In June 2017, the Congress government in Punjab announced a loan waiver of Rs 9,500 crore to small and marginal farmers in the state, of which Rs 4,245 crore has been waived off so far. Punjab’s debt waiver scheme was to be the model for the Congress as it announced loan waivers in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Yet, a year and a half later and with months to go for the Lok Sabha elections, Congressmen in the state feel the party not been able to get the traction they hoped to from the announcement.
Party MLAs have at several platforms made it clear to senior leaders that farmers are not very enthusiastic about the scheme. In a recent meeting of MLAs chaired by Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, former Indian Youth Congress president and MLA from Gidderbaha, Amrinder Singh Raja Warring, rued that despite “having given farmers so much money, they are not singing our praises”.
Last Saturday, at a meeting of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chiefs in New Delhi, Punjab PCC president and Gurdaspur MP Sunil Kumar Jakhar admitted that “farmers are not impressed (with the waiver) and the party has not scored anything politically”.
Jakhar’s grouse was that the waiver was handled “bureaucratically”, rather than “politically”, a sentiment expressed by a number of MLAs in the state on various occasions. They say that a political representative should have handed out the cheques to the farmers instead of crediting the money directly to the farmers’ bank accounts. The government, however, has been defending the move, saying it wanted to prevent duplication and minimise possibilities of fraud.
It was in response to this that in January, for the third phase of the waiver, Cooperatives Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa got Chief Minister Singh to personally hand over letters to each beneficiary.
“The letter from the CM says he is happy to extend the loan waiver; the name of the farmer is handwritten. Now that we have started doing it, MLAs are satisfied. It’s true we did not market ourselves. When the earlier Akali government handed over social security pension of Rs 250 per month, they would go to town with it. Now with this letter, the credit for the waiver will go to Captain Amarinder Singh. Why should we not do it?” said Randhawa.
While the ruling party sees the lack of enthusiasm among farmers as the failure of the government to “cash in on the waiver”, farmer organisations say the benefit was too little, especially for small farmers.
Sukhdev Singh Kokri, general secretary of Bharti Kisan Union (Ugrahan) said, “The calculation is very simple. Over 70 per cent of agricultural land in the state is owned by farmers having over 10 acres. The remaining 30 per cent is owned by farmers with less than 10 acres, of which farmers with 5 acres (small farmers) and less hold 15 per cent of the total land. Farmers who own less than 2.5 acres (marginal farmers) are the ones who deserve this waiver. But our reports are that the big farmers, who have divided their land into chunks of less than 2.5 acres each and registered those in the names of their family members, received the maximum benefit. Also, in a lot of cases, the Congress MLAs vetted the list and chose the beneficiaries,” he said.
Several economic experts, including the State Level Bankers’ Committee (SLBC), have been criticising the farm loan waiver, saying that on the one hand, the scheme has not helped farmers much as debt is a cyclic phenomenon and on the other, it has affected their credit worthiness. Also, the waiver doesn’t help farmers who borrowed money from private money lenders.
The Opposition Shiromani Akali Dal is also taking on the Congress over the implementation of the waiver. On February 12, on the first day of Budget session, the party paraded families of farmers who had committed suicide and whose debt has not been waived off. A few days ago, the Akalis had paid Rs 2 lakh as “debt waiver” to Budh Singh, a farmer from Dera Baba Nanak who was the Congress’s poster boy on the party’s debt waiver promise before the elections. In October 2016, Amarinder Singh had launched the Congress’s campaign on debt waiver from his house in Dera Baba Nanak by getting him to fill the form. Budh Singh has not got the waiver yet.