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Explained: Why is there a high rate of farmer suicides in Punjab’s Malwa?

Punjab government’s data states that 3,330 farmers have taken their lives due to farm debt since 2000 till date, of which 698 committed suicide in the past four years, most of them in the Malwa region.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba , Edited by Explained Desk | Updated: October 1, 2019 7:56:20 am
punjab farmer suicides, malwa farmers, farm debt, marginal farmers, express explained, indian express Farmer groups say 73-95 per cent of the farmers’ earnings are used up just paying land rent.

Over the past few years, ‘farm debt’ has been one of the main reasons behind farmers and farm labourers committing suicide in Punjab. Farmer groups, state universities’ and government data have indicated that 97% of farmer suicides are taking place in the Malwa region only.

The Indian Express explains why this seems to be the case and how exorbitant lease land rentals is one of the factors behind the high rate of farmer suicide in Malwa:

Where have the highest number of farmer suicides been reported from?

According to a joint report by Punjabi University, Patiala, Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), Ludhiana and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, farmer suicides due to debt drastically increased in the late 1990s. The maximum such suicides are taking place in the Malwa region (97.45 per cent), which falls south of the Sutlej, and has 14 of the state’s 22 districts.

Malwa has a majority of ‘small and marginal’ farmers’, who have 1-5 acres land. Sangrur (22.63 per cent), Mansa (21.30 per cent), Bathinda (17 per cent), Barnala (11.95 per cent), Moga (9.89 per cent) and Ludhiana (5.46 per cent) are worst affected. Suicides are also being reported from Patiala (2.36 per cent), Muktsar Sahib (4.47 per cent). One 2.39 per cent suicides were reported in Faridkot, Ferozpur and Ludhiana districts, said the report.

Of around 97 per cent suicides that taken place in the Malwa region — 94 per cent of which were due to ‘farm debt’. Majority of them are small and marginal farmers having 1-5 acres of land. In eight districts of Majha, where Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Tarn Taran districts are located, and Doaba, where Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur and Nawanshahr districts are located, less than 2.55 per cent farmers suicides have been reported including 1.81 per cent due to farm debt.

Of the farmers who committed suicide, 43.84 per cent were marginal farmers (having upto 1 hectare land), 30.12 per cent were small farmers (having upto 2 hectares), 18 per cent were semi-medium farmers (having land upto 2.5 hecatres), 7% were medium (having land upto 4 hectares) and 1% were large farmers, said the report.

What is the total number of such suicides due to debt till now?

The Punjab government’s data states that 3,330 farmers have taken their lives due to farm debt since 2000 till date, of which 698 committed suicide in the past four years, most of them in the Malwa region. It also states that 97 farm labourers committed suicide since 2016, before which no records were maintained of the same.

However, the universities’ report states that a total of 16,606 farmers and farm labourers — including 9,007 farmers — committed suicide between 2000 and 2015. The Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) said 1,500 farmers and farm labourers have committed suicide in Punjab since 2016.

Why is the Malwa region so prone to farmer suicides?

Experts and farm organisations have given the following reasons:

* Average annual rate of ‘lease land rentals’ of agricultural land remains Rs 50,000 to 65,000 per acre in Malwa while it is between Rs 30,000 to 45,000/acre in Doaba and Majha regions, barring a few exceptions. A farmer earns Rs 32,000 to 36,000 per acre per crop after meeting input cost and if he/she rears two crops annually, he/she earns Rs 68,000 to Rs 72,000 per acre. This way, 73-95 per cent earnings are used up just paying the land rent.

* A field survey by Professor Kesar Singh Bahngu of Punjabi University, Patiala, suggested that farmers cannot get alternative employment opportunities in Malwa, hence small and marginal farmers fall in the trap of debt. If the crop turns out bad, it only adds to their mounting debt.

* In the Malwa region, a large number of farmers have to spend a chunk of their earnings on health issues including cancer, which is quite common here. There is even a train that carries mostly cancer patients from here to a hospital in Rajasthan. Several reasons have been attributed to high number of cancer patients here, including highly contaminated groundwater.

Why are lease land rentals high in Malwa as compared to Majha and Doaba?

In Malwa, the number of ‘landless’ and ‘marginal farmers’ is very high against the availability of farmland. “Cultivation of land is the only way available to them to earn their living. For taking land on rent, they are dependent on big land lords and ‘sahukaars’ (private money lenders), who have also become owners of agricultural lands of most small and marginal farmers, who could not pay their debts and finally transfer their lands to these lenders,” said BKU Ugrahan General Secretary Sukhdev Singh Kokrikalan.

Poor farmers think that even if their entire earnings go in paying rent, they will at least get grain for a whole year for their families. On the other hand, in Doaba, which is the NRI belt, and Majha, a large number of farming households either have one member abroad or in government jobs or armed forces from where they get an assured regular income. Even small farmers are running subsidiary occupations like dairy. Also, they prefer to plant three crops in a year including wheat, paddy and vegetables. In the Doaba, large farm lands of NRIs are available to fellow farmers for cultivation due to which lease rentals are 20-30 per cent down here, said experts.

What solutions have been suggested?

The universities’ report suggests streamlining of ‘land lease rentals’, waiving farm loans at least once, providing compensation to the tune of Rs 10 lakh to each family that loses a farmer or farm labourer to suicide, continuation of free power, crop diversification, insurance for crops and health of farmers and labourers, development of dairy sector, profitable employment for one family member of farmers and labourers, rold-age pension to farmers and labourers, streamlining of banking sector and curtailing unscrupulous activities of micro-finance agencies and moneylenders etc.

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