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Farmers' suicides reflect the crisis in India's grain bowl
Gautam Dheer, Feb 25, 2014 : 8:38 IST
Behind all the ostentation, glitz and glamour of the recently concluded mega ‘Progressive Agriculture Summit’ in Punjab lies the harsh reality of farmer suicides and the burgeoning agrarian crisis that this border state reels under.
A state government commissioned study conducted by three prominent universities in Punjab lay bare the magnitude of the crisis. On an average estimate, three persons committed suicide every two days in last one decade in this grain bowl state of Punjab. The report says that more than 5,000 farmers and farm labourers, about 500 each year, committed suicide between 2000 to 2010. Sixty percent of these suicides took place in the grain producing belts essentially in two districts of Bathinda and Sangrur.
Heavy farm debts, reduced land holding and diminishing farm returns have been among the major escalators to the crisis. Till a few years ago, the farm debt in Punjab was at nearly Rs 31,000 crore, which today is sure to have increased sizably, experts say.
Each farm household of the state was under a debt of over Rs 3 lakh and the debt per operated acre was Rs 28,947. For small and marginal farmers, the situation was even more dismal with a debt of over Rs 41,000 per operated acre.
As per the study, about 38 per cent of those who committed suicide in the last decade were in the prime of their life between 20 to 30 years old. The failure to pay back the debt, among other reasons, drove many of them to suicide, it is said.
For Punjab, the dilemma is both in the challenge to reconstruct its agriculture domain and trajectory in many ways and to define and draw a line on its spiraling subsidies to the agriculture sector. Punjab’s annual bill on power subsidy to the farm sector is about Rs 5,600 crore annually.
The SAD-BJP alliance in Punjab is unwilling to withdraw this colossal drain, especially when the cash-rich farmers and those with huge land holding too reap the harvest of this ‘generosity’. But then, besides the populist agenda that the government seeks to address, it talks about the power subsidy as a way to support farmers.
The problem is more when it comes to small and marginal farmers. A study by the Punjab Agriculture University in Ludhiana states that 34 per cent of marginal farmers in the state are living below poverty line.
The progressive agriculture summit was a step in the right direction, but the challenge lies in speedy implementation of the suggestions by experts that were put forth. Punjab flaunts its Rs 14,600 crore of planned investment in the agriculture sector at the end of the summit.
The solution more lies in putting in place a sound apparatus and measures that include from crop diversification to land reforms. The role of middlemen in the food commodity chain needs to be reduced. to offer better returns to farmers. A certain defined profit margin for farmers that takes into account the rise in input cost has to be assured to bail out farmers from the present situation, Vineet Joshi, the assistant media advisor to Punjab government and national spokesperson of the BJP Kisan Morcha said talking to Deccan Herald.
Joshi said the recommendations of the Swaminathan commission have not been implemented ever since 2006 when its report was tabled. “The implementation of the recommendations would have meant that farmers in the country would have been richer by 1 lakh crore rupees every year”, he said.
Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal has off late raised a new pitch for a separate budget for agriculture just like the railway budget, if farmers and agriculture issues have to be genuinely addressed.
The dialogues during the summit suggested the way forward -- better marketing of produce, easy access to bank credit for marginal and landless farmers, encouraging allied activities like dairy farming, poultry, and skill development in agriculture related activities. Former Chairman of the Commission of Agriculture Costs and Prices, T Haque, said the biggest problem faced by farmers is the poor credit availability from financial institutions.
“This leads to heavy dependence on private money lenders who charge farmers a high rate of interest,” he said. Though the budget allocation in agriculture is increasing, it has not been translated into increase in credit availability to individual farmers and short-term loans to farmers.
Haque said, the credit ratio in rural areas across the country is just about 30 per cent, which means that farmers get just 30 per cent of their deposits as loans, while the remaining goes to industry or retail customers. Vice-Chancellor of Punjab Agriculture University Dr Baldev Singh Dhillon said subsidies also need to be brought in areas which could motivate farmers to look for alternatives in the wheat-paddy cycle.
The matter pertaining to farmer suicide and a durable policy envisaging payment to families of farmers who committed suicide is under the consideration of the Punjab and Haryana high court in Chandigarh. The high court last week gave two months to the Punjab government to come up with a permanent policy, preferably on the Andhra Pradesh model, to give assistance to families of farmers who committed suicide. The Punjab government gives Rs 2 lakh to each such affected family.
The government informed the court that an additional nearly Rs 65 crore will be disbursed to suicide affected families by July 31 this year. Nearly Rs 29 crore has already been distributed, the government said.