NAIB SINGH hanged himself a fortnight ago in the land he had been tilling for five years at Bareh village in Mansa district of Punjab. He had hoped for a successful rabi wheat crop, but unseasonal rains reduced him to further penury. The 25-year-old left behind a debt burden of Rs.10 lakh for his family. His mother, Mahinder Kaur, does not know whether to mourn her son’s death or lament over the debt that she and her younger son Bant Singh have to repay. “Bant is still young but has started working in the fields of landowners. The loans have to be repaid and we have to make ends meet. We are left with no option but to sell our land to the moneylender. Naib decided to end his life before he could see through this shame,” said Mahinder Kaur.
Naib’s family owned only two acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare), but Naib had risked taking another 10 acres on contract, hoping that a bumper crop would yield sufficient profit to pull his family out of accumulated debts. Five months ago, Nikha Singh and Bhola Singh, two brothers of the same village, unable to recover even the full costs despite a successful paddy crop, committed suicide. Nikha hanged himself in the room of his house and Bhola drank a pesticide. A part of their loan, which they had taken from a bank was waived, and their mother sold their four acres to repay the loan taken from a moneylender. Parting with his land is the most traumatic experience in a farmer’s life; it brings dishonour to the family.
Bareh has seen 20 suicides in the past two years. Like Naib, Nikha and Bhola, most of those who killed themselves were small or medium farmers who had taken additional land on contract from bigger farmers, a well-established practice in the Malwa region.
Bareh is not an exception. Almost every village shares the same narrative. Suicides have become a trend among unsuccessful farmers in Malwa, Punjab’s biggest agricultural region known for its rich harvests and the prosperity ushered in by the Green Revolution. Malwa, which covers almost 60 per cent of the State’s territory, is famous for cotton, paddy and wheat. Unlike other parts of Punjab, Malwa is driven by its farmers and has given Punjab the status of the richest agricultural State in India. The heavily mechanised commercial farming encouraged by the Green Revolution brought in great wealth for the farmers. It is these factors that have made the farmers consider agriculture a prosperous business. They do not know anything except tilling the land.
Increasing input costs, with the government withdrawing most of the subsidies, and a volatile market are factors these farmers have not come to terms with. According to the Ludhiana-based Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), almost 64 per cent of the farmers own less than 10 acres. Since farming was a profitable profession in the 1970s and 1980s, small farmers took land on lease for a fixed sum of money. In the past one year, the rent for the leased land has become unmanageable, as the market value of land has increased. The annual rent for one acre is Rs.30,000, to be given in two instalments. In the case of wheat and paddy, a farmer has to invest at least Rs.26,000 an acre. For cotton, it is much higher. Farmers are dependent on market rates. This season, a farmer who grew wheat incurred a loss of Rs.9,000 an acre although he got a minimum support price of Rs.1,450 for the produce, if calculated on the basis of average yield.
Thus, if a farmer cultivated 10 acres on an average, the loss would be Rs.90,000. Medium and small farmers are more vulnerable to market pressures. In areas where rain damaged the crop, the losses have been much more. These figures do not include the commission charged by agents who help farmers sell their produce in the market.
The bigger the farmer, the greater the loss. However, the traditionally big farmers have greater capacity to bear losses because of fortunes made in the past. Most of the big farmers have diversified their businesses and do not depend on farming alone. “Agriculture is no more a lucrative business. Had we not invested money in other businesses, we would have died too. We compensate for the losses in agriculture with income from other businesses. It is only because of the love for our land that we do farming,” Babu Singh, who owns more than 50 acres, said. In most instances, commission agents called arhtiya s double as moneylenders.
Farmers have become heavily dependent on them in Punjab because of the increasing input costs. Arhtiya s are exploitative. The interest they charge is higher than what the banks charge and they give loans on the condition that the farmer sells his produce only through them. Rising capital costs have made agriculture in Punjab a debt-driven business. Professor Sukhpal of the PAU told Frontline: “According to our survey, more than two lakh peasants have moved to other professions. Corporate farming is making inroads. In the past one year, the State government has incentivised agro-business by doling out tax holidays and other benefits. The farmer is renting out his land to agro-business companies because of the increasing costs and rising insecurities in farming.”
One stark instance of such a phenomenon was evident in Malsinghwala village in Mansa district. The village panchayat, in an unprecedented move, issued an open letter to the government saying that the whole village was available for rent. The letter was a response to an offer by agro-business companies to take over agricultural operations in Punjab if they got at least 100 acres at one place and pay the farmers a fixed sum of money.
Another peculiar trend in Punjab is reverse tenancy. According to a PAU report, Punjab is the only State where there are notable changes in farm sizes. This is mainly because small and medium farmers are renting their lands to more capable, bigger farmers. As a result, agricultural land is getting consolidated in the hands of either a small population of big farmers in the village or agro-business companies. Also, as the traditional big farmer has diversified his business, the arhtiya has emerged as the new big farmer, by confiscating lands from debt-ridden farmers or by buying lands from peasants who are getting disillusioned with agriculture.
There is perceptible anger against the new political dispensation at the Centre. Many farmers this correspondent spoke to complained about the Narendra Modi government’s role in worsening the situation as prices of produce have fluctuated much more in the past one year. The vagaries of the market are more dangerous than the vagaries of the weather.
Agro-business companies, while not doing farming themselves, encourage farmers to cultivate cash crops. For instance, a company ensured that farmers in Bhatinda district got a minimum of Rs.40,000 a quintal if they cultivated guar (cluster beans). The gum of the legume has a huge demand in the oil-drilling business internationally. The company even offered them free seeds. This was unheard of in Punjab. The farmers reaped huge profits in the first year. As more farmers took to guar farming, abandoning traditional crops, the price of guar gum came down to Rs.3,000 a quintal this year. Similarly, a farmer who used to get Rs.7,000 a quintal for cotton is now selling his produce at Rs.4,000. The prices of Basmati rice have also fallen sharply.
Sukhdarshan Nat, State Kisan Union leader, said: “Such sharp falls in prices take a heavy toll on the farmer and, as a consequence, on the agricultural labourer. So many labourers have been ending their lives. Suicides are only a symptom of this larger trend. The larger processes of de-peasantisation and agro-business companies insisting on cash crop cultivation may lead to a food crisis if they are not tackled now.”
Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta