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Battling a time warp in Punjab

Erratic weather and irrigation, coupled with stagnant cotton prices, are pushing cotton farmers to the edge. Paramita Ghosh reports.

india Updated: May 11, 2009 00:04 IST
Paramita Ghosh

It's a tragic irony in the home of the Green Revolution: A farmer suicide registered before 2001 is no suicide at all. One registered after that year can be compensated with Rs 2.5 lakh.

And it’s an irony that has driven 50-something Amarjeet Kaur to despair. “I have lost hope,” says the mother of two, sitting in the courtyard outside her two-room mud hut in Kotbhara village in Mansa district, about 250 kilometres west of Punjab’s capital of Chandigarh. “My husband killed himself in 1997, so I will get nothing.”

Amarjeet’s husband Balwinder, a cotton farmer, hanged himself to death when he was 32, pushed to the edge by political apathy. The two cotton-growing districts of Punjab — Mansa and Bathinda — see erratic weather, inadequate irrigation and swarms of pests. Worse still, unlike the prices of wheat and rice, which are revised regularly by the state government, the price of cotton was stagnant till last year, entangled in red tape as the centre and state tussled.

Bharatiya Kisan Union (Indian Farmers’ Union) activist Raj Mahendra Singh (45) says cotton farmers here are used to being off the radar and at the receiving end of official apathy.

“The Punjab government’s farmer suicide toll for the last five years is 2,600. Ours is 4,450,” says Raj. “According to the Punjab government, about half these deaths didn’t happen.”

Across the dirt road outside Amarjeet’s hut is the home of Labh Singh, a cotton farmer who killed himself by drinking a bottle of pesticide in 2007, leaving behind his wife and son. He was 36. Labh Singh’s son Mahendra has some hope left, he says, but not much. In 2001, after several union-led protests, the Parkash Singh Badal-led government announced that, for suicides registered with the police that year and later, the families of the dead would be eligible for Rs 2.5 lakh in relief.

“So far, that promise has remained on paper,” says Mahendra, a 26-year-old with a careworn face and wrinkled hands that make him look 40.

Punjab may be a state of farmers — and wealthy ones at that — but cotton is not a prestigious crop here, like rice and wheat are. Seventy per cent of Punjab’s population of 2.40 crore are farmers. Cotton growers account for about 8 per cent of the farming population — a majority of them in Bathinda and Mansa.

In a massive protest rally in December 2008, farmers, their wives and even their children stationed themselves on the railway tracks at Bathinda, demanding better cotton rates and procurement practices.

The government seemed more worried about the passengers and cancelled trains.

Back at Kotbhara, both Amarjeet and Mahendra have framed pictures of their dead on their walls, and plenty of unpaid bills. Even in the midst of the elections, there is little hope that things will change. The Bathinda Parliamentary constituency, which includes Mansa, went to the polls last Thursday, the culmination of a battle of pride between Punjab’s first families. The Congress fielded Raninder Singh, Captain Amarinder Singh’s son. He is pitted against Harsimrat Kaur, wife of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal.

Which candidate has more promise? Cotton farmer Ram Singh shrugs. “Yahaan pe kahawat hain, chor gaye, dakoo aye. (We have a proverb here, after the thief has gone, it’s the turn of the dacoit).”