'Anna' is not exactly the village deity. But his appearance is awaited with the same anticipation. "If he doesn't come, we're dead. If there's no 'anna,' there's no cultivation," says Wamanrao Rathore in Koljhari village, Yavatmal. His neighbours are far more focussed on 'anna' showing up than on Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh's visit to Vidarbha this week. Many here have reason to fear 'anna.' But pray for his arrival all the same.

This 'anna' (elder brother) is a not a naxalite. He's a moneylender. He's from outside the village - and the State. And like the local input dealers, he has become central to the lives and agriculture of people in Koljhari and many other villages. This type of creditor was barely known in the region a decade ago. His rise is tied to that of the agrarian crisis in Vidarbha. Now, as bank credit to small farmers shrinks further, he is crucial to their operations.

'Anna' runs a home delivery system of loans. "People like him come from Andhra Pradesh," says Bhima Kudamate, a Gond who took Rs.10,000 from him last season. "I had to return Rs.15,000 in six months." That is, interest of 100 per cent. "I sold my cotton but prices were so bad, I raised only Rs.10,000." However, 'anna' has a home collection system, too. He grabbed all Kudamate's money and also seized his bullock cart and animals. "Now I hire a pair of bullocks at Rs.1,000 a month." Yet, "we need him. What options do we have?"

The lender from across the border shows up just before the start of the new farm season - late May or early June. And hands out loans of around Rs.10,000 or so. He might even lend money in August, but the interest begins from June. He cashes in by November. The pressure on his clients is enormous. Almost all have unpaid bank debts. Most owe money to their input dealers, as well. They also have pending cooperative society loans. And nearly everyone has borrowed cash from relatives. Too many here live by borrowing from one lender to pay off another.

'Anna' feeds off this process. The failure of the banks carves the niche for his existence. He occupies the space vacated by other credit systems. Since the farmers have no option, 'anna' can get away with being very harsh. "He will take your cash, crop or assets. Or anything that catches his fancy," say the villagers. In one case, his fancy extended to the tin 'patras' on a debtor's roof.

But what about their local sahucar? Grins and grimaces all around. "He runs at the mention of a loan," says Harish Todasi. "That is, ever since R.R. Patil began his crackdown on lenders. So now he won't even discuss a Rs.1,000 loan for a medical emergency." The action against loan sharks was ordered by the Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister some months ago. On the ground though, this police-led sweep has targeted only the small village lender. It does not touch far more crucial classes of usurers - such as input dealers. Those who sell seed, fertilizer, and pesticide at inflated rates. And who extend farmers credit on awful terms. Nor does it affect 'anna.'

"Note that there is no punishment for banks that fail to heed government directives to increase credit to struggling small farmers," says Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti. "But the small creditor is under fire." This has led the little village lender to opt out of the process. And weddings and funerals are stuck for lack of money. Also, with so many clients going broke or committing suicide, lots of small moneylenders are themselves bankrupt.

The State Government says it will ensure that eight lakh of the 12 lakh farmers in the region will get crop loans from banks and cooperative societies for the coming season. But this count reduces the number of farmers by over half. "Their own relief package of last year begins by speaking of 22 lakh affected farmers," says Kishore Tiwari. "Which means the full figure is even higher. But suddenly, the total number becomes 12 lakh. And those they will help, just eight lakh. They're fiddling their own statistics. So you can guess how good their credit operations will be."

No less problematic is the Rs.1,075-crore "relief package" announced last year for crisis-hit cultivators. More than three fourths of this was farmers' money being returned to them. That dates back to when the Cotton Federation would deduct three per cent of the minimum support price that growers received. This money went towards the Federation's capital formation fund - which helped that body raise loans from banks. Now, that's out. The government has gutted the fund to pay for its "relief package."

Even though it's their own money, farmers are getting relief cheques for absurd amounts. In Koljhari, upa sarpanch Tulsiram Chavan shows us one cheque that gives him 'relief' - to the extent of Rs.78. Others speak of cheques of Rs.5. These won't be deposited since "it's costlier to get to the bank and back." How could this happen? One reason is that many small growers, in bad years, could not sell their cotton to the federation. They had to sell to traders to whom they owed money, who then pocketed the federation's price. And so this year, the traders picked up the refunds meant for the farmers. After all, their names were on the sale records.

Chief Minister Deshmukh had clarified that for the coming season, all farmers would receive crop loans. He did this after complaints that banks were not giving such help to defaulters. In practice, though, the banks have not budged. "How can people not default when they've had three, even four bad years," ask Koljhari's residents. "Now if you punish us for that even this year, we're finished."

"I cannot remember when I last purchased anything for my family," says Wamanrao Rathore. "No new clothes, nothing. Price hikes have made farming too costly. Cotton prices don't let us break even. And the banks won't give us loans to grow anything this year."

"The only hope we have is that man from Andhra Pradesh," says Raju Rathore, sarpanch of Ambejhani. And so the villagers wait for 'anna.' For now, their lender of the last resort.