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“HOW MUCH land do you have?” asks Amarinder Singh. “I don’t have any,” says the old woman who was allowed to board the Punjab Congress chief’s custom-fitted campaign bus on his tour of this town.
“She’s landless,” Amarinder tells the local Congress leader Kushaldeep Singh Dhillon, a former Akali Dal legislator. Someone points out that she is a widow. “How much is your loan?” he asks the woman, whose name is Daljeet Kaur. She shakes her head, and gestures to say she does not know.
“Put a question mark against the loan amount,” Amarinder instructs Dhillon, who is taking down Kaur’s details in a form. Dhillon then hands the counterfoil to the woman.
The form, known as Kisan Mang Patr, is the latest in pre-election promises, although the math is still unclear. The Congress has promised that those who fill the form will have their loans waived, if the party wins the assembly elections.
And while the debtors wait, the forms are fulfilling another important role: building a statewide database of voters. “We will be using phone numbers to update those who have filled the form on the loan-waiver plan, and it will help us identify our voters better,” said a volunteer.
Conceptualised by Congress poll strategist Prashant Kishor, the form is being distributed across Punjab. Another version of this form, promising to halve electricity bills along with a loan waiver, has been distributed in UP.
The A 2-sized form, in Gurmukhi, depicts a lush green-and-yellow farm on one side with the title: Karza Kurki Khatam, Fasal ki Poori Rakm (End of loan, mortgage; full remuneration for crop), with photos of Amarinder, and party leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
On the other side is a picture of Rahul against the background of wilting crop, under the title: Kisan Mang Patr. A red-coloured seal-shaped insignia on the counterfoil has “Karza Maaf” stamped across it.
Those who fill the form are signing up not just for a loan waiver, but also to a declaration of support for the party’s “policy of loan and mortgage waivers, and full price for crop”. The form asks for the person’s name, village, constituency, district, loan amount and phone number.
“Eight lakh forms have been filled so far, out of which we are in the process of collecting hard-copies for 3 lakh,” said a member of Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee, one of a host of IPAC volunteers accompanying Amarinder on his three-day Kisan Yatra that began on Monday at Moga and passed through Faridkot on Tuesday.
Those who fill out the form are asked to give a “missed call” to a number. The calls are immediately returned with a recorded message from Amarinder assuring that their loan will be waived, and that they will receive the entire Minimum Support Price (MSP) for their crop. “I want to see your faces lighting up and glowing again,” he declares in the recorded message.
“According to a reply in Parliament, Rs 1.2 lakh is the average debt per agricultural household. But we have been receiving cases at the lowest end of Rs 2 lakh… at the highest, there has been one case of Rs 8 lakh,” said the IPAC volunteer.
The volunteer claimed that Congress would form the next government and waive loans up to Punjab’s total estimated farm debt of Rs 37,000 crore. The party’s manifesto is still in the works but this promise would be on it, said the volunteer. The Congress hopes this will help it make inroads among rural voters among whom, party leaders admit, the AAP has gained considerable traction. AAP has also promised a loan waiver plan.
Agricultural indebtedness has driven many farmers to suicide in Punjab. In a reply to the Rajya Sabha in July, the government said 363 farmers across India had committed suicide until then this year, 56 in Punjab. In 2015, that number was 46 in Punjab out of 2,548 across the country.
With farmers again complaining that the government was not giving MSP for this year’s paddy, Amarinder dropped his other outreach programmes — Halqe vich Captain, Coffee with Captain — and kicked off this Kisan Yatra.
But even though widows of nine farmers who committed suicide flagged off the yatra on Monday, there have been few villages on the itinerary because it is procurement season and farmers are at the mandis waiting with their harvest to be bought by government agencies.
On Tuesday, in a Swaraj Mazda fitted with a hydraulic chair that lifted him up through the sunroof, Amarinder toured Faridkot town, where AAP’s Dr Sadhu Singh trounced the Akali MLA by 1.5 lakh votes in 2014. “When I was CM [2002-2007] it was never like this, and I promise there will be no delays in procurement when I form my government. We will pay the full price,” Amarinder announced.
The yatra will end on Wednesday in Bathinda. “But we will be back,” said the IPAC volunteer.