economist: “Banks are custodians of public money and nobody should be allowed to rob them. But you cannot also have kurkis of land, cattle and houses of farmers with less than five acres holdings. The government should guarantee the loans of these farmers, especially when they are not getting full and remunerative prices for their produce. And there should be strict implementation of the Sir Chhotu Ram formula of not permitting interest and repayment charges on loans to be more than twice the principal amount.”