B.K. Misra IAS
In my relatively uneventful career, I had spent about 10 years in Tribal & Hilly areas in Assam, Odisha & undivided Madhya Pradesh. That included my two years stint in 1975-77 as Deputy Commissioner Mikir Hills district in Assam which is presently called Karbi Anglong district. The hill district was large with an area of 10130 square kms with only about 4 lakh population. The Mikirs or the Karbis as they are called now were the most peace loving & laid-back type among all the tribes of the Northeast. Destiny & geography have placed them as neighbours of the Nagas which is the most aggressive of them all.
Mikir Hills constitute a rain shadow belt. But the year 1976 had seen an unprecedented drought with total crop failure. Hill areas in northeast were infested with Kabuli (afghan) moneylenders who exploited the tribals with usurious interest rates. The tribals had no choice since bank loans were never heard of. In the entire district only the State Bank had 2 branches. To save the tribals from penury it was decided that bank would lend crop loan for the first time to 2000 tribals identified by district administration. To our surprise the tribal village elders asked their people not to accept the loan. Enquiry revealed that the Kabuli moneylenders had intimidated the tribals not to accept bank loan. The complex rationality of a tribal’s behaviour is sometimes difficult to fathom. My tenure in Mikir Hills coincided with the Emergency imposed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi who had brought in the Moratorium on Rural Indebtedness Act under which rural households were exempted from repayment of any loan public or private for a period of 2 years. We took recourse to the act & initiated action against private moneylenders & the Afghans fled the district after which the tribals could be persuaded to cooperate to finalize the modalities for disbursement of loan Emergency which was wreaking havoc in certain parts of the country also enabled some beneficial work in remote areas of northeast.
The crop loan comprised of only seeds, fertilizers & Agri implements. But the tribals insisted on a cash component which they badly needed to observe the many rituals associated with births & deaths. Moreover, the District agriculture staff felt that the virgin soil of Mikir hills does not require fertilizer & some cash could be given to the beneficiaries as part of the loan. But it was too much to expect the tribals to come to collect the application forms for the loan. If the mountain does not come to the Prophet then the Prophet would go to the mountain. Accordingly, arrangements were made to distribute the forms from door to door & also fill them up by our gram Sevaks. When all was set & the schedule for disbursement village-wise was ready the State Bank said the photographs of the beneficiaries are required. Mikir Hills didn’t have a photographer with wherewithal to photograph 2000 people. We had to bring in two photographers from Brahmaputra valley & the mission was completed within two weeks for which the entire district machinery had to be geared up. In the end we had the satisfaction of lending crop loan to 1700 tribal families.
It was alleged that the existing potential of lift irrigation, which was the only source of water for Rabi crop, is not being fully utilised. Enquiry revealed that the limited funds available with the irrigation department for the district was being utilised to run the diesel generators to light their guest houses instead of running the diesel pump sets to lift the water from bore wells. This was remedied in time. Emergency helped in making the district level officials fall in line since they all came under the control of the Deputy Commissioner during that period. So much so that during one of my morning field visits while I was walking on an embankment, I noticed the water flow in the field channel keeping pace with me.
Today the far-reaching banking network may have inspired confidence among all sections of people. But in the seventies for tribals in a remote hilly area accepting bank loan was like wading into unfamiliar terrain. It is only natural that they reluctantly wanted to have a handhold in the modern world of banks without losing their foothold in the old world of private moneylenders. This episode also speaks volumes about their honesty & integrity. They were reticent about taking the loan because they were serious about their ability to repay it. However, with the cooperation of tribals & monitoring by the district agriculture staff major part of the identified areas were successfully brought under Rabi crop. This created a new awareness & confidence among the tribals to avail bank loans for future agricultural activities. Mention may be made that in the first round of recollection drive as much as 80% of the loan had been repaid which is a rarity these days. The district administration also extended some logistic support to the bank to reach the villages. This made the Chief Regional Manager SBI, Shillong write to the state Chief Secretary that SBI’s experience in Mikir Hills has been one of its kind both in lending to & recovering from the tribals & he was quite effusive about the extra mile covered by the district administration in achieving the goal.
This experience suggests that you can take the horse to water & make it drink too if the methods adopted are persuasive & the water is potable.