Heated debates over the rising suicides by debt-ridden farmers, and the government’s promise to tackle the issue through a string of initiatives, has inspired another section of the farming community to press for their demands. Farm labourers, caught up in debt, want their swelling loans to be waived off too.
In Rasoolpur village, around a hundred Dalit families are living under a debt of the cooperative society. Unable to repay, loan of Rs 9,000 each availed 10 years ago have snowballed. Now, each of these farm labourers’ families owes the cooperative society Rs 20,000 to Rs 70,000.
If the loans from banks and zamindars (landlords) are also taken into account, then more than 250 families here are debt-ridden. And, with most of the farm labourers earning Rs 200 to 250 each day, the loans have only swelled.
“We have worked forty years in the fields, but the government only listens to the farmers... who cares about us?” says a voice in the crowd at a dharamshala in Rasoolpur as a group of farm labourers huddled to work out a strategy. “We are bankrupt... the government must help us... we too have contributed to the economy.”
Most of the farm labourers sought loans in emergencies such as a family member’s illness or to marry off their daughters. But with their income too low, the repayment never happened.
Balwinder Singh, 55, who had borrowed Rs 10,000 from the Society will now have to pay an interest of Rs 25,000. Similarly, Baljit Kaur, 40, a widow, owes Rs 50,000, but is worried who will pay it back: Her sons are studying and she works as a domestic help, earning too little to even run the house. “My four girls are yet to be married,” she says.
The farm labourers and their families are worried that the burden of repaying the debts will pass on to the next generations, hence an urgent need for the government to step in.
“The government should waive off our debts and arrange permanent employment for farm labourers,” says Pendu Mazdoor Union president, Avtar Singh.
Avtar has a suggestion too. “The government can work on land distribution ... Panchayati land can be allow to the farm labourer class for cultivation to help us earn a decent living.”