Punjab elections: The cycle of debts and farmer suicides blight India’s grain bowl | india-news | Hindustan Times
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Punjab elections: The cycle of debts and farmer suicides blight India’s grain bowl

The cycle of debt and death began in the late 90s when the cotton crop started falling. Punjab’s average farm debt now stands at Rs 8 lakh per family.

india Updated: Jan 13, 2017 17:51 IST
Binayak Dasgupta and Gurpreet Singh Nibber
Gurpreet Singh and his mother at their home in Hamirgarh village. Gurpreet’s father killed himself. He had a debt of Rs 4.5 lakh.
Gurpreet Singh and his mother at their home in Hamirgarh village. Gurpreet’s father killed himself. He had a debt of Rs 4.5 lakh.(Bharat Bhushan/HT Photo)

Gurpreet Singh and Sandeep Duggal have more than 350 friends on Facebook. At 19, Gurpreet’s profile clearly gravitates to pictures of youth – astride an Enfield motorcycle, one with a friend in the corridors of a college, and the quintessential selfie with sunglasses.

Duggal’s is more subdued. In a black-and-white profile photograph, he smiles with arms folded, exuding the confidence of a young man who identifies himself as ‘MD, Deepak Dhaba’.

Facebook and youth is where the similarities between Gurpreet and Sandeep end.

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Gurpreet’s father, farmer in Hamirgarh in Punjab’s south-western district Sangrur, used a handful of Celphos tablets (a pesticide) to end his life at 47. In his last days, he owed Rs 4.5 lakh to the banks. That he kept ill most of the time did not help.

“I don’t know what I will do now,” say Gurpreet, standing with his mother in the courtyard of his modest house.

Nearly 80 km away, Sandeep – whose parents or grandparents were never into farming – oversees the brisk business of Deepak Dhaba that employs more than 60 people.

“Almost all our kitchen staff is from outside Punjab. People here are too proud to be seen working at a dhaba,” says Mandeep, Sandeep’s brother. Their father started the business in 1986 as a small eatery named after his eldest son before it turned into one of the most well-known pit stops in this part of the state.

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Like Gurpreet’s father, nearly 7,000 farmers and farm labourers killed themselves in the decade between 2000 and 2010. “That number has been equalled, or even surpassed, in the last six years,” says Sukhpal Singh, the head of Punjab Agriculture University’s (PAU) economics department and the coordinator of a government-sanctioned census of farm suicides.

“It’s in the government’s interest to keep suicide figures low. And many aren’t reported because of the Punjabi pride – suicide is a social stigma.”

Activist Inderjit Singh Jaijee, who runs a non-profit to help families of farmers who kill themselves doubts the figures will be made public in an election year. “The problem is two-fold. It’s in the government’s interest to keep suicide figures low. And many aren’t reported because of the Punjabi pride – suicide is a social stigma,” according to Jaijee.

Death by Debt

Punjab’s farm suicide problem is usually overshadowed by states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Madhya which together see annual casualties in quadruple digits. But in 2015, Parliament was informed that 449 farmers killed themselves in Punjab, making it second only to Maharashtra.

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“Nearly 79% of the suicides are due to debt. Particularly hit are small farmers, who own less than 5 acre of land,” says Sukhpal.

The poster child of the green revolution, Punjab’s average farm debt now stands at Rs 8 lakh per family, up from Rs 3 lakh a decade ago.

There has been no farm loan waiver for Punjab so far in practical terms. The last such scheme was announced by the UPA government, which benefited only 2% of farmers in the state.

The circle of indebtedness began in the late 90s, when the cotton crop started failing. Cotton was the chief cash crop of the south-western districts that see the worst of the farm distress. Farmers here saw their yield decimated by the American ball worm infestation between 1997 and 2003.

And then in 2005 banks decided to make agriculture sector a priority and set a target to double farm loans.

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Banks eventually replaced non-institutional moneylenders, mostly arthiyas– middlemen who help supply seeds and fertilisers during sowing season and procure the crops during harvest.

The informal moneylender charged more interest, was tougher on recoveries, but the loans would typically be under a lakh. “With banks, the loans were bigger. The burden of debt became higher,” says Sukhpal.

Revolution’s Curse

After the cotton crop fiasco came a gradual fall in profitability.

“The green revolution has ruined us. It got us hooked on to chemical fertilisers and brought farm practices that raise input costs. Farming is now an unviable profession,” says Parminder Singh, a member of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, one of several outfits representing farmers.

“The green revolution has ruined us. Farming is now an unviable profession.”

Green revolution brought with it high-yielding varieties of seeds, synthetic fertiliser, new irrigation infrastructure and more potent pesticides. But eventually, the high-yielding seeds became more susceptible to pests, the pesticides became a health hazard and abundance of water led to adoption of paddy that is not native to the region.

“Input costs are rising. Diesel is getting costlier. Inflation is a reality. But the rate at which crops are procured hasn’t risen,” says Parminder, adding that the government must hike the procurement price by 50%.

Wheat and paddy, the crop that yields rice, are now Punjab’s main harvests, alternated every six months.

The en-masse switch to these suggests farmers have lost confidence and are hedging bets on crops guaranteed to be purchased by the government, instead of those that can better soil health and guzzle less water.

“We have to go back to the old, pre-revolution way of farming eventually. The soil will not survive,” says Parminder, with a tinge of hopelessness.

Farmers like him face a new reality of looking beyond farming.

But with generations brought up on agriculture as a way of life, looking ahead means staring into the unknown.