Punjab’s sorrow

Print edition : August 19, 2016
A noteworthy study that provides much-needed insights into the nature and severity of the farm crisis in Punjab.

There have been many studies on agrarian distress and farmer suicides in different parts of India in the last decade, including in Punjab. Most of the studies focus on a profile of the victims, mostly landowning farmers, and reasons thereof, with a sample of such farmers.

In this context, this book makes a departure by comparing suicide victims among both landowning farmers and landless farmworkers—the latter rarely studied as cases of distressed farmers.

The study is based on a large sample size of 1,392 respondents, including those from families of victims and control groups of farmers and farmworkers. They belonged to 22 villages of the three most suicide-prone districts of the State, Sangrur, Bathinda and Mansa, two of which are also in Punjab’s cotton belt.

The sample was divided into 510 members from families of farmers who committed suicide and an equal number from a control group of farmers.

On the farmworkers’ side, 186 respondents were from households in which a suicide had happened and an equal number from the control group.

The book is organised into seven chapters, starting with an introduction which explores the origins of agrarian distress and public policy response to it and also lays out the objectives and methodology of the study.

The objectives are to ascertain the causes of agrarian distress, examine the purpose, sources and uses of farm credit, identify factors in indebtedness and suicide, and compare suicide cases with those from the control group, besides suggesting policy measures for tackling the crisis.

The next chapter reviews the evidence and analysis on suicides in India, including Punjab. The third chapter profiles the State’s economy, its agrarian structure, the nature of the rural non-farm sector and the process of depeasantisation based on earlier studies in the State. It links agrarian distress to the produce prices of wheat and paddy but misses the cotton prices analysis despite the fact that cotton is an important commercial crop in two of the three study districts.

The primary data-based chapters (four, five and six) focus on the characteristics of rural households, the magnitude of the crisis and the causes of suicide.

The agrarian crisis is seen in the form of poor returns from farming leading to indebtedness followed by suicide. Interestingly, the primary data show that there were more women (9 per cent) among farmworker suicide victims compared with farmer suicide victims (5 per cent). In fact, even in the control group, the percentage of women was higher (4 per cent) among farmworkers compared with farmers (2 per cent).

Another important analysis seen in the study is the categorisation of farmers and workers by level of education, marital status, size of landholding, caste, and religion.

The distribution of respondents by operational holding size showed that marginal and small farmers account for 81 per cent of the victims and 72 per cent of the control group. This is quite significant as landholdings in the study districts are relatively large.

The analysis of the average size of landholdings of different groups shows that victims in general had smaller holdings than their control group counterparts except in Sangrur, had higher unirrigated land in two districts, and were much more dependent on canal irrigation in Bathinda.

This suggests that the famers who committed suicide were structurally more constrained in their farming enterprise.

Issue of tenancy

However, the important issue of tenancy and its role in agrarian distress, given the very high lease rates in the State in the presence of reverse tenancy, has also been missed out in the analysis.

The authors could have added value to the analysis by examining the cropping patterns of farmers who committed suicide and those in the control group.

They could also have examined the issue of diversified farming to understand if it had made any difference to the household distress; the issue has been hanging fire in the State for decades now.

Surprisingly, the level of outstanding loan between victims and control group farmers and workers does not differ very much, especially for farmers.

Also, across districts the share of commission agents was much higher in the outstanding loans of victims compared with that of the control group farmers.

Therefore, it is not the amount of debt but the source of the debt which could be the differentiating factor between suicide victims and those still surviving.

Similarly, in the case of farmworkers it was again the high level of loans from commercial banks and commission agents which seemed to have caused the difference in distress between the two groups.

Further, the control group farmworkers had a higher proportion of non-institutional credit than their victim counterparts.

The causes of suicide mostly pertained to indebtedness, economic distress, crop damage or failure, or a combination of these, besides drug addiction, which was responsible for 9 per cent of the cases among farmers as well as workers.

Economic distress and indebtedness seem to be overlapping factors but the authors do not differentiate between them clearly in the analysis or in the methodology.

It can be argued that if a farmer is in distress, he should be able to dispose of a part of his land instead of taking his own life.

However, the study shows that only 10 per cent of the households in which a farmer had committed suicide had sold some of their land.

This indicates that it is not easy to sell land as it may not be under the direct control of the individual under distress or selling land may be perceived as a greater humiliation than suicide for the family.

Chapter six discusses the case of a village put up for sale by its residents in 2001 because of agrarian distress. But the data on suicides reveal that this village had 15 suicide cases in 17 years between 1990 and 2007.

The authors give the cropping pattern of the village but not of the farmers who committed suicide, which could have thrown light on the role of the cropping pattern in agrarian distress.

The chapter also gives four profiles each of farmers who died and control group farmers. Table 6.8 shows that 45 per cent of the leased land was with marginal and small farmers and that could have been one of the sources of distress.

More importantly, this village had 64 households with 500 acres and 22 tractors, which makes every third farming household a tractor owner, which is a case of over-tractorisation but not necessarily over–mechanisation.

The State government has been promoting farm machinery custom rental services at the primary agricultural credit societies (PACS) and they are offered in a third of all PACS in the State.

But the book does not show in its dataset the presence of such services in the study village.

As part of the solution, the authors suggest short-term relief measures such as higher compensation for families of farmers who took their lives, waiving of institutional and non-institutional debt of the victims, placing a moratorium on debt recovery by commission agents, and government employment for relatives of farmers/workers who committed suicide. But they also propose a lower compensation for farmworker families, which is devoid of logic.

In fact, after the cotton crop failure in Punjab last year, the State government provided Rs.8,000 an acre to farmers but only Rs.800 per family to cotton pickers.

As long-term solutions, the authors mention the revival of the canal system and taking people out of the farm sector through policy mechanisms, while proposing crop diversification, and universal crop insurance and the setting up of an institution to help market and promote farm produce.

The authors do not mention the role of crop diversification throughout the book except in the recommendations, which is surprising. If diversification is seen as one of the ways to get the farming sector out of crisis, it is important to examine the role it can play at the household level in reducing indebtedness and increasing incomes or stabilising them.

Surprisingly, the study does not inquire into the sources of income, farm and non-agricultural separately, though it shows that across districts, all had negative net incomes after meeting expenditure.

Also, the profiles of the study districts are too brief for a reader not familiar with the context.

The information on cropping pattern, size of landholdings and irrigation would have added more value to the description of the context.

Despite these shortcomings, the authors provide a refreshing and large database and analysis on the issue of agrarian distress and farmer and farmworker suicides.

The book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the nature and severity of the agrarian crisis in Punjab. Since the study pertains to 2010-11, there is value in undertaking another survey of the sampled households to examine their status after five years to understand the dynamics of the crisis.

Sukhpal Singh teaches at IIM, Ahmedabad.

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