On June 20, when Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh announced his government’s intention to waive crop loans of all small and marginal farmers up to a limit of Rs 2 lakh each, Rachpal Singh was a happy man.
The 53-year-old from Umarpur Kalan village in Nurmahal tehsil of Jalandhar district owned four acres, which should ordinarily have made him a “small farmer” — covering those owning between 2.5 and five acres of land — eligible for relief on his Rs 3-lakh loan taken from the Shadipur primary agricultural cooperative society (PACS).
“I submitted all my details to the society. But they now tell me I am not qualified for the waiver, which would reduce my liability to Rs 1 lakh,” says Singh. The reason: the Punjab government restricting its waiver to “small farmers” only in case of their outstanding loan amount itself not exceeding Rs 2 lakh.
Rachpal Singh, however, isn’t alone. Manjinder Singh of Tanda village in Tarn Taran district’s Khadur Sahib tehsil owns 3.5 acres and has loans totaling Rs 3.6 lakh, including Rs 3 lakh from the Punjab Gramin Bank and Rs 60,000 from the local PACS. Ramandeep Singh, a three-acre farmer from Jandu Singha village in Adampur tehsil of Jalandhar, similarly owes Rs 5 lakh to both public sector and cooperative banks.
None of these men — there are several thousands of others, too, — are deemed fit for waiver under the Punjab government’s scheme launched on January 7. Their crime: having loans of over Rs 2 lakh,
even while being small farmers. “If my liability is not going to come down Rs 2 lakh, why did they promise it at all?,” asks Ramandeep Singh, pointing to the ruling Congress party’s poll manifesto as well as the chief minister’s June 20 statement extending loan waiver of up to Rs 2 lakh to all 10.25 lakh small and marginal farmers in the state.
The scheme unveiled by the Amarinder Singh government — nearly 10 months after its assuming office — basically covers only “marginal farmers”, defined as those owning less than 2.5 acres of land. These farmers are eligible for a blanket Rs 2 lakh waiver, which would be given even if their outstanding loans exceed this amount.
“We initially prepared a list of all small and marginal farmers having loan dues to our society. But then we received official instructions to first take the cases of only marginal farmers. For small farmers, we were to consider only those with loans of up to Rs 2 lakh and not a rupee above that. As a result, a majority of our cases got rejected,” notes Dilbagh Singh, secretary of the Harsi Pind PACS in Hoshiarpur district.
According to Santokh Singh Taggarh, Jalandhar district president of the Kirti Kisan Union, there will not be even 10 per cent small farmers having outstanding loans below Rs 2 lakh.
“With 3-4 acres, no farmer can feed his family. That’s why even small farmers take additional land on lease, which, in turn, entails their taking crop loans well beyond Rs 2 lakh from multiple banks,” he points out.
The debt waiver scheme that has been announced is expected to cover just over 3 lakh farmers, as opposed to the chief minister’s originally mentioned 10.25 lakh figure. Moreover, it would for now be limited only to loans taken from cooperative banks.
A state government-constituted expert group, headed by the former Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices chairman Tajamul Haque, is understood to have estimated the total debt of small and marginal farmers in Punjab at Rs 26,800 crore. Out of this, Rs 20,000 crore is owed to public sector banks and Rs 3,200 crore to private banks, and only the balance Rs 3,200 crore to cooperatives.
The cost of debt waiver to meet the ruling party’s poll promise was originally pegged at Rs 9,500-9,600 crore. But with small farmers getting more or less excluded and the scope of waiver limited only to cooperative bank loans, the actual outgo may not even cross Rs 2,000 crore.
“We have uploaded the details of 5.63 lakh small and marginal farmers having accounts in cooperative banks and with total outstanding loans of about Rs 2,700 crore on the government’s portal. But only 3.18 lakh will get covered as per the current instructions,” admits a senior Punjab State Cooperative Bank official.
“At the moment, our focus is on marginal farmers. We have so far cleared 1.60 lakh cases,” informs Balwinder Singh Sidhu, agriculture commissioner. The Punjab government, on January 7, released Rs 167.39 crore as the first installment towards debt waiver covering 47,000 marginal farmers in Mansa, Muktsar, Faridkot, Bathinda and Moga districts.
But that is clearly a fraction of the originally promised package.