With about three months left in the assembly polls, every political party in Punjab is in a race, of a different kind: to free farmers of their debts.
While the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are promising the moon to debt-ridden farmers, the ruling SAD-BJP is smug in its claim that whatever could have been done to ease the farmers of the debt trap has already been done by them.
Party leaders are engaged in a daily slugfest over whose offer is the “fairest of them all”.
The spurt in suicides by debt-ridden farmers for the past one year has become a volatile election issue and the aim is to woo the farmers — the most important section of the state electorate which can make or break the political fortunes of these parties. It is no surprise that the Congress and AAP have gone to ludicrous heights in issuing farm loan waiver forms to farmers just to back their tall and seemingly impossible poll promise.
Though the Congress is yet to release its poll manifesto, state party chief Captain Amarinder Singh has held out an all- encompassing blanket promise: every kind of farm debt of every farmer in Punjab will be waived off. It would be taken upon by the government if the Congress comes to power.
The Congress has estimated that the total debt burden of farmers, including both the loans taken from arhtiyas (commission agents) and banks (institutional), is about Rs 70000 crore. The mathematics they have worked out is that the entire loan amount will be waived off, on their request, by the Centre as its coffers have Rs 300 lakh crore to spare in the wake of the reduction in global oil prices.
The Centre has waived off over Rs 100 lakh crore of corporate debts and Rs 70,000 crore for Punjab farmers is not impossible, Congress leaders contend.
In its farmers’ manifesto, released by national convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP promises to re-enact the Sir Chhotu Ram Act-1934 to take care of the loans taken by farmers from commission agents. The Act ensured that the sum of interest payable did not exceed the principal amount and all debts where a farmer had paid a sum twice the amount of the principal would be deemed to be wholly discharged. Also, no indebted farmer would be dispossessed of his land holdings.
For bank loans, the AAP has promised to waive off entire loan amounts of poor farmers, farm labourers and scheduled caste (SC) farmers. For others, interest on loans will be waived off.
The Congress and AAP are also competing with each other to claim credit for the original idea of farm debts.
In a bid to show the seriousness of their claims, Congress ticket hopefuls have started getting “farmer demand forms” filled by debt-ridden farmers listing out the debt amount while stating that they supported the debt-free movement of the Congress.
The exercise, say Congress leaders, has been undertaken to assess the debt before it comes to power so that the debt waiver promise could be fulfilled at the earliest!
The AAP also issued a form which is an undertaking by Kejriwal, promising to waive off whatever the loan amount (to be filled by the farmer) if his party came to power in Punjab.
The Congress lashed out at AAP, alleging the latter had “copied” their brainchild, but the AAP maintained that it was their idea and it is Congress which had copied it.
The Akalis have called the Congress promise impossible to fulfil and a part of AAP’s claim to re-enact the Sir Chhotu Ram Act a ‘cut and paste job’ of their recently passed Punjab Settlement of Agricultural Indebtedness Bill, 2016.
WHO IS SAYING WHAT
Congress: All farm loans, including those taken from corporate banks, cooperatives or arhtiyas, to be waived off completely
AAP: Re-enactment of Sir Chhotu Ram Act for arhtiya loans and setting up of a bank debt settlement committee to work out the modalities of the “waive-off plan”
SAD-BJP: The implementable portions of the Sir Chhotu Ram Act have been incorporated in the Punjab Settlement of Agricultural Indebtedness Act, 2016.