A much-trumpeted provision of the 2016-17 Punjab budget was a scheme to provide pension to farmers. The Punjab government was ‘expecting’ this scheme for the past eight months, only to suffer a ‘miscarriage’ in mid-October when the state finance department declared that the treasury did not have the Rs 80 crore needed to implement it. Apparently, the state government is going to try again and this time use the mandi board money.
The state government announced the scheme during the budget session in March, but it was never clear how the scheme would work or who would be eligible. Even at the time of the announcement, people who were familiar with the state’s past record in the matter of social welfare schemes saw little likelihood that the pension would actually reach farmers.
Social welfare has never been on the agenda of the Punjab government – except as a slogan. Punjab’s small and marginal farmers and farm labourers need pensions, but even as these people are numerous and parties need their votes, they are too disorganised and fragmented to wring needed measures from the government.
HARYANA FARES BETTER
Punjab and Haryana are both agricultural states and — going by the size of their respective 2015-16 state budgets — they have nearly the same resources, but they perform very differently when it comes to social welfare.
In 2015, the Badal government doubled the pension for the destitute elderly people. This sounds generous, but the reality is that the pension amount – formerly Rs 250 per month – became Rs 500 per month. Also in Haryana, chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar announced that persons eligible for old age and other social security pension would get enhanced pension of Rs 1,400 per month with effect from January, 2016 (The previous Congress government instituted automatic pension hike of Rs 200 per year). Haryana pays the pensions on schedule into recipients’ bank accounts or delivers the amount if recipients are over 80 years of age. Pensions in Punjab are released sporadically, sometimes after a gap of months.
In Punjab, a person owning more than two acres fertile land or four acres barren land is ineligible as are persons with a monthly income of Rs 1,500 or more. Women become eligible at 60 and men at 65. In Haryana, all persons above the age of 60 are eligible if their annual income from all sources together with that of the spouse is below Rs 50,000. Land holding is not a criterion.
The Punjab finance department found no money for farmers’ pensions but there was no dearth when it came to providing pensions and wage hikes to legislators. In March 2015, Punjab’s legislators voted themselves hikes ranging from 57% to 100%.
WHEREIN LIES THE PROBLEM?
Is Punjab’s problem the lack of money or the way the state likes to disburse it? Pension schemes are governed by rules, and eligible recipients receive pension as a matter of right. The chief minister prefers to disburse money as a matter of ‘grace and favour’. This is what his ‘sangat darshans’ amount to. The panchayat gathers in his presence hoping that their ‘bainti’ will be granted.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the Centre on the slogan ‘achhe din aane wale hai’. Punjab’s ruling Akali-BJP coalition certainly cannot campaign on an ‘achhe din’ slogan. They have had nine years to usher in ‘achhe din’ but unemployment is rife as industries have been lured away to adjoining states that enjoy central benefits. The mafias of the state have tightened their grip and -- being trans-party in character -- they will continue to flourish regardless of who comes to power. The input-profit squeeze in agriculture has worsened, driving farm incomes down and farm debt up to an estimated Rs 69,355 crore. Pauperisation has resulted in more rural suicides.
The state’s most vulnerable sections, namely the elderly, handicapped, widows and orphans, are not needy -- they are desperate. Indifference to their hardship has severe consequences. Punjab’s very high rate of rural suicide is an obvious one. The Rescue and Revival Mission covers nearly 110 villages in the subdivisions of Lehra, Andana and Budhlada. In the first six months of this year, 32 farmers and farm labourers of these villages have committed suicide. In all cases, the victims were heavily in debt. These 110 documented villages amount to only 0.8% of Punjab’s total 12,581 villages. How many suicides would have taken place in the other 99.2%?
But all this is invisible... invisible to the government, invisible to the parties, invisible to the leaders. The news centres on ‘who’ — breakaway leaders, splintering parties and new hopefuls. Issues constitute the ‘what’, but ‘what’ is largely ignored. Where is the leader who represents anything besides himself ?
(The writer is a Chandigarh-based human rights campaigner. Views expressed are his personal)