Harvest of despair: Punjab farmers’ stories of debt and distress
Punjab’s worst cotton crisis due to the whitefly attack compounded by the supply of fake pesticides has thrown the state’s rural economy into a tailspin. At least 17 farmers have committed suicide since August. Sukhdeep Kaur travels to villages in the worst-hit Malwa region only to find shocking stories of debt and despair.punjab Updated: Oct 11, 2015 10:08 IST
A few months ago, Rimpy, 15, had topped Class 9 in the government school near her village. Now she is worried who will pay her school fee and that of her younger brother. Their father, Sukhmandar Singh, was found hanging from a tree in their village, Behman Diwana, in Bathinda district on October 5. The village does not talk about who he left behind – aging parents, a wife and two children – but how much he owes to whom.
Sukhmander’s own landholding of three acres was never enough and though the contract price of `40,000 an acre seemed difficult to pay, he took three acres on theka (contract) hoping for a good cotton crop. His wife, Bhinder Kaur, says she has now no time to grieve. “He had paid half the amount for the three acres taken on theka. There is another `3 lakh we owe the arhtiya (commission agent). Our crop has been ruined by whiteflies. My husband would worry about how to repay the debt but I never imagined he could take such an extreme step, leaving behind our children. How will I ever repay the loans and educate them?” she says.
The tragedy has revisited the family more than a decade after Sukhmander’s younger brother, Resham Singh, committed suicide following the American bollworm attack that wiped out the cotton crop. Since the genetically modified Bt cotton variety came to Punjab, the village had seen no suicides though its farming had become a losing proposition as land contract, labour and input costs spiralled as cotton prices fell.
WEDDINGS CALLED OFF
For village after village in the cotton belt of Punjab, it has been a harvest of despair. It is the worst-ever cotton crisis to hit the state, which is the fourth largest producer of the crop in the country, at 1.8 million bales (of 170 kg each) with the highest yield of 800 kg/hectare. But this year, not only has the whitefly attack and crop failure sent the rural economy into a tailspin, the crisis has also taken a toll on rural society.
Fields, which at this time of the year used to glisten with white gold, wear a black, smoky look as the whitefly has sapped the life out of cotton flowers and the farmers. The gloom is taking a human and social toll as distressed farmers are cancelling marriage palace bookings, some even their own weddings. Tractors are being sold and jewellery mortgaged.
Unable to pay the fee, children of small cotton farmers are dropping out of school. At least 17 suicides have been reported in the past two months, mainly in Bathinda and Mansa districts.
DEBTS PILE UP
At Burj Mehma village of Bathinda, a family has seen suicide attempts by two brothers within 22 days. The younger, Charanjit Singh, died on September 9 after consuming pesticide. Unable to deal with the crisis, his elder brother, Charna, too attempted suicide but was saved.
“Our brothers took loans to marry us off. Charanjit had taken money from my husband to repay his tractor loan. But still my brothers owe nearly `7-8 lakh, including the price for taking five acres on contract and advance from the arhtiya. After his cotton crop was ruined, Charanjit went to the field on September 9 and never came back,” says his sister Veerpal. Unable to repay loans, Charanjit’s own marriage was never an option.
Their mother, Jarnail Kaur, is now struggling to get Charna treated as he is still “mentally unstable’. It has added another `70,000 to the debt of the family. Sitting next to the harvested cotton, Jarnail’s brother, Mangal Singh, says when debts pile up, one bad year can make the burden unbearable. “Normally, we got a minimum of 10 quintals from an acre. This year, we got 3 quintals from five acres. When the land is taken on contract, the owner won’t spare us the contract price if there is crop failure nor will the arhtiya his loan. The patwari (revenue official) came for assessing the crop loss but we have received no compensation. Perhaps it has gone to the landlord,” he says. The district administration is considering cases of both Sukhmandar and Charanjit for higher compensation of ` 3 lakh under farm suicide. The compensation for more than 33 percent cotton crop loss has been hiked by the government to ` 8000 an acre from the earlier ` 3600 an acre.
Their names are similar and so are their stories. Charanjeet Singh of Banawali village in Mansa was the second among three sons. Their four-acre land stands undivided as Charanjeet was the only one who got married. On September 10, he went to his field and was found hanging from a tree the next morning. The family owes over `4 lakh for taking 12 acres on contract for growing cotton, ` 3 lakh to the arhtiya and ` 4 lakh to the bank. He has left behind grieving old parents and two sons, aged 9 and 3 years.
“He used to keep talking about the pesticide spray not being able to control the whitefly attack on narma (cotton). In six months, we spent ` 15,000 an acre on pesticides and seeds. Yet the crop failed. Even when the crop is good, we save nothing. Saanu kuch nai bachda. Asi te mitti naal mitti ho ke reh gaaye aa (We are left with nothing to save. We have been reduced to dust),” says his wife, Karamjit Kaur. A month later, Charanjeet has been considered a genuine case of cotton failure related suicide by the district administration entitling his family to receive ` 3-lakh compensation from the government.
In most families that have seen suicides, the debt trap is vicious – other than outstanding loans, even the little land and jewellery they own lies mortgaged with the arhtiya. In these families, those who committed suicide were the breadwinners, dealing with landlords and arhtiyas and buying and selling the produce. In some, they were the only one.
TENANT on his own land
Reduced to a tenant on his own land, Bikkar Singh, 55, of Kheeva Khurd village in Mansa took on contract his own 1.5 acres from the moneylender whom he had mortgaged it to. He had also mortgaged his wife’s jewellery for marrying off their three daughters. Though Bikkar had settled one of his loans in a lok adalat, ` 2.5 lakh still remained. He had to pay another` 60,000 for the land as contract price at the rate of `40,000 an acre this year.
On October 7, Bikkar went to his cotton field and jumped into a nearby canal. Four years ago, his only son, Satguru Singh, then 16, had committed suicide after the marriage of his third sister. He too, his sisters claim, was depressed over their economic condition.
Sitting next to them, their mother, Vidya Devi, says she had no money to even perform the last rites of her husband. “The village collected the money for the cremation. My daughters will go back to their homes. I will be left alone. I have no education to earn a living,” she said.
Bikkar’s neighbours Gurbaksh Singh and Beant Singh, who too are small farmers with four acres each, fear more indebted farmers may meet this fate. “But we have our own land to tide over the crisis. In Bikkar’s farm, just one quintal of cotton crop could be salvaged. That too is in the field awaiting compensation after several rounds of assessment by the patwari,” they said.
But Bikkar’s name was quick to make it to the list of genuine cases soon after his suicide as an embattled Parkash Singh Badal government tries to firefight angry farmer unions and protests by the Opposition. The department of disaster management has asked the administration of suicide-hit districts to promptly verify deaths related to cotton failure and grant not just ` 3 lakh compensation but also subsidised inputs and other assistance to the family to help it recover from the debt trap.
Trigger for suicides?
The opposition Congress is now questioning if the grant of ` 3 lakh to farmers committing suicide and meagre compensation to others hit by the crop failure would not prove as a trigger for more suicides. “Does the government want more farmers to take their lives? They are publishing ads that compensation for suicides has been hiked since July this year to ` 3 lakh from` 2 lakh. For others, it is `8000 an acre. Why can’t it compensate all those who have lost their crop?” says Ajit Inder Singh Mofar, the Congress MLA from Sardulgarh in Mansa district.
“The compensation we received was as bitter as the harvest,” says the family of Kuldeep Singh, 28, of Chuge Kalan in Bathinda. Kuldeep’s suicide had rocked the Punjab Assembly as it was in session when he consumed poison at a protest rally of farmers in Bathinda. Ironically, three days after he died, his family received a cheque for ` 50 from the government!
“We had taken 15 acres on contract in addition to our own land of five acres, half of it was under cotton and rest under basmati. We have to pay the contract price, loan to arhityas and the bank. Even our jewellery is lying mortgaged as the situation is getting bad to worse. The land contract prices and cost of seeds, labour and pesticides are all shooting up but cotton prices are falling. Whiteflies attack every year but sprays work. This time they didn’t.
Now with a failed crop, we are doomed. I am not even in a position to pay school fee of my two daughters and the power bill,” says Kuldeep’s brother Hardeep Singh. While Kuldeep’s wife and son had gone to meet her parents, his aged parents, are still inconsolable. “Fasla te phir ho jangiya. Sada munda wapis kade nai ayega (The crop will grow again but our son will never return),” says his father Thana Singh. Following hard bargaining by protesting farmer unions, the district administration has decided to pay a higher compensation of `5 lakh to Kuldeep’s family.
Youth in distress
The distress in farms is plunging the youth into deeper despair. “There are no jobs and Punjab’s youth who do not want to work on farms mostly take to drugs. My father slogs and takes loans to raise crops throughout the year. Cotton is wiped out and basmati prices have crashed. We had to sell potatoes at `1 a kilo after the glut. He has to drive to make ends meet.
I would rather earn little in a private job than toil in the field. Only farms of big farmers are sprawling, the rest are turning into graveyards,” says Jasveer Singh, 22, of Behman Diwana in Bathinda, who is studying at Punjabi University, Patiala.
‘MURDER BY GOVERNMENT’
Inderjit Jaijee, who has done extensive research on farm suicides in Punjab and is fighting cases for compensation, blames fragmentation of landholdings and unprofitability of agriculture for the crisis. “The land keeps getting divided between brothers. The crop prices are not enough to sustain those with landholdings between one to four acres. The cotton belt in Punjab has no industry and therefore no jobs. Farmers have to rely on agriculture and if the crop fails, there is no insurance. So, farmers trapped in debt die. The insensitivity of the government makes it worse. We are fighting cases of 900 farmers (who committed suicide) in the Punjab and Haryana high court. The government has made post-mortem mandatory along with affidavit from the village panchayat, certifying the death as farm distress-related suicide. The compensation for crop failure is too little, too late. The suicides are actually a shameful act of murder by the government,” Jaijee adds.