The Congress government came to power in Punjab riding on the promise of a complete loan waiver to farmers and a host of other agrarian reforms. Two years on, the loan waiver has only been partial and there is no sign of other reforms.
Farmer bodies claim the state has seen 900 suicides from March 2017 to January 2019, besides a host of kurkis (auction of land) due to farm distress. In the 40-point agenda for ‘agriculture and allied sector’ in its manifesto, Congress’s first major promise was ‘Karza Muafi’ (debt waiver) for farmers. The party also coined the slogan “Karza kurki khatam, fasal di poori rakam (end to indebtedness and kurki, full rate to crops)”. It even got 31 lakh farmers and farm labourers to fill up the Karza Muafi forms. The party swept the state, bagging 77 of the 117 seats in 2017.
Two years on, the government claims that it has fulfilled its promise and waived Rs 4736-crore debt of 5.83 lakh farmers. The truth, however, is that this watered down ‘debt waiver scheme’ came with several riders.
The notification of loan waiver, after six months of Congress rule, made it clear that it was for “small and marginal farmers” with farm land less than two hectares (less than five acres). The waiver covered a sum of only up to Rs 2 lakh, that too in several phases. First, the loans from cooperative societies/banks were waived, then came the turn of the loans taken from the commercial and private banks. The state government said there were 18.50 lakh farmers in Punjab, of which 10.40 lakh were small and marginal.
The government refused to take cognisance of the loans the farmers had taken from ‘arhtiyas’ (commission agents), or private money lenders, which is said to be to the tune of around Rs 26,000 crore. Bharitya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) claims the farm distress continues in the state and over 900 farmers have committed suicide in the past two years.
The Punjab government finally took cognisance of these deaths, allocating in its 2019-20 state budget Rs 3000 crore for landless farm labourers and families of farmers who committed suicide. Farmer organisations, however, say nothing less than complete loan waiver will alleviate farm distress. As BKU Ekta Dakuanda general secretary Jagmohan Singh, put it, “When battling fever, we need paracetamol. Similarly, debt is like a fever and we need one time complete waiver following which farmers should get full price of their crops as per the Swaminathan Commission report and bank loans should be streamlined.”
Renowned economist Sardara Singh Johal said several studies suggested that large number of marginal and small farmers committing suicide, are dependent on non-institutional sources for loan that is often secured at a high rate of interest ranging from 22 to 28 per cent.
“Government cannot waive off complete debt. I am personally against the loan waiver but still if farmers are to be relieved than debt should be dealt as an ‘individual’ issue,” he said.
Devinder Sharma, a distinguished agriculture and food expert, said, “The states must get together and raise a hue and cry before the central government to get rid of this malaise once and for all on the same line as corporate world loan.”
No stopping kurkis
Former Professor of Economics at Punjabi University, Prof Gian Singh, who has conducted several studies on farmer debt and suicides, said, “There is a huge gap between promise and implementation”. The government has failed to abolish kurki as well. Farmer leaders say though the government has abolished the provisions under Section 67-A of Punjab Cooperative Societies Act enabling cooperatives to recover unpaid loans through auctioning of land mortgaged by farmers, several lacunae remain.
“The notification did not cover either commercial banks (both public sector and private) or the arhtiyas. They are, therefore, obtaining decrees from courts to attach the lands of defaulting farmers,” points out Jagmohan Singh, adding that no new law was enacted to abolish kurki.
BKU Ugrahan general secretary Sukhdev Singh Kokrikalan claims farm bodies have stopped over 100 kurkis in the Malwa belt in the past two years.
Prison of shame
Defaulting farmers are also facing imprisonment. Around 12,000 small and marginal farmers of Moga, Patiala, Faridkot, Ferozepur, Muktsar and Bathinda districts were issued legal notices from banks and arhtiyas using illegally taken ‘blank cheques’ from them. When their cheque bounces, as is often the case, they are sent to jail.
Now after a massive protest by seven farmers’ organisations, the State Level bankers Committee (SLBC) informed the Punjab and Haryana High Court on February 22 that they will withdraw all the bank cheques of small and marginal farmers with a loan amount of up to Rs 10 lakh.
“But what about those farmers who are already in jails in cheque bounce cases,” asks agricultural expert Prof. Kesar Singh Bhangu of Punjabi University.
There is no push for diversification in the state and farmers growing maize, sugarcane, potato, and pulses seldom get a good price for their crop.
Prof Bhangu laments that despite the government’s grand stand on the need to conserve groundwater, “30 lakh hectares in the state continue to be under paddy though we need to bring it down to 10 lakh hectare to save groundwater and soil”.