First 100 days in power: Amarinder scores in Punjab

Unlike his previous stint as chief minister of Punjab, when his government’s first milestone of sorts of 100 days in power were arguably hopeless, Capt Amarinder Singh, this time around, has silenced his critics. They were sure the erstwhile royal scion would not walk the talk. But he has proved them wrong.

It is too early to pass judgement on the efficacy, intent and proficiency of the Congress government. But Capt Singh has started his innings well, at least so far. His 100-days in power this week brought in certain significant legislations.

Top of the order is farm debt waiver. The waiver announcement is a ‘climb down’ from what was anticipated, yet such a relief for the beleaguered farmers has happened for the first time which is what makes it a ‘significant achievement’ beyond rhetoric.

His government’s other showings too have been noteworthy, like the crackdown on drug supply chains, doing away with red beacons and the ‘VIP culture,’ introducing 50% quota for women in Panchayati Raj institutions and urban local bodies, cap on power tariff up to a maximum Rs 5 etc. His one bold move to allow hotels, pubs, bars and clubs along highways to serve liquor to the guests — construed by some as a way to circumvent the apex court order — has paved way, perhaps, for other states to follow suit.

The chief minister, his council of ministers and bureaucrats have been brought under the ambit of the Lokpal and Capt Singh’s promise on the social security front have started to show effect. At last count, 4,438 persons, including policemen, had been arrested in three months under his rule in drug-related case. But the ‘big fish’ catch still eludes.

Farmers’ suicides in Punjab explain the rot that exists. Amarinder Singh has done well by announcing that his government will take over outstanding crop loans of all families of farmers who committed suicide. Many say the “good showing will have to be consistent, not sporadic.”

Challenges for him may only grow by the day - empty coffers, revenue generation, jobs in every household, 50 lakh free mobile phones, taint on his minister, law and order, sacrilege, conflict of interest etc are a few issues that can cause concern as well as embarrassment to him.

Farm debt waiver was one among the many poll promises that brought the Congress back to power in agrarian Punjab after a decade of the Akali Dal rule. Capt Singh’s 100 days in power culminated on a high with the state assembly allocating budgetary provisions to make farmers debt-free as promised. It was on expected lines.

Bigger states like Congress-ruled Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra too have announced similar populist initiatives. Punjab has now jumped on to the bandwagon. In fact, the chief minister walked away with the credit as he had made his intentions on debt waiver clear in the run up to the polls much before anyone else did.

The chief minister claims Punjab’s debt waiver announcement for farmers wins hands down over others. He says relief to farmers is at least double than what UP and Maharashtra have proposed. The big beneficiaries in Punjab will be the small and marginal farmers. Crop loan waiver in Punjab will be up to Rs 2 lakh, which is the maximum among the states who have so far announced providing relief to farmers. Capt Singh tweeted; “It’s just the beginning.”

Punjab is grappling with high incidence of farmer suicides. Opposition BJP leader Vineet Joshi talking to DH put the figure of suicide at a whopping 73 in the first 90 days of Captain’s rule. The state, known to be the country’s granary, has nearly 65% of its farmers under debt. A majority of these debt-ridden farmers (80%) are small farmers with less than five acres of land holding.

The announcement of loan waiver is partial and may arguably leave out many who are in the debt trap. Punjab farmers have a total estimated debt of Rs 74,000 crore out of which only about Rs 22,000 crore was lent by cooperatives and nationalised banks. The remaining was lent by moneylenders and private banks.


Realistic start

Amarinder Singh’s announcement estimates to provide relief to a total of 10.25 lakh farmers, including 8.75 lakh small and marginal farmers with small land holdings up to five acres of land. The amount intended to be reconciled is far less (Rs 9,500 crore) than the debt on farmers even as the budget presented has currently allocated Rs 1,500 crore for the farm loan waiver to begin with.

Many say it is a realistic start. While relief in the form of debt waiver is warranted for the distressed farmers, such relief, experts opine, implies diversion of public resources and weakened credit discipline. This may eventually hurt farmers as such measures may be disincentive to further lending by the banking institutions.

The Captain’s announcement of debt waiver has one inherent flaw. Not many will disagree that the entire exercise of announcing debt waiver was to a large extent aimed at checking farmer suicides in this border state. Agricultural labourers account for one-half of the farm suicides in Punjab. The debt waiver is silent on the loans taken by this large segment.

The assertion is that the government does not have a record of the number of landless labourers or their debt. While the chief minister proposed a five-member committee to be set up by the assembly speaker to look into the issue and suggest recommendations, this segment remains deprived.

Three universities in Punjab have conducted separate surveys to ascertain the extent of farm suicides in Punjab. Their synopsis suggests that close to 7,000 farmers and farm labourers committed suicides between 2000 and 2010 owing to the vicious debt trap cycle. A total of 43% of them were farm labourers.

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