Fifteen years after it was conceived, the Punjab Settlement of Agricultural Indebtedness Bill, 2016, was passed in the Punjab assembly on Tuesday, putting in place a quasi-judicial mechanism of district forums to determine and settle non-institutional agricultural debts taken from arhtiyas (commission agents).
Both chief minister Parkash Singh Badal and deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal were absent when the house passed the bill that is expected to bring immediate relief to lakhs of farmers who have taken loans of less than Rs 15 lakh from arhtiyas. However, Congress MLA Sunil Jakhar wanted the state government to do something substantial for farmers. “You (treasury benches) are only healing the symptoms. When will the disease be cured?” Jakhar asked, referring to the widely-prevalent farm distress arising out of diminished returns from agriculture.
Food and civil supplies minister Adaish Pratap Singh Kairon said the bill was loosely construed as a one-time settlement scheme for farmers under debt of arhtiyas, wherein any debtor who had paid double the principal amount taken as loan, could be discharged of his debt.
The bill, once given the assent by the governor, will lead to the creation of a quasi-judicial, dedicated and permanent framework at the district level for redressal of all disputes arising out of the giving and taking of small loans by farmers and farm labourers from the local arhtiya. The civil court will have no jurisdiction over these matters.
Introducing the bill, agriculture minister Tota Singh noted that agricultural indebtedness had increased manifold. He said, “It is an outcome of the mismatch between the prices of agricultural inputs and minimum support prices of agricultural produce. Consequently, the livelihood of farmers and all others dependent on agriculture has been adversely affected.”
The bill was passed by the assembly smoothly with only token objections by leader of opposition Charanjit Channi, who said the government had not fixed the rate of interest charged by the creditor. Channi and Jagmohan Kang also pressed the treasury benches to seek a loan waiver package from the Centre for farmers under debt.