Friday, September 2

Farmers' Suicides In Punjab

A preliminary take on the first hand impressions gathered after a recent tour of some villages in Punjab, marked by large incidences of suicides, by Jatinder Preet

Punjab enjoying the earlier fruits of green revolution had not bargained for the stagnation in the sector, which was bound to come with time. Agriculture did not remain sustainable for long. The rising input costs and no corresponding rise in incomes embroiled the farmers in a crisis, out of which they have not been able to come out. The peculiar agricultural practice in the region marked by a marketing system mostly controlled by private money-lending institutions acted as a catalyst. They provide easy loans but with exorbitant interest rates. The prosperous phase of the Punjab that gave them wide exposure to the outside world only increased their expenditure. The media, NRIs returning home flashing their newly acquired wealth increased the appetite.
A vicious circle began. Unproductive expenditure only meant increase in indebtedness.
This peculiar socio-cultural character of Punjabi community dominated by Jatts was an invitation to the psychological phenomenon. The breakdown of agrarian society marked by social, economic and cultural changes together made for the trend.

The debate over suicides in Punjab has been reduced only to veracity of the claims of the suicides. The debate was sparked off by a report by Movement Against State Repression (MASR) in early 1998. Its figures took everyone by surprise. Convenor of MASR Inderjeet Singh Jaijee wrote a letter to President K.R. Narayanan claiming that 93 people committed suicide in a cluster of five villages in Sangrur district due to economic pressures. He called it a result of "a lack of opportunities and economic injustice".
Punjab, enjoying the label of success story of agriculture all over the country was not ready to accept the fact. Efforts went underway to find faults with the 'claim.' The then government led by Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal ordered an official investigation into the issue. The Punjab State Co-operative Apex Bank and the Department of Cooperation separately commissioned a study to the Institute for Development & Commission. Both of them though claiming the earlier claims of suicides as exaggerated could not wash off the fact that all was not well on agricultural front in the state with things going so bad that farmers were being forced to commit suicide.
Independent enquiries reveal suicides happening as late as this January. Discounting the hyperbole of political parties and media inclination of lapping up sensation, the fact of decline in fortunes of farming community cannot be obliterated. Only reasons differ according to different perceptions.

A Pattern
Punjab has a very low suicide rate by all-India standards. But there was a sudden spurt in the number of suicides in late nineties. The suicide rate in Punjab increased from 0.58 in 1989 to 2.77 in 1997. Instances of suicide suddenly increased after 1993. But curiously the suicides figures were concentrated in certain regions of the state. Roughly centered in what is called cotton belt, the suicides corresponded with repeated failure of cotton reeling under the bollworm attack. The water logging in certain areas destroyed agriculture there. Part of Malwa region, comprising major parts of districts Sangrur, Mansa, Bathinda, Faridkot and Muktsar were the most severely affected.
Common thread running through all these suicides is fact that all of them were reeling under indebtedness. Immediate triggers might have been different to commit suicide.

The Broad Picture
*Agriculturists becoming landless labourers: There had already been a continuing decline in land holding due to increasing families. Whatever is left to farmers is further being sold to pay for the debt.
*Shift from Agriculture: Farming families wholly dependent on their farms have started shifting to other professions. With no avenues in service sector and lack of proper education meant farmers did not see beyond their fields. But now they are being forced to look for sustenance in daily wages.
*Migration: Forced migration was observed in many villages where families moved out of the village when they were forced to sell their land. Many of the families sold their land to pay off debts while some others shifted because their lands were sold for higher price and they subsequently bought land at lower prices at other places.
*Highly Erratic Official Records: Suicides by farming communities do not figure much in the official records. It's not because they are not happening. It's simply because they are not being recorded. A village watchman who maintains record of birth and death in a village told they have been told by the police that don't mention suicide as the reason for death wherever possible.
*Police Harassment: Police harassment was mentioned as another reason for not citing suicide as the reason for death in many cases. Villagers claimed police asks for bribes to register suicides.
*No land attachments: While many farmers are not being able to pay off their debts, there has not been found a single case of property attachment. The village community collectively taken decision not to participate in the auction whenever the attachment proceedings are initiated for any one of their lands.

Small or marginal farmers, almost all of them had small landholdings. An estimate of expenditure on rabbi and kharif crops and net income revealed the farmers are not getting much and are even suffering losses. A group of farmers in village Lehal in Lehragaga block of Sangrur district collectively gave these inputs:
Right from cost of seeds, tilling the land to other inputs including fertilizers, pesticides, heribicides, harvesting by combine, wages of labourers, transportation to mandi average cost on an acre for wheat is Rs 6450. Taking into account 18 quintals of yield on an average at the rate of Rs 630 per quintal, a farmer gets an income of Rs. 4,890 per acre. The average land holding in the village is six acres. That means average income from one season of wheat is Rs. 16,360 merely.
Similarly for paddy the average cost per quintal is Rs. 13,170. While a farmer gets 14,160 for an average yield of 24 quintal at the rate of 590/qtl. The income comes to merely 960/acre.
The total annual income of an average farmer comes to about Rs. 5850/per acre. For six acres average land, a farmer?s annual income is Rs. 35,100.
Interestingly for an average household, the basic expenditure on day to day living came to 39,300.

This means an average farming family is incurring losses of Rs. 4200.

The farming community is at cross roads. The agricultural practice of wheat paddy rotation and cotton in a region has played havoc. While paddy as it is grown is very water intensive crop, cotton has been a failure because of bollworm attack. The steep prices of pesticides and their ineffectiveness could not sustain cotton. The declining water table, farmers depending on diesel for submersible pumps and bad quality of water at places made paddy too unsustainable.
The rising costs of living aided and abetted by consumerist culture which has taken into sweep even the rural Punjab made agriculture an uneconomic profession. The widespread dependence on drugs, inability to return loans taken for unproductive expenditures like marriages and tractors couple with breakdown of traditional support systems in rural society has caused a spate of suicides.

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