In Punjab, loan waiver hasn't stopped farmers' suicides

In Punjab, loan waiver hasn't stopped farmers' suicides

The latest report on suicides by farmers in Punjab - about three every day since the last 17 years! - has once again brought to the fore the urgent need to address the issue, beyond just one-time loan waiver announcements by governments. The 10-month-old Congress government in Punjab announced a loan waiver on farm debt in the state. Despite this, suicides by farmers have continued unabated.

The government, too, is looking for rational answers to this phenomenon. It's unable to comprehend why farmers are ending their lives now that the loan waiver has been announced. Reasons for farmer suicides, many have argued, are hard to pinpoint only to farm debts. But many of those who committed suicide post the loan waiver announcement by the government were farm labourers, not land-holding farmers. The loan-waiver announcement brought relief to the latter, not to the former.

The loan waiver pledge, even if it is implemented in letter and spirit by the Capt. Amarinder Singh government in Punjab, would be optimised to support farmers only when the M S Swaminathan Commission's recommendations are implemented in total. The recommendation guarantees at least 50% return on cost of production.

Experts opine that the beleaguered farmers need better and assured market returns on their produce and mechanisms to reduce input costs, without which it would be not be possible to break the vicious debt-cycle that gets worse with every cropping season. The overpowering private money-lending system, too, needs regulation and increased transparency if farmers are to be protected.

Agrarian Punjab accounts for the maximum share of food grain production in the country. Farmers here overcome all challenges, including of deficit monsoons and non-remunerative prices, to produce a bumper crop year after year. This season, too, is no exception. Punjab this time around has produced a bumper paddy crop that was the highest in output in the last 10 years. Yet, the doleful predicament of farmers continues to drive them towards suicides.

A recent report prepared by the Panjab Agricultural University (PAU) found that on average three farmers committed suicide each day over the last 17 years in the state. It underlines the escalating farm distress. The report, which was submitted to the Punjab Vidhan Sabha committee, was based on a door-to-door survey in the districts of Punjab. The study points out a critical aspect that has been overlooked by the government.

The number of farm labourers who committed suicide between the year 2000 and 2017 exceeds the number of land-owning farmers who committed suicide during the same period. Yet, the farm debt waiver by the state government is silent on relief to farm labourers. Nearly 16,000 persons committed suicide during this period. And 66% of farmers and farm workers who committed suicide were youth!

Experts argue that the debt waiver is a positive move that will offload a lot of baggage of the past. Punjab's announcement will directly benefit nearly 10.25 lakh farmers. Crop loans of upto Rs 2 lakh for small and marginal farmers having landholdings of upto 5 acres would be waived. A relief of Rs 2 lakh would be given to the remaining marginal farmers irrespective of the amount of loan outstanding.

Experts maintain that farm debt may not be the only trigger for suicide. Professor Sher Singh Sangwan of the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) in Chandigarh points out an interesting aspect to explain the complexity involved. He infers that besides crop expenses, while 10% farmers have used Kisan Credit Card (KCC) amounts for constructing new houses, 58% used the credit for miscellaneous household expenses, 23% spent it on marriage of a child, and 10% on education of children. Some 6% used the credit to send a member of the family abroad. Punjab has a high penetration of KCC, with about 20 lakh such cards.

Subsidy for the rich

Punjab has been providing subsidy on electricity to farmers for agricultural purposes since long. Populism has inhibited successive governments from taking a re-look at this colossal subsidy. The irony, though, is that the intent of the power subsidy, which was meant by its architects to help farmers reduce input costs, gets negated when it is also delivered to the rich and wealthy farmers with large farm holdings.

A public interest litigation filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court is pending. The petition prays for discontinuing agricultural pump set subsidy to rich farmers in Punjab. Advocate H C Arora has submitted before the division bench of Justice A K Mittal and Justice Amit Rawal that rich 'farmers' like former CM Parkash Singh Badal, his son Sukhbir Singh Badal, Manpreet Singh Badal, Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh and Kuljit Singh Nagra, were reaping the concession of free power that has been provided by the government for years. The subsidy reimbursed to the state power corporation by the government went up to a whopping Rs 6,113 crore during 2016-17.

Except for the cash-rich Aam Aadmi Party MLA and leader of the opposition, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, none of the rich 'farmers' have surrendered this subsidy, the petitioner claimed. The recent PAU report also cites that over 76% of those who committed suicide in Punjab were small and marginal farmers with less than 2 acres of landholdings. Nearly 43% of farmers and 63% of farm workers who died during this period were illiterate. The study offers remedies, too. A debt waiver for farm labourers and a labour pension scheme are among those suggested.

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