Chandigarh, October 22: The Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party are resorting to competitive appeasement of the farmers as part of the vote bank politics rather than out of any commitment thereby beating the Akali Dal at its own game. Interestingly, the ruling Akali Dal has been forced to admit the resource constraint confronting the Parkash Singh Badal government, a fact that Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh had been going out of the way to deny by giving presentations on the financial situation. On the face of it, he would seem to be convincing. At the last such presentation, he called upon the media people not to paint Punjab as a financially stressed state arguing even neighbouring Haryana was no better.
This confession has come by way of a statement issued in the name of Akali Dal Secretary General Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa asserting that the party would make only those promises “that are feasibly within constraint of resources”. Dhindsa’s admission flies in the face of the Deputy Chief Minister.
It may be mentioned that it is the Akali Dal that started promising freebies on the pattern of Tamil Nadu during elections. The Amma government in Tamil Nadu has been more charitable. At a meeting where the proposal of providing subsidised Atta-Daal to weaker sections had come up in the run up to the 2007 elections, the issue of financial constraint that was raised in this context was overruled saying the basic issue was winning the election. Other issues were secondary and would be take care of in case the party won. The Akali Dal won the 2007 election. Freebies are a political weapon and it is the Congress and the AAP that are now outcompeting the Akali Dal.
It is Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi who has now offered loan waiver. He toured Uttar Pradesh rural areas with the promise to the farmers to waive off their loans in case the Congress comes into power. In case of UP, it is a big if. The same assurance has been extended in Punjab. State Congress chief capt Amarinder Singh has been going around in a custom made bus with the forms that are being filled up by the debt written farmers. The Congress is giving receipt to each and every farmer. The incidence of debt on farmers and farm workers is highest among all states in Punjab. Suicides by the farmers and farm workers continue unabated.
While these parties are going all out to promise largesse by way of loan waiver, the leaders have stopped the ritual of visiting the victim families. Seema Kaur of village Mahanbaddhar in Muktsar district got married to a farmer Shaminder Singh. She committed suicide last week due to debt burden on the family. None cared to visit the family.
At one level, it is Capt Amarinder Singh who is now dictating the agenda in the run up to the election in the state. Akali Dal has suddenly turned apologetic. AAP had earlier been hit due to split for which its leadership-Arvind Kejriwal-can’t blame anybody as he Sucha Singh Chhotepur was forced to resign in the wake of his humiliation on the charge of accepting Rs 2 lakh as party fund.
Farming and dairy farming are heavily subsidised in USA, Europe and Australia. None would oppose subsidies. Charity is different from subsidy. Subsidy takes care of empowerment of farmers. Of course, the governments at the centre have virtually written off loans of the corporates amounting to more than Rs 5 lakh crore. This sector gets indirect benefits of thousands of crore every year from the policies that are tailor made. There is nothing wrong in this framework to write off loans of the farmers too, including the non-institutional loan. Capt Amarinder Singh is promising all types of loans to be waived.
However, the important aspect is what next after waiving these loans. Land holdings have been shrinking over the years and the farmers committing suicides are small or marginal. Farm workers are dependent upon the farmers. Punjab is caught in a vicious circle.
The situation poses a serious challenge to whichever party replaces the Akali Dal-BJP combine in February 2017 elections. The contribution of Punjab to the central foodgrains buffer stock is the highest as compared to other states. However, the very people who are making this contribution are committing suicides. It is this cycle that has to end. What the Congress and AAP are offering is one time loan waiver. That is only one part.
There was a lot of hue and cry in the so called national press when the Akali Dal government took the decision to provide free power to the farm sector in 1997. The situation has now changed. The incidence of suicides has increased despite free power. This calls for structural changes in the state. Free trade across Attari-Wagha border is one option to give a boost to the economy in Punjab.