Guest column | Is the Punjab govt debt-serious?
The state’s agriculture department, Punjab Agricultural University’s extension services and Farmers’ Commission must work closely to find workable solutions to the agrarian crisispunjab Updated: Jul 12, 2017 23:09 IST
On the ‘stormy’ politics of farm debt/loan-waiver, the Congress, as per its election manifesto, has taken some ‘baby steps’. It has also accused the SAD-BJP of following the scorched-earth policy towards the end of its 10 years in power.
The question that begs an answer is: Was the Congress unaware of the Punjab’s financial situation? If so, why did it ‘promise’ sops requiring a huge financial outgo? And, since when have the poll ‘promises’ become so sacrosanct for politicians? Do these have any legal/constitutional validity? Maybe these still have some ‘moral’ value. But do politics and morality go hand in hand?
Despite the change of guard, Punjab continues to be in the pincer of political indecisiveness, vacillating over policy-making to ride out financial stress, raise revenues, reduce government expenditure and solve agrarian crisis. Populist policies have put Punjab economy on the precipice. These economic crises emanate, as much from financial mismanagement, as from the neglect of agriculture, the main engine of economic growth.
Farm indebtedness/bankruptcy and resultant suicides across the country, are a big disruption in the agricultural rhythm of life. Also, it is time to take note of some other worrisome woes that impact rural sector: drug/substance abuse, climate change, toxic nexus (soil, water and air) and the ever deepening water crisis. There is no mechanism to create awareness and educate farmers about these issues, particularly on the consequences of indebtedness and suicides.
ACT IN TANDEM
The state’s agriculture department, Punjab Agricultural University’s extension services and Farmers’ Commission need to work in lock-step and evolve a multidimensional ‘symphony’ approach. Why not organise special programmes for farming families involving sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, religious leaders and NGOs to study their family structure, farm holdings and financial requirements and then help them in farm management and family budgeting?
Recently, the Centre informed the Supreme Court about farm suicides. The 2015 figures show that 12,602 persons involved in farming sector, including 8,007 farmers and 4,595 agricultural laborers, committed suicide, accounting for 9.4% of the total number of suicides (133,623) in the country. The Apex Court, currently hearing a bunch of petitions on farmer suicides, has asked the governments to work out a policy.
Economist S S Johl says “compensation is no palliative”; and debt is one of the multiple causes of farmers’ suicides. The other causes, he identifies are genetic make-up or suicidal tendencies, family disputes, personal incompatibilities and self-inflicted irrationalities. Also, debt, as an important cause, has its peculiar nuances. Besides the institutional finance available to farmers, it is the strong presence of the private money-lenders, commission agents and big farmers, who have exacerbated the problem, as they charge exorbitant rates of interest. Also, farmers obtain and use loan for “non-productive” purposes, and seek more loan when compelled to pay. In the process they get caught in a vicious trap: the more they borrow, the deeper they get into the vortex of debt.
Are farmer suicides entirely of their own making or within their control? A simple answer may be that while the risks/stakes due to farm distress have grown spectacularly, farm returns have gradually shrunk.
There are a plethora of reports on indebtedness and farmer suicides that successive governments have ignored with impunity. Punjab’s three universities have also compiled reports on debt waiver/ farmer suicides from the districts assigned to them. The state now awaits a final report by the Dr T Haq committee.
The report, ‘Flow of funds and indebtedness of Punjab farmers’ (2007) complied jointly by the Farmers’ Commission and PAU is relevant even after 10 years. It says: “The farmers, during the era of high agricultural growth and incomes, had also improved their living standards to which they have become accustomed. Social festivities demand increased expenditure and with corresponding income not available, the tendency among farmers is to borrow, mostly from costly non-institutional sources; this pushes them deeper into the debt hole”.
Even after 11 years, the recommendations of the Institute for Development and Communication Study, ‘Suicides in Punjab’ remain wrapped up. This report surveyed 24 villages in six districts: Faridkot (high prevalence suicide zone), Bathinda, Amritsar and Mansa (moderate suicide zone), Sangrur and Jalandhar (low suicide prevalence zone). In addition, 200 suicide victims were studied. The major causes of suicides it identified included indebtedness, family disputes, alcohol/drug abuse and mental stress/tension. It recorded: “Poor economic conditions resulting from small uneconomic holdings, crop failure, illiteracy, drugs and unproductive expenditures on festivities are the main causes of indebtedness leading to suicides”. Also, suicide committing farmers had primarily borrowed from ‘informal’ sources.
Is all this not enough to draw up a practical roadmap to tackle farmer suicides?
(The writer is a veteran journalist and former Punjab information commissioner)