Apr 28, 2016

Punjab is the new hotspot for farmer suicides

The shocking incident of an alleged suicide by a farmer, along with that of his mother, when a moneylender along with a police posse arrived at his door to take passion of 2-acres of land he had mortgaged has come at a time when Punjab has gained the dubious distinction of emerging as a farm suicide hotspot.

The recurring tragedy on the farm is happening at a time when the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has urged the Supreme Court not to reveal the names of defaulting companies, which have defaulted in repaying loans of at least Rs 500-crore each. “We believe that any act of default without understanding the severity of the issues and if it is put out for public to consume, it may create both a loss of business as well as undue anxiety and panic and therefore, chill business activity,” the RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan said.

While the Supreme Court has still not made public the list of the rich and the bold, a roaster of defaulting farmers is routinely put on the walls of tehsil premises. Harpal Singh, President of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, and based at Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, says that the farmers list not only carries the names but also a loud warning saying ‘do you know them’ and ‘have you seen them’ as if these farmers who have been unable to pay loans are terrorists.

The deceased farmer from Barnala in Punjab, who ended his life on Monday, was a second generation farmer. His father, who has since expired, had taken a loan of Rs 1.8 lakh from the commission agent in 2002. Like the benefit of doubt shown to the big defaulters, shouldn’t the farmer’s inability to repay the loan amount be similarly ascertained considering the severity of the issue before their names are made public? How is that we have two sets of laws – one for the rich and powerful and another for the poor farmers? How many more farmers need to die before the revenue laws are made uniform?

In Punjab, the food bowl of the country, agrarian distress has been mounting with each passing year. According to a study by the Centre for Research on Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) debt of private moneylenders and commission agents has witnessed a significant hike in the past 10 years. A survey by Punjabi University, Patiala, published in Jan 2016, has put the outstanding debt at Rs 69,355-crores. Considering the mounting indebtedness and without evaluating the complex reasons for it, I fail to understand how the banks and administration can be so cruel towards the farming community. Most farmers commit suicide unable to bear the humiliation that comes along when public sector banks and arhtiyas seize their assets when they fail to pay back outstanding loan.

This anomaly has not even been addressed in the Punjab Settlement of Agricultural Indebtedness Bill, 2016 – passed by the Punjab Assembly recently.

This brings me to the moot question. After all, why should farmers in the country’s food bowl commit suicide? As per information placed in Parliament on Monday, as many as 56 farmers in Punjab have ended their lives this year, till the date ending Mar 11. The alarming rate of farm suicides has placed Punjab at the second position in the country. Trailing drought-ridden Maharashtra by a whisker, considering that 116 farmers had committed suicide across the country in the same period, the Punjab debacle certainly needs serious re-thinking.

In 2015, 449 farmers had ended their lives. 2015 was a bad agricultural year but the death toll on the farm is in fact worsening with each passing month. This month alone, between April 1 and April 26, 39 farmers have reportedly taken to the gallows. At this rate, I will not be surprised if the death toll this year overtakes last year’s figures. That such a tragic serial death dance is being enacted in a state which is considered to be the most prosperous as far as agriculture is concerned speaks volumes of the neglect, apathy and indifference. The entire fault cannot be passed to the State government. Agricultural scientists and economists too have to admit that they have somehow failed to keep a finger on the dark underbelly of Punjab agriculture. Needless to say there is something terribly going wrong.

I have heard agricultural economists and policy makers often shift the blame to low crop productivity, failure to go for crop diversification and lack of irrigation. In a State which has 98 per cent assured irrigation and where the per hectare yields of wheat and paddy match international levels I see no reason why then farmers should be dying. As per the Economic Survey 2016, the per hectare yield of wheat in Punjab stands at 4,500Kg/hectare which matches the wheat yields in United States. In case of paddy, the average yield is 6,000Kg/hectare, quite close to the paddy productivity levels in China. With such high yields and with abundant irrigation available why farmers should be dying?

If you are still not convinced, here is a little more insight into how progressive Punjab farmers are. In a study, Prof H S Shergill, emeritus professor at Panjab University, has compared the Punjab agriculture with developed country agriculture using mechanisation, chemical technology, capital intensity and productivity. The number of tractors per 1,000 hectares is 122 in Punjab compared to 26 in US, 76 in UK, 65 in Germany; fertiliser use is 449Kg/hectare per year which fares rather favourably with 103 Kg in US, 208 Kg in UK, 278 Kg in Japan; irrigated area is 98 per cent in Punjab compared to 11.4 per cent in US, 2.0 per cent in UK, 35.0 per cent in Japan; and the cereal yield per hecatre and per year is 7,633 Kg in Punjab, 7,238 Kg in US, 7,460 Kg in France, 7,008 in UK and 5,920 Kg in Japan. Now with such a high level of intensive farming, which is what economists have been asking for, than why are Punjab farmers committing suicide?   

The real question that needs to be asked is whether the economists have failed the farmers? #

Punjab is the new hotspot of farmer suicides. ABPLive.in April 27, 2016

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