In Punjab, Political Parties Focus on Votes As Agrarian Crisis Deepens

As the agrarian distress mounts in Punjab, political parties have failed to address the issue in their campaigns even as they trade blame.

A farmer in Punjab. Credit: CIAT/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A farmer in Punjab. Credit: CIAT/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bhatinda: After a bulk of his cotton crop failed because of the dreaded white fly attack in 2015, Ravinder Singh Bhullar, a medium farmer with around 10 acres of agricultural land in Punjab’s Mansa, started looking for ingenious ways to cover his losses.

He had already borrowed almost Rs 2 lakh from the informal money lending market. More credit would have got him into further trouble. The rising pressure from multiple money-lenders, his inability to feed his family properly and the social stigma he had to face over the past year nearly drove him to suicide. But the thought of his adolescent daughters and his wife prevented him from taking the extreme step.

After many unsuccessful attempts to diversify his income, Bhullar eventually decided to buy a tractor to pay off his debts. As astonishing as it may sound, his plan was simple. Apply for a government loan. Once the loan is approved – which usually takes six months – buy the machine and then sell it off for the much-needed cash. The tractor, in a way, would become his cash mule.

But wouldn’t this add to his already mounting debts? “Yes, but the lump sum money would also give me some immediate relief and also some time to put my act together again. I will pay off the arhtiyas (money-lenders) and I can also get my daughter married,” Bhullar said even as he paused to think about the risks involved in the process.

In the first week of December, Bhullar finally got Rs 6 lakhs approved. But this did not come easy. After months of negotiations with the regional cooperative bank, payments of small cuts from his loan amount to officials placed at each stage of the bureaucratic ladder, and tipping the commission agent who helped him put together his documents and channeled his application through favourable officials, Bhullar finally lay his hands on the bank cheque.

“It was a grueling process but I had no option. I lost almost a lakh in getting the loan approved,” said Bhullar. With the Rs 5 lakh that remained, Bhullar got himself a brand-new 50 HP Mahindra. The very next day, it was up for sale.

Since then, Bhullar has been visiting Talwandi Sabo every Wednesday. Talwandi Sabo, a suburban town in Bhatinda – otherwise famous for the Sikh Shrine Damdama Sahib – is the site for the state’s biggest second-hand market for tractors. Groups of small and marginal farmers who want to diversify form small co-operative-like set ups and help other farmers buy and sell their tractors on 1% commission.

Bhullar, who approached one such group, has been unsuccessful in his attempts to sell his tractor. The demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes on November 8 has hit this cash-intensive market hard. Market stakeholders said that while each group sold anywhere between 5-10 tractors every Wednesday, but have struggled to sell even a single tractor since the note ban.

“People who come here to buy or sell are mostly crisis-ridden. Most of us too are small landlords who have become commission agents for an additional income. Notebandi has ruined this economy completely,” said Kamaljeet Singh, a commission agent at the market.

He added that even if his group managed to sell a tractor, the farmer agrees to pay up only in instalments as they complain of the banks having run out of cash. Such a state of affairs is self-defeating for this informal tractor market, which relies primarily on cash exchange.

Every Wednesday over the last one month, Bhullar has been bringing his tractor to Talwandi Sabo and driving back home empty-handed. The tractor, on which he pinned all his future hopes, has become a liability.

Talwandi Sabo – a mirror to Punjab’s agrarian distress

Hundreds like Bhullar line up at the market at Talwandi Sabo, which has been holding a mirror to the state of agricultural affairs in Punjab for the last two decades. First started in 1989, the tractor mandi picked up business only around late 1990s. This was the period when government, through different policy measures, started to withdraw many agricultural subsidies, leaving agriculturalists completely unprotected from the market variables.

The onset of the neo-liberal economic order brought in cataclysmic shifts in this largely agrarian state. A beneficiary of the Green Revolution, Punjab, with great government support, took to heavily mechanised farming quite early. With government support for crops, the farmers reaped huge profits and diversified into multiple allied businesses related to agriculture.

Farmers waiting to sell their tractors at the Talwandi Sabo market. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Farmers waiting to sell their tractors at the Talwandi Sabo market. Credit: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Farming is the biggest occupation in Punjab. Around 82.5% land in the state is used for agriculture and more than 1.7 crore people – 62.5% of the state’s population – are either farmers or employed in farming-related activities.

However, a lack of government support, impetus on corporate industrial development and market unpredictability over the last two decades have thrown the farmers and agricultural labourers off the edge, turning them into the most vulnerable section in Punjab.

Because of the heavily mechanised nature of farming, the agrarian input costs for farmers have drastically multiplied without commensurate profits. The absence of adequate institutional support has led to farmers being entangled in a vicious debt cycle.

Bhullar, who expressed his willingness to sell his tractor even at a reduced cost of Rs 3 lakh, is a typical example of how a farmer ties himself down with an unending debt chain. According to the latest government figures, Punjab is second only to Maharashtra in the number of farmer suicides.

Across Punjab, the only constant worry that people vehemently express is that of agrarian distress – articulated, of course, as different personal stories.

The Talwandi Sabo tractor mandi reflected these miseries.

Rajvir Singh Cheema, a farmer who cultivated 15 acres in Sangrur, was in the mandi to sell his tractor as he has decided to quit farming. “I have only borne losses in the last few years. I will now rent out my land to others and concentrate on some other business,” said Cheema.

Similarly, Daljit Samaon of Muktsar was also in the mandi to sell off his high-capacity tractor and buy a smaller machine. “In all these years, I have sold most of my land to pay off my debts. Now I do not need the old tractor. A smaller engine will suffice for the remaining two acres that I own,” he said.

There were many who had come to the mandi as they thought renting a tractor on an hourly basis during the sowing season would be more cost effective. As a result, there were many prospective buyers who were contemplating getting into tractor-renting businesses.

Stories of pain and sorrow echoed in Talwandi Sabo. All pointed towards one trend – consolidation of farmlands under big farmers and corporate owners.

“As the capacity of small and marginal farmer is constantly decreasing, the only ones who can afford the rising costs are big farmers with more than 50 acres of land, who were also the biggest beneficiaries of green revolution. They are the ones who buy most tractors here. Since they do not rely solely on their agricultural produce as they have many other businesses, they can afford multiple tractors for their farmlands,” said Udham Singh, a commission agent at the market.

In many places across Punjab’s Malwa region – the biggest agricultural region with 69 electoral constituencies out of the 117 seats in the state – small and marginal farmers are contracting their lands to big farmers. In another scenario, many corporate groups have also started to consolidate small farmers to grow what they require. Both these trends have proved to be highly exploitative in the current situation.

The big farmers, however, are a miniscule minority in Punjab. With a poor record of land reforms, this group – comprising most upper caste Jat Sikhs – have managed to corner most resources. According to a survey conducted by the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, only 9,000 had more than 50 acres of land. As many as 11,000 families owned between 25 and 50 acres, while the rest had less than 12.5 acres. The bulk of them owned less than four acres.

The growing agrarian distress has catalysed the process of what agricultural economists call depeasantisation – similar to the trend spotted in the tractor mandi.

Sukhpal Singh, the economist who led the PAU survey, told The Wire, “Depeasantisation in Punjab began in the early 1990s but gathered momentum only in the mid 2000s. Our survey showed that 22% farmers joined the labour market, 23% joined the low-paid private/government jobs and 27% started some low-skill self-employed venture. In the absence of any long-term strategies to tackle the crisis, unemployment has risen and so has drug addiction. The impact of such a crisis rubs off on every segment of population including both the agricultural and non-agricultural labourers who are at the bottom of the economic ladder.”

Not on the political radar

As most political parties in the electoral fray are clashing against each other on the issues of illegal drug trade, they seem to have missed the larger point – that of an agrarian crisis fuelled by institutional apathy towards farmers. This, in turn, had pushed cascading effects on the crisis like rising unemployment and farmer suicides.

Although all the three major political players in the upcoming polls – Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal)-BJP combine and tje Aam Aadmi Party – project themselves as pro-farmer, they seem to have a largely consensual standing on the urgent need for corporate-led industrial growth in the state – a development paradigm they feel could bring the state out of the crisis.

They have articulated their differences only by accusing each other of being corrupt, anarchic, or self-serving but have hardly talked about the structural aspects of the crisis, the symptoms of which are for everyone to see.

In the hustle-bustle of poll campaigns, mired in regional controversies and electoral equations, whether the new government will make agriculture – the primary source of income in the state – one of its topmost priorities remains unclear. Until then, the agrarian crisis will continue to deepen.

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