Failing the farmer | india | Hindustan Times
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Failing the farmer

Punjab?s chief minister is in consultation with the Centre for a solution to the deepening debt crisis that farmers in his state face.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2006 01:35 IST
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Punjab’s chief minister is in consultation with the Centre for a solution to the deepening debt crisis that farmers in his state face. The CM should know that a ‘relief package’ will only serve as a short-term tactic. A suicide census conducted by a voluntary agency, Movement Against State Repression, found that 1,360 farmers had committed suicide in just one district in a span of 17 years. In what is a growing agrarian crisis, farmer suicides are now being reported even among groundnut farmers in Kerala, not just in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

The reasons for pushing Punjab’s farmers to the brink are the same as in any other state. Falling insurance covers against loans, increased cash expenditure for mechanised farming practices, use of tractors, nitrogen-based fertilisers — all these increase the farmer’s expenditure, leaving him with little surplus cash. High-risk crops like cotton make farmers even more quickly entwined in the debt mesh. Added to this are absurd interest rates and corrupt moneylenders. The government’s action on reducing the middleman’s role doesn’t help if an alternative system is not in place. The moneylender is usually the middleman, and his loans are mostly in kind-- seeds, fertilisers, pesticides etc. Micro-finance schemes, as envisioned, are meant to help farmers exploit new opportunities and adopt competitive farming practices. But as Punjab’s suicide data alone suggests, the mechanism based on the vision is simply not working. The State’s ‘relief package’ module must be replaced by avenues that might spur the farmer’s family into opting additionally for off-farm activities, or educating them such that the heirs don’t get caught up in the same debt spiral.

Yanking away existing processes without helping the marginal farmers understand the paradigm shift makes for poor governance. The government’s policy changes (like buying crops at minimum support prices) stall at the level of the large farmer, while the poorer ones languish. The State must reach the farmer when he’s reporting debts, not deaths.