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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Explained: How has Covid-19 helped reduce farmer suicides in Punjab

As per Punjab Revenue Department record, over the last four years, on an average 40-42 farmers/farm labourers took their own lives every month in the state. The Indian Express explains the decline in cases of farm suicides during the pandemic outbreak in the state.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar | July 1, 2020 10:46:36 pm
A farmer covered his face with cloth, worked in a Paan (Betel leaf) field in the outskirts of Agartala, capital of Tripura. Express photo by Abhisek Saha

Over the past three months, which included the lockdown period and the unlocking that started unfolding since June 1, around three dozen farmers and/farm labourers have committed suicides as per the reports collected by the farmers’ organisation across the state.

According to this figure, on an average around 12-13 farmers took their lives per month over the past three months. This number though is very high, still it is about 70 per cent lesser than suicides per month that the state was recording prior to the lockdown.

As per Punjab Revenue Department record, over the last four years, on an average 40-42 farmers/farm labourers took their own lives every month in the state. The Indian Express explains the decline in cases of farm suicides during the pandemic outbreak in the state.

How many farmer/farm labourers committed suicide in Punjab till date since March 23, the day lockdown was announced?

As per the records of Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), which has been collecting the numbers from media reports of the suicides, and crosschecking it against cases registered by the police, 16 farmers committed suicide in April and around the same number committed suicide in the next two months — May and June — together. If nearly four suicides in the last week of March are taken into account, the average suicides since announcement of the lockdown till date are around 12 to 13 cases.

During the April to June period in 2019 and 2018, 119 and 104 suicides had taken place, respectively, in the state. This year’s figure is 65 per cent to 68 per cent less compared to data from last two years.

What are experts’ views on fewer suicides in Punjab?

Prof Kesar Singh Bhangu, Economics professor at Punjabi University, Patiala, and expert on farm issues said that currently spending across society, including farming community, has been reduced to essentials. Secondly, there is a perception that the government may help farmers to come out of the debt net during Covid-19 crisis on the lines of most developed countries like Canada and the USA where big economic assistance was provided to the farmers by their respective governments.

Agriculture and economic issues expert, Prof Gian Singh, who has conducted several studies on farmer suicides, said that there is a possibility less pressure on farmers for repaying their debts currently due to the pandemic has led to a decline in suicide cases.

What do farm outfits say?

Joginder Singh Ugrahan, president of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) Ugrahan, the outfit which has been keeping record of every such suicide since 2016-17, said that due to COVID-19, farmers are relieved because of the postponement of installment payments.

Moreover, they are not facing humiliation, including ‘Kurki of their farmland (attachment of farmers’ land) by banks and money lenders.

“In rural Punjab, a huge expenditure that happens on marriages and even on last rites, is not happening as of now now because of restrictions. This was a big burden,” said farmer Sukhpal Singh from Kanakwal village in Sangrur, adding that such social obligations were taking huge toll on a large number of farmers in rural Punjab.

What is the government’s view?

Officials in the government department said that a little gesture from the government’s side about instructing the banks not to take payment of the debt installments for a few months had acted as a deterrent against suicides.

The waiving of loans up to Rs 2 lakh of small and marginal farmers was an effort in the direction of curbing suicides, but since the farmers had already taken high debts, this effort could not stop suicides.

“If government’s policies pay a little more attention towards even paying full MSP to farmers and ensuring private players don’t exploit them to make huge profits then suicides will be the thing of the past in Punjab”.

Will the trend of lower suicides continue?

Experts feel that the trend is a temporary relief and the situation will worsen as the number of suicides might increase once normalcy returns. They fear that banks and other financial establishments will adopt hawkish measures to realise their outstanding dues from the farmers, which will, in turn, put the farming community under financial and psychological pressure.

Jagmohan Singh, general secretary BKU Dakaunda Ekta said that right now farmers are focusing on filling the food coffers of the country but this does not mean that suicides will not return.

“Suicides will stop only when governments have the will of brining small, marginal, semi medium and medium farmers out of debt net at least for once, implement Swaminathan report in complete letter and spirit and scrapping the agricultural ordinances like the abolition of Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act, along with exercising control over private money lenders and some private banks.”

Out of around Rs one lakh crore debt on farmers in Punjab, nearly 34 per cent is from the non-institutional bodies, which charge a whopping 28 to 30 per cent rate of interest.

“If coronavirus can defer such extreme steps, then a little effort from the government to lessen farmers’ distress can have a magical impact on this sad and sordid phenomenon,” concluded Jagmohan Singh.

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