Poplars spark farmers' fury against Wimco

THE POPLAR trees that the Bareilly-based match manufacturer, Wimco, persuaded area farmers to plant is causing much heartburn. The farmers allege that Wimco, sensing a wood crisis in the 1970s because of felling restrictions in India and Nepal, tried to get land from the Uttar Pradesh forest department to raise its own wood trees. When this failed, the company allegedly lured the farmers into planting poplar trees, promising handsome returns. The Wimco scheme, in collaboration with the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development and the UP government, requires the company to arrange for saplings and for loans from commercial banks at the rate of Rs 123 per plant, to be given to the growers over eight years. Nem Chandra, a poplar grower from Sahasa village, says Wimco assured him the trees would eventually attain a girth of 90 cm at chest height and Wimco would then buy them at the rate of Rs 500 a tree. The farmers now complain that even eight years after planting, the trees have failed to reach the assured girth and Wimco officials have cut the payment rate to Rs 100 per tree with a chest level girth that's more than 80 cm. "At this rate," says Chandra, "we will not even be able to pay back the bank loan." He also alleges defaults in the loan arrangement and says he got only four instalments of the assured loan from the Kutubkhana branch of UCO bank. He was then informed his account was closed. Another farmer, Udai Pratap Singh, complains that four months after the due date and despite several reminders, Wimco is yet to collect his trees. Wimco officials, however, put the blame squarely on the farmers. Says Wimco zonal manager Vikram Puri, "The trees have not acquired the expected girth because of non-compliance with the right techniques." He maintains the company instructed the banks to halt loan instalments after Wimco extension workers reported the farmers were diverting the loans to other uses. But the farmers insist they did all they were required to do by the company experts. The proof, they say, is that the company has charged them for extension services rendered.