Punjab farmers’ smile belies deeper angst of debt, poor prices

The state may have earned the title ‘wheat bowl of India,’ but deep within an agrarian crisis has been simmering for decades. If the MSP regime ends, the farmers here may quit farming for good

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Jats from western UP have been supporting BJP for the last decade, but today, the Jats in UP, lead by Tikait, have turned their backs on the BJP because of farm laws.

As rhetoric, “One Nation, One Policy” may sound like a rallying call intended to mesmerise citizens into supporting the BJP-led central government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the reality is far from it and the latest instance of that is the three-week-old farmers’ agitation that has held the country in thrall.

The three farm laws passed by the Modi government is a “one size fits all” type legislation that seems to have completely overlooked the complexities of ground reality in the various states. 

The laws, while impacting agricultural practices across the country, mean different things to different states. As the ongoing agitation shows, farmers in Punjab and Haryana fear the new laws the most and they are naturally at the head of the protests.

It is a universally acknowledged fact that farming is unviable in India. Over the years dwindling investment in the agriculture sector, gradual withdrawal of diesel and power subsides have added to their woes.

On his first term as the prime minister, Narendra Modi promised the farmers he would double their incomes by 2023. Far from it, they find themselves cornered. Add to this lowering prices of farm produce, the demonetisation and the COVID-19 pandemic their troubles have multiplied.

The farmers’ distress manifested in various ways. In 2016, Tamil Nadu farmers agitated on the streets of Delhi for 100 days without any impact. In 2017, farmers from Madhya Pradesh clashed with the police. In 2019, farmers from the hinterlands of Maharashtra marched to the state capital Mumbai seeking drought relief.

Most recently, amidst the pandemic the Centre piloted three farm laws on contract farming, private trade, mandi system and dispute resolution which has brought the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to the borders of Delhi in protest. They are demanding that these laws be repealed.

The Federal, in keeping with its statement of purpose, in a series of reports, has attempted to look closely at the specific situation in as many as states as possible. The idea is to bring out the vastly differing agricultural policies and practices in each of the states to enable a better understanding of the agitation and what has outraged the farmers. 

We start with Punjab. 

A look at Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol dancing around mustard fields of Punjab in the film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge gives one a feeling that farming in Punjab is a very pleasurable business and that the farmers too are happy and full of life. Of course, sons of the soil here are optimistic and energetic, but behind the broad smiles lies the uneasy burden of debt, suicides, landlessness and illnesses. An end to minimum support price (MSP), as is feared by protesters in Delhi, would sound the death knell for an average Punjab farmer.

The plight of farmers in Punjab can be gauged from the fact that about 96 per cent of them are poor, 86 per cent are debt-ridden, 80 per cent of farm labourers (landless) are under debt and every third farmer in Punjab falls in the below poverty line (BPL) category. Ironically, the problems of farmers started mostly after the Green Revolution in early 1960s, which gave Punjab the sobriquet ‘wheat bowl of India’ and made the country self-sufficient in food.

According to a study, the double mono-cropping of winter wheat and summer paddy has increased the grain harvest in Punjab since the sixties. However, this has resulted in depletion of water reserves beyond sustainable levels due to increased demand for irrigation. In addition, the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has made the soil deficient in micronutrients, the study said.

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The consequence is: high cost and low productivity. Taran Grewal, a farmer based out of Ludhiana, said that his cost of farming goes up every year and yields come down. “We used to get nearly 15 quintals of wheat per acre which has come down to 12-13 quintals now. The cost of fertilizers, pesticides, fuel, seeds and electricity is increasing every year. The government increases the minimum support price (MSP) once in two years or three years that too after we protest, which is not enough to meet the input cost and we are suffering from loses every year,” Grewal said.

As they suffer losses, farmers are left with no option but to take loans for the next crop season and also to make the two ends meet. Grewal said, “I own four acres of land and I have to take loan at the end of every season, which I repay when the next season begins. The money I get from farming is either used to meet household expenses or keep the farm productive. I have never been debt-free in my life. I think I am lucky that a natural calamity has not hit my fields yet.”

Those who fail to repay debts for years end their lives. The number of farmers in Punjab committing suicide is increasing every year. According to data provided by Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, 3,598 farmers and 2,694 labourers died by suicide due to debt in 2018. Jaggi Randhawa of Kisaan Sabha in Punjab said that you won’t find even a single village in Punjab where a farmer has not committed suicide due to debt. “Last year, two farmers ended their lives in my neighbouring village. You should look at the situation of those families today. The breadwinner of the family is gone and their children, aged 11-12 years, are forced to take the entire responsibility of the farm and feed the family. Our system has failed the farmers,” he said.

Some farmers, who were in debt and were unable to repay loans, were forced to sell their land and have now become landless labourers.

The number of small farmers in Punjab has decreased from about 5 lakh in 1990 to 3.5 lakh in 2010. Such landless labourers live below the poverty line (BPL). Some of them get loans from the landlords and these accumulate over time due to high interest rates. After generations, the repayment of debt becomes impossible. Hence, the entire family ends up as bonded labourers with the landlords.

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Dr Harpreet Kaur Sandhu, an independent researcher with Punjabi University in Patiala, wrote in one of her researches that the government is very much aware of the agrarian crisis and farmer suicides and it also knows that the current cropping pattern (wheat and rice only) is not viable.  A fall in agriculture produce prices and a continuous rise in input costs lead to decrease in profit margins of farmers and puts undue pressure on them, Sandhu added.

In addition, farmers in Punjab have to cope with diseases like cancer, which has increased over the years due to excessive use of pesticides. Notably, pesticides are chemicals used to control a whole range of pests and include insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides. Although Punjab state occupies only 1.5 % of the land area of India, it uses about 18% of the total pesticide usage in India. Studies in Punjab have proved the presence of pesticide residues in breast milk, milk from cattle, and in fruits and vegetables.

The special cancer train that runs from Punjab to Bikaner is well known. Dr Swaroop Singh, a public health expert based out of Amritsar in Punjab, said that due to excessive use of pesticides, which contain harmful chemicals like uranium and arsenic, our food has got contaminated. “The worst affected are farmers who inhale these chemicals in fields and eat them as well,” Dr Singh said.

Harendra Singh Lakhwal, president of Punjab Kisan Union, said the Punjab farmers are already distressed and on top of it, the three new farm laws threaten to end the existence of small and marginal farmers. The farmers of Punjab, who are losing their land to debt, would just give up farming if the MSP is removed and contract farming is brought in, Lakhwal added.

Lakhwal said the farmers are already on an edge of a mountain top and if the MSP, which is the most they get, is removed, they will fall down the cliff. “Farmers never sought the farm bills in the very first place, then why is the government pushing for such legislations?”

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Describing these laws as misleading, Lakhwal said, “The biggest lie is that the new laws will allow farmers to sell their goods anywhere. This is not the case because farmers have had this exemption since 1977. A similar lie is being told about crop storage: farmers now will be able to stock their produce. This stocking will benefit people like Adani who will now be able to set prices by hoarding.”

Citing an example of his neighbourhood state Haryana, Lakhwal said, “On the Kurukshetra-Kaithal highway in Haryana, there’s a place called Dhand where Adani has a warehouse. Here wheat can be stored for 10 years. Common farmers or small traders cannot have such warehouses. Then people like Adani will be able to store for years by purchasing the ration and they will control the entire market when they have unlimited stock. Just like it happened in the telecom sector, where the entire market belongs to Ambani. In the coming years, all farms will be controlled by capitalists.”

Also read: Farm laws: Key points from govt’s draft proposal sent to farmers