Punjab's debt-ridden farmers continue to take their own lives as Congress' loan waiver has little effect

Arjun Sharma | Mar 6, 2019 | 5 min read

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Arjun Sharma and Sukhcharan Preet

 

Sangrur: It took Randhir Kaur 15 years to come to terms with her husband’s death due to a stroke. But her son Harpreet Singh’s suicide last March has brought her back to square one. A small-time farmer, Harpreet consumed poison on March 31, 2018, after being unable to clear a loan of Rs 5 lakh.

The family stays in Rureke Kalan village of Barnala district in Punjab, which is frequently rocked by suicides of debt-ridden farmers.

Randhir and her daughter-in-law Mandeep now do tailoring jobs to run their home. “Harpreet had taken a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh from the bank and Rs 3.5 lakh from a moneylender. The latter really harassed him, repeatedly asking him for the money. Harpreet couldn’t take it after a point…” trailed off Randhir.

Harpreet had even sold a part of his nearly three-acre land in the village to try and cough up money to repay the loan, but it wasn’t enough.

The burden of a loan and a stigma of sorts on being unable to repay is one of the main reasons behind the 14,000-odd farmer suicides the state has seen from 2000 to 2015.

 

Token measure or genuine attempt?

The estimated number of farmers across the state is 10.93 lakh, out of which 2.04 lakh (18.7%) are marginal farmers, 1.83 lakh (16.7%) small farmers, and 7.06 lakh (64.6%) farmers having more than two hectares.

Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh had claimed before the 2017 assembly polls that his party (Congress) would wipe out farmer suicides on coming to power; in late 2017, after taking charge of the state, the government rolled out the loan waiver scheme. The scheme, however, focussed only on loans taken from banks and cooperative societies and, hence, wasn’t benefitting those farmers who had borrowed from the local moneylenders.

It provided relief to marginal farmers (those having less than 2.5 acres of land) and small farmers (those having 2.5 acres or up to 5 acres) for loans up to Rs 2 lakh availed from scheduled commercial banks and cooperative credit institutions (including urban cooperative banks and regional rural banks, collectively called as “lending institutions”).

However, as recently as this March, with an eye on the upcoming elections, the state government has rolled out an extension to the existing scheme; it now includes farm labourers and landless farming members of Primary Cooperative Agriculture Service Societies to provide relief to nearly 2.85 lakh people, of which around 70% are Dalits.

 

Has the scheme helped?

Jasvir Kaur, however, doesn’t understand the political slugfest over farmer suicides; her paramount worry is her two children and their future, after her husband Ajaib Singh, a farmer, committed suicide on July 26, 2017. A resident of Dhaula village of Barnala district, she has been selling milk to make ends meet.

Ajaib owned a two-acre plot in the village and had taken a loan of Rs 3 lakh from a bank and Rs 2 lakh from a local moneylender. “He sold off one acre to try and repay the loan, but it wasn’t enough. After the humiliation the moneylender subjected him to, Ajaib hanged himself,” she said, adding that the government has done nothing to help her and her two sons and the family continues to struggle.

She isn’t the only one; none of the state government’s initiatives seems to have improved the situation on the ground.

According to Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), a farmers’ welfare organisation, at least 1,100 farmers and farm labourers in Punjab have committed suicide since the Congress came to power. State president of the Union Joginder Singh said the data has been compiled based on reports published in print media.

“Our team keeps an eye on farmer suicides. It has compiled media reports giving details of at least 1,100 suicides by farmers in Punjab since the Congress took charge of the state,” he added.

Joginder said the prime reason behind these suicides was farmers unable to face the embarrassment due to their inability to clear the loans. “Crop failure and erratic rainfall among other reasons make it difficult for farmers to repay the money they borrowed.”

 

Political potshots

Former cabinet minister and senior leader of Shiromani Akali Dal, Bikram Singh Majithia was quick to blame the Congress government for failing to live up to its promise of giving a complete loan waiver to aggrieved farmers, which, he alleged, was among the reasons that forced them to take the drastic step.

Seeing no drop in the number of farmer suicides and to stem the flow of the Opposition’s onslaught, the CM, on the other hand, trained his guns at the Centre, saying states alone can’t do everything and need the central government’s help. He was speaking during the launch of the third phase of his government’s loan waiver scheme at Anandpur Sahib on January 24.

“My government’s scheme is not enough to alleviate the sufferings of all farmers in the state. Because loans of many amount to more than what the government can waive off, farmers’ plight has remained acute,” he added.

 

So what should be done?

Senior agriculture economist, Professor Gian Singh, however, said loan waiver was not the permanent solution to farmers’ woes. According to him, a foolproof solution would be when they either don’t need to take loans in the first place or, if at all they must, they are able to repay it with ease.

“Unless farmers in Punjab are given an alternative to wheat and paddy, this problem won’t end,” he added, saying cultivation of crops that take to the state’s climatic conditions will be a long-term solution to this issue.

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