Worsening agrarian crisis

Worsening agrarian crisis

Unabated Farmers' suicides


Lovepreet Singh was a young farmer with a lot of dreams. Knowing well that he inherited an outstanding loan of Rs 8 lakh, he still wanted to give farming a try. But unable to pay back the loan, he finally ended his life. He was only 22.

The suicide of Lovepreet Singh of Barnala district sent shockwaves in Punjab. In three generations, the family had lost five members to farm distress. A year and a half ago, his father, Kulwant Singh, had ended his life by hanging himself just a day before the state government launched the first phase of the farm loan waiver.

His grandfather too had earlier committed suicide. “We had taken around eight acres of land on lease at the rate of Rs 50,000 per acre annual rent but due to the hail storm in 2017, our wheat crop got damaged. We could never recover from that,” his mother Harnail Kaur told the media. 

This is probably the first instance when members of three generations of a farm family had borne the brunt of continuing indebtedness. Earlier, there were cases when a father or mother and his or her son had committed suicide but the fact that the economic crisis is being passed on from a farmer to his next two generations clearly shows how deep-rooted the malaise is.

This reminds me of yet another tragedy when a farmer Jaswant Singh had tied his five-year-old son to his waist and jumped into the canal. He left behind a note saying that he knew it was unfair to take his son along to the grave but he also knew that his son wouldn’t be able to pay back the Rs 10 lakh outstanding loan.

Despite the farm loan waiver launched by Amarinder Singh’s government, under which Rs 2 lakh outstanding loan of a farmer availed from a cooperative bank is written off, the spate of suicides continues unabated. This year alone, between January and July, 645 farmers took the fatal route to escape the humiliation that comes along with debts.

With private money lenders, banks and agents of micro-finance institutes (MFIs) as well as the Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFC) breathing down their necks, farmers are increasingly being driven to commit suicide. According to data compiled by the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), between April 1, 2017, and August 31, 2019, a total of 1,280 farmers and farm workers had committed suicide.

The fact that Punjab, the breadbasket of the country, has turned into a hotbed of farmer suicides over the years, is certainly not without reasons that are unknown. With Rs 4,609 crore of farmers, bad loans having been written-off since the Congress government launched the loan waiver scheme, a total of 5,61,886 indebted farmers have benefitted so far.

The possibility of more bad loans being waived off in the future is bleak and there is little possibility of the benefit being extended to more farmers.

At the same time, the government has in fact gone back on its electoral promise of waiving all outstanding farm loans taken from cooperative, nationalised, private banks as well as from private money lenders. This would have entailed an expenditure of close to Rs 90,000 crore, which the state government said it didn’t have.

If the death toll so far in 2019 is any pointer, on an average, three farmers are ending lives every day. This is happening at a time when Punjab has been bestowed with Krishi Karman award for being the best-performing state in rice production in 2017-18.

Punjab has been the top contributor of rice to the central pool since 2009-10 except for 2010-11 when Andhra Pradesh had left Punjab behind. In case of wheat, Punjab has retained the top position in contributions to the national pool since 2008-09, providing on an average 37.83% of the total contribution to the food reserves.

With such a high contribution of wheat and rice to the central pool, and with 98% cultivable area under assured irrigation, the rigid dichotomy between increased crop productivity and worsening agrarian distress remains rather unexplained.

Now take a look at the three criteria specified for Krishi Karman award – first is for achieving high production for which 55 marks are kept; secondly, 30 marks are assigned for the special initiatives taken for achieving record output; and finally, 15 marks are reserved for expenditure under foodgrain development schemes — and the reasons for the continuing crisis in agriculture are crystal clear.

Sustainable livelihood

If only the package was redesigned keeping at least 50% marks for the welfare of the farmers growing these crops, the policy planning focus would have shifted to ensuring a decent and sustainable livelihood for the farming community in distress.

The state policies have so far focussed on increasing foodgrain production at whatever cost, without caring for the farmer who toils endlessly to produce the record harvest. According to studies, Punjab tops the global productivity in cereal crops – wheat, rice and maize, and yet has turned into a graveyard for farmers.

Take another example. To fight the menace of stubble burning, Punjab has formed 6,400 farmer groups to provide them with machines as well as to educate them problems of burning paddy stubble after the harvest. Teams of experts comprising scientists from the Punjab Agricultural University and the state department of agriculture will be interacting with these farmer groups.

To sell the highly subsidised machines, 6,400 farmers groups have been formed. I don’t understand why similar groups cannot be created to address the worsening agrarian crisis?

Why regular camps and interactive sessions cannot be held with farmers in small groups, learning from them the reasons which lead to farm suicides? Why can’t these suggestions be collated and then action taken reports is filed? Why should the state government only swing into action when farm machinery has to be sold and keep quiet to address the bigger humanitarian task?

(The writer is a farm economy expert)