Chandigarh, May 15: ‘Six farmers commit suicide in Punjab’ was the front page headline last week in a mass circulated Punjabi newspaper hours after Aam Aadmi Party ‘senior leaders’ counseled the farmers against resorting to this extreme step. Such headlines don’t shake either the people or the government in this state anymore. Punjab countryside is slowly turning into land of zombies, such is the extreme of economic distress being faced by majority of the farmers having upto five acres of land. The crisis has started deepening with the state witnessing on an average daily two suicides by farmers and farm workers and the graph continues to reflect alarmingly rising trend.
Punjab has reached this nadir after about Rs 50,000 crore has been pumped in the state government as the cost of free power supply to the farmers to run tubewells since 1997. This account adjustment is between the state government and the power corporation. Capital investment of the same amount would have produced different results but then that might not have been the vote catcher. Here lies the basic problem. The issue of farmers suicides is now part of the main political discourse in the state along with rampant corruption and scourge of drugs but neither AAP nor the Congress has come out with any alternative model of development.
The basic problem with AAP, the party that is being looked up to by the people in the state, is that it lacks ideological content and hence the alternative model of development. The agrarian crisis in Punjab is rooted in the existing model of development that is closely linked to the global market economy. The linkage of Punjab to the global food market is the strongest as compared to other states in the country and about 90 per cent of the produce is marketable surplus.
According to one estimate, about 34 per cent of small farmers cultivate about nine per cent of the cultivated land area. All farmers don’t have tubewells.
Dr Sukhpal from Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, who has been working on farmers suicides and farm economy, maintains that the debt repaying capacity of the farmers owning less than five acres of land is negative. The income generation is so meager that even interest amount can’t be paid. About 19 per cent of the small farmers are under that amount of debt that is more than their aggregate income of two years. Punjab’s farm economy has reached what is being described as the bankruptcy stage and hence the unstoppable trend of suicides by farmers and farm workers. The graph has been on the rising trend since 2011 and about 40 per cent of those committing suicides are the farm workers.
Total number of families of small and marginal farmers that are in the bankruptcy zone are about 57,000 and they are most prone to suicides. Punjab government last year paid about Rs 5,000 crore as free power subsidy to the power corporation. This subsidy is misdirected.
An alternative that is being suggested here is to pay direct subsidy to all the farmers irrespective of their land holdings in place of free power that is also proving to be ecological disaster as the water table has gone down drastically with the state depending on wheat-paddy cycle with cotton as the third major crop in the cotton belt. In case this money is disbursed directly to the farmers, it would amount additional income of about Rs 4,000 per month that can go a long way in providing relief to the distressed sections.
Whichever party comes into power in February 2017 would have to take bold steps and come out with alternative model for farm sector rather than talking of cosmetic measures. It would also need strong political will. The path of development that is being followed by this country is disastrous for the common man and hence the people can’t expect ‘achhe din’, a slogan that has been reduced to jumlabandi as the Narendra Modi government too is following the same path of development as the earlier UPA government.
Punjab’s pattern calls for deeper study in view of what is described as over mechanization. The farmer in the state has a small window to cultivate next crop after harvesting and the process has to be completed within less than three weeks. The reason is simple but with serious ramification. The yield goes down in case of delay in cultivation. The farmer even having two acres of land has thus to depend upon tractor. Punjab has already introduced the concept under which agricultural societies have been provided with tractors and other equipment to be given on rent to the farmer. About 1200 societies have adopted this system that is showing positive results. Time factor is very important.
Political parties are talking only of one time loan waiver but that is one step solution and what is called for is a long term policy after studying every aspect of the market economy. Slump in the global prices affect cotton prices in India. BT cotton has lost its utility.
Alarming reports are already indicating another attack of white fly on cotton this year again in Punjab. It is disaster looming large.
Rather than treating farmers and farm workers as political commodity, the ruling dispensation would have to go to the roots and take bold steps. Implementing Swaminathan report on fixing minimum support price is one aspect.