A potentially “politically-damaging” report on farmer suicides in Punjab will now be released only after the election results on March 11.
The state government had commissioned three state universities — Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana; Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar and Punjabi University, Patiala — to study cases of farmer suicides between April 2010 and March 2013. The three had earlier examined cases from 2000 to 2010 for compensation and had put the figure of suicides by farmers and landless labourers at 6,926, of which more than half (3,954) were farmers. The average per year was 692 and it had pegged the highest number of suicides in Sangrur, followed by Mansa and Bathinda.
The PAU, which is examining cases in the six worst-hit districts of Sangrur, Mansa, Bathinda, Barnala, Ludhiana and Moga, says the average has gone up in the new study. “Though the report of the three universities is yet to be compiled, the average number of suicides per year has gone up,” says senior economist Sukhpal Singh, who is heading the PAU study and coordinating with the other two universities.
With both main opposition parties, Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), making farm suicides a poll issue and promising a debt waiver, the report, which according to the three universities was to be completed by November last year, has been delayed by elections. But the PAU says some more cases are being examined and the report will be released by March third week.
The new report would also raise questions on the conflicting government estimates on farm suicides, both by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and the Union agriculture ministry.
The cotton crop failure in 2015 triggered a spate of suicides in Malwa belt of the state, but the NCRB data based on police records had put the figure to 124 for that year. The agriculture ministry, in a reply in Lok Sabha in March last year, had stated 449 farmers and farm labourers had committed suicide in the state in 2015.
Farmer unions and NGOs question both the figures and the new policy of Punjab government to award “prompt” compensation through a committee of the district administration.
“There is both political apathy and bureaucratic hurdles. From the post-mortem report to affidavits from panchayats and papers from banks, the process is painful and the families are subjected to judicial scrutiny by the bureaucracy,” says Bhartiya Kisan Union (Mann) president and former MP Bhupinder Singh Mann.
Though the state government has hiked the compensation amount from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh, the rate of rejection is high. In Mansa, for instance, of the 413 cases received till December 2016, the district administration has rejected 290 cases, approved 59 and 64 are pending. By ensuring the cases are “genuine”, the government also wants to ensure the compensation does not trigger more suicides.
But Inderjit Jaijee, whose NGO is fighting for compensation to suicide-hit families in the Punjab and Haryana high court, says the government is only trying to deny the magnitude of the problem. “The police too are now a part of scrutiny of cases. Many families fear they may be slapped with abetment to suicide cases if they report it as suicide, which is a criminal offence under the IPC,” he says.
NGO’s lawyer RS Bains says in the past 14 years, they have been able to get compensation for just 4,000 families. “It is peanuts, considering the problem is massive. No one commits suicide for Rs 2-3 lakh. It is done under utter hopelessness,” he says.