It Will Take More than a Loan Waiver for Punjab's Farmers to Stop Killing Themselves

Congress and AAP aim to write off farm loans if they come to power in Punjab. But such measures will only be useful only if accompanied by policy reforms like a sustainable farming system and assured monthly income for farmers.


The agrarian distress in Punjab has been mounting with each passing year. Credit: PTI

Nirmal Singh, the leader of the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta) from Sangrur district in Punjab, committed suicide last week. He was among the few farmer leaders who campaigned against the emerging trend of farmer suicides that has become rampant in Punjab.

Singh could not even wait a few more months despite knowing that the Congress party has promised to waive off entire farm loans if it comes to power. The catchy slogan Karza Kurki Khatam, Fasal Ki Poori Rakm has attracted a larger number of farmers to fill the loan waiver forms that the Congress party volunteers have been distributing. According to news reports, 22 lakh forms have been filled so far.

The spate of farmer suicides, however, has continued. Hardly a day goes by without reports of three to four suicides in the state. The recurring tragedy is happening at a time when the Aam Aadmi Party has also announced a loan waiver if it comes to power in the state.

In a kisan manifesto released in September, AAP has also promised to pay 50% profit over the cost of production as per the recommendation of the Swaminathan Committee. AAP has also launched a loan waiver campaign similar to that of the Congress.

With two political parties promising to waive off the outstanding farm loans, it would have appeared that farmers would have preferred to wait and see the results before taking their own lives over their debt. After all, it is a matter of just a few more months.

But the reason why the farmers do not believe in the promises of the political parties could be due to their past experiences or because they know they are being treated like another vote bank.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that a progressive agricultural state like Punjab is facing a terrible agrarian crisis and, if my assessment is correct, its devastated farming system has virtually turned into a powder keg waiting for a trigger. In other words, the agrarian crisis that Punjab is facing today is in many ways the reason behind the growing drug menace. The political parties can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the severity of the crisis that has been swept under the carpet for long. None of the parties, however, seem to know how to tame the prevailing crisis.

In Punjab, agrarian distress has been mounting with each passing year. According to a study by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, the debt of private moneylenders and commission agents has seen a significant hike in the past ten years. A survey by Punjabi University in Patiala published in January 2016 estimates the outstanding debt at Rs 69,355 crore. Government estimates put the figure at Rs 36,000 crore.

Most farmers commit suicide because they are unable to bear the humiliation of public sector banks and arhtiyas seizing their assets after they fail to pay their outstanding loan.

This brings me to the moot question: Why are farmers in the country’s food bowl committing suicide? In 2015, 449 farmers ended their lives. It was a bad agricultural year but the death toll on the farm has been worsening with each passing month.

Between April 1 and April 26 this year, 39 farmers reportedly committed suicide. At this rate, I will not be surprised if the death toll this year tops last year’s figure. In fact, unofficial estimates have already exceeded last year’s toll. The fact that this is happening in Punjab, a state that is considered to be the most prosperous as far as agriculture is concerned, speaks volumes of the neglect, apathy and indifference. However, the entire blame cannot be laid on the state government. The Punjab Agricultural University and the Punjab Farmers Commission also have to admit that they have somehow failed to keep a check on the dark underbelly of Punjab agriculture. Needless to say, something is terribly wrong.

I have heard that agricultural economists and policymakers often place the blame on low crop productivity, lack of irrigation and the failure to implement crop diversification. In a state that has 98% assured irrigation and where the per hectare yield of wheat and paddy match international levels, I see no reason for the deaths of farmers.

According to the Economic Survey 2016, the per hectare yield of wheat in Punjab is 4,500kg/hectare, which matches the wheat yield in the US. In the case of paddy, the average yield is 6,000kg/hectare, which is close to the paddy productivity levels in China. With such high yields and with abundant irrigation available why farmers should be dying?

If you are still not convinced, here is a little more insight into how progressive Punjab farmers are. In a study conducted by H.S. Shergill, an emeritus professor at Punjab University, he compared the agriculture of Punjab with that of a developed country using mechanisation, chemical technology, capital intensity and productivity as the matrix. The number of tractors per 1,000 hectares is 122 in Punjab compared to 26 in the US, 76 in UK and 65 in Germany. In terms of fertiliser use, Punjab stands at 449kg/hectare per year as compared to 103 kg in the US, 208 kg in the UK and 278 kg in Japan.

The irrigated area in Punjab is at 98% as compared to 11.4% in the US, 2% in the UK and 35% in Japan, and the cereal yield per hectare per year is 7,633 kg in Punjab, 7,238 kg in the US, 7,460 kg in France, 7,008 in the UK and 5,920 kg in Japan. With such high level of intensive farming – which is what economists have been asking for – why are the farmers in Punjab committing suicide?

Waiving off the loans is not the only solution for the crisis at large; it has to be accompanied by appropriate policies that provide relief to the farmers. Unfortunately, none of the political parties have a roadmap to restoring the prosperity in the villages of Punjab. This is because the political leadership is facing a drought of ideas on how to resurrect agriculture and lack the vision to look ahead – at least 20 years ahead ­– in order to significantly plan the revival of farming.

Writing off the outstanding loans – even if it actually happens – does not mean that the loans will not pile up again in the next four or five years.

Punjab needs a reform package that looks at agriculture holistically. A few political announcements, without a clear roadmap for reviving Punjab’s agriculture, will only end up exacerbating the prevailing crisis.

The country’s food bowl is facing twin problems of economic viability and long-term sustainability. Intensive farming has played havoc on soil fertility, which has necessitated a greater use of chemical fertilisers. The excessive use and abuse of chemical pesticides has in turn contaminated the food chain and the environment.

The lack of adequate income by way of stagnating minimum support prices has pushed farmers into a spiral web of indebtedness that has been mounting with every cropping season.

To begin with, Punjab needs to move away from the intensive cropping system that it has been following since the days of Green Revolution and towards an ecologically sustainable farming system implemented in a time bound manner. It requires a shift in the research mandate of the Punjab Agricultural University accompanied by policies and programmes that encourage farmers to shift without suffering any economic loss.

Addressing the sustainability crisis without providing an assured monthly income will be meaningless. Punjab must take the lead by setting up a Punjab State Farmers Income Commission, which is mandated to work out a mechanism to provide a guaranteed monthly package depending upon the farm size and the production attained.

Devinder Sharma is an expert on Indian agriculture.