A seminar titled: “Uplifting the Neglected Sections of Sikhs” was organised by the Institute of Sikh Studies on the 14th and 15th of November, 2015. Day 1 was devoted to the ‘Vanjaras, Sikligars, Lubanas, Satnamis and other Sikhs' and Day 2 to the ‘Agrarian Crisis: Plight of the Farmers – Causes and Cures’. The former was dedicated to Dr Kharak Singh, FAO Expert, United Nations, the most visionary panthdardi of our times and the latter was dedicated to S Gurbhagwant Singh Kahlon, Milk Commissioner, Punjab, the most visionary kissandardi of our times.
A Report of Day 2: Dr Gurcharan Singh Kalkat, Chairperson, Punjab State Farms Commission, graced the occasion as the Chairperson for the day. Dr Sardara Singh Johl, Chancellor, Central University, Bathinda, and Convenor, International Sikh Confederation, Chandigarh, had also consented to grace the occasion, but, on account of unavoidable circumstances, could not make it. Bhai Ashok Singh welcomed the participants and guests, and Dr Birendra Kaur introduced the topic. Given the need to assess the bigger picture of the theme at hand and the convergence, under one roof, of an entire range of stakeholders associated therewith, it was considered to hold a dialogue among the participants. Capt Sarup Singh Dhillon [IAS (retd)], a soldier fighting for the farmers, was requested to mediate the discussion.
The initiative of the Institute of Sikh Studies to take up the issue of the prevailing Agrarian Crisis at the national level, in general, and in Punjab, in particular, was appreciated, as the agriculture sector touches lives and livelihood of millions of farmers and farm labourers. The aim was to gain a grip on the multifarious aspects thereof as also to highlight these among the masses. Experts, from various fields related to the issue, such as, professors, policy makers, IAS officers, agriculture scientists, economists, social scientists, farmers’ unions, bankers, advocates, affected and progressive farmers, organic farming consultants, entrepreneurs, activists, journalists, and so on, had been invited to participate, so that each sector may listen to the difficulties and/or experiences of the others.
It was also anticipated that this exercise would enable the Sikh organisations to identify as to what role can these play towards this pressing cause – which afflicts the majority of the Sikh population of the agriculture-dominated state of Punjab, at the social level and/or the government [state/ centre] level. The entire proceedings were, indeed, informative, enlightening. The related facts and figures as shared by the participants threw light on the magnitude of the malaise! The wide spectrum of views as outlined by the wide range of experts are summarised below, to enable the reader to grasp the features and the enormity of the crisis:
PPS Gill, former State Information Commissioner, Punjab, was apprehensive of the outcome of this yet another seminar, as he informed that there are several scores of reports and documents written and compiled, covering practically every conceivable aspect of agriculture. Across decades, the problems that afflict this sector have been diagnosed, rather over-diagnosed, and remedies that are doable, practical and implementable have been listed out, ad nauseam. In fact, even the draft policy on agriculture document that state’s own farmers’ commission submitted to the state in 2013 has not been considered even once.
There is vast, valuable treasure – on hopes and despairs of farmers, on need for agro-processing, on suggested diversification, on depleting sub-soil water; on increasing toxicity of soil, water and air, on burning of stubbles of wheat and rice; on dairying, bee-keeping, floriculture; on net-house cultivation; on remunerative prices and linking these to input costs; on cold-chain and scientific storage and quick transportation; on need to provide same facilities in rural areas as are available to urban settlements – education, health, sanitation, communication, connectivity; etc., but no politician or bureaucrat is willing to take the initiative to plunge head-on and work with a missionary zeal to save Punjab agriculture and agriculturists.
Practitioners of agriculture are totally dependent upon Nature – climate change and insect-pest attacks included, and the government for inputs as well as marketing of outputs – farm produce and farm products, and even the price farmer pays for inputs or price he gets for the outputs. No other business is so dependent upon the government!
Unfortunately, the state department of agriculture has a weak, dwindling cadre of extension workers, who could have been drafted in farm-darshan visit programmes. The need is to bring all stakeholders on one platform, including state instrumentalities: political and bureaucratic, as well as multiple departments – divided as these are into different autonomous estates, and draw up a roadmap, based on available recommendations in reports and studies, and the same be pursued with the centre. And, within the state, irrespective of which political party is in power, the same be implemented.
At the same time, politicized and fractured kissan unions must form a united consortium and build a strong pressure group and present in one voice their problems and needs in the Parliament through the region’s MPs, irrespective of their political affiliations.
With central government turning its attention to the eastern states for ushering in the second green revolution, Punjab and its adjoining states better watch out! While the centre has discarded the MS Swaminathan commission report, Shanta Kumar’s report on unbundling FCI is in incubator. It portends danger for Punjab and neighbourhood states.
It is time for symphony approach involving multiple agencies to tackle multitude of problems in lock-step. Time is of essence! We have already missed out on time.
Mohit Kaundal – Punjab Agri Export Corporation, Chandigarh [Farmers’ difficulties]: Practising farmers from nearby villages, who joined the seminar, courtesy, Mohit Kaundal, narrated the hardships they face on a day to day basis, at every stage. To share the agony of some of them – Kehar Singh of village Marwah: While big landlords get all the facilities and subsidies at their doorstep, the small farmers face great difficulties to receive the same on count of red-tapism. Harbans Singh of Issarhel: Diesel, medicines, khads received at petrol pumps are substandard, causing great losses. Even the complaints filed by them to the concerned authorities, fall on deaf ears. Nor are they guided or educated about the prevalent diseases, etc., leading to heavy losses. Jasbir Singh of Hindupur: Government preaches us to come out of the rice-wheat rotation, but when the farmers diversify to other crops, they still get ruined, for the absolute lack of marketing facilities of those products. Mohinder Singh of Raipur: Farmers do not get reasonable price for their produce. Hence, they are burdened with debt. In spite of leading a simple, drug-free life, he informed that he has a debt of Rs 15 lac. He said he has two daughters; if he educates them, he comes under debt, and if he does not educate them, he feels under debt – for failing to perform his duty of educating daughters. It was, indeed, heartrending to hear their woes!
Swaran Singh & Gurcharan Singh Boparai, Gen Secretary & Vice-President, respectively, All India Agro Forestry Farmers Association, Dehradun: Having served together the cause of the farmers for many a decade now, their views on the issue are similar. Farming used to be a pride profession of 70% of the population. Unfortunately, the single most important enterprise of the nation has now been pushed into perpetual crisis, tragically leading to unusual phenomenon of committing suicides, regularly and almost every day, especially by the small, marginal farmers. The size of the populace affected can be estimated from the following official data – an average landholding of a farmer in India is 2.8 acres, whereas there are 13.85 crore farmers in the country.
Reasons are Many: Unfavourable, erratic climatic conditions due to climate change; fragmentation of landholdings, as smaller the landholding, more the uneconomical it is; investments on costly, unessential farm machinery, merely as status symbol; rampant drug addiction, destroying the social fabric of the villages; receding levels of ground water, necessitating expensive deep well bores and submersible motors; increasing costs of labour, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, including insecticides, fungicides, weedicides; higher rate of interest on agriculture loans, especially when institutional loans are misused on unproductive projects and social liabilities with extravagance; lack of appropriate crop insurance for natural and manmade calamities; unavailability of affordable quality education, health services, de-addiction centres; etc., etc.
The indiscriminate use of chemicals has not only deteriorated the soil and water health but has also adversely affected the biodiversity. Where has the house sparrow gone? Our children will not be able to identify with our the folklore, “choon-choon karti aai chidya, dal ka dana laai chidya.” The worst affected is the underground water, severely polluted and a major health hazard. Potable water is not available from the hand pumps, nor the wells and ponds. Community ROs have been installed in the rural areas, but their efficacy is yet to be established. Who will remember the popular folklore, “khuan tobbian te milno rehgae, chandre lawalaye nalke.”
Receding of underground water by about 70 cms every deficient rainfall year is colossal. Out of the around 148 blocks in the State, created for assessing ground water situation, there are only 26 blocks in the safe zone, whereas 122 are over-exploited. Refurbishment of the irrigation system in the state needs to be undertaken, on an urgent basis. Tube well irrigation, also known as vertical irrigation, covers about 73 percent area in the State and there are more than 12.5 lac tube wells operative. Further, the National Green Tribunal has recently permitted the State Govt to sanction about 1.25 lac new tube well connections in the state. Moreover, the very costly deep well bores and submersible motors are not only damaging but also prove very uneconomical to the farmers.
The horizontal irrigation system, therefore, needs to be encouraged. There are 17,255 village ponds situated in 12,282 villages in Punjab, covering an area of 24,405 acres. The Govt, however, has brought a project worth Rs 5,313.15/- crore for the restoration of these ponds, which will help in recharging the subsoil water and irrigating the agriculture land, as also in reducing the flood fury in the vicinities of villages. Canal irrigation is covering about 27 per cent area in Punjab. The State Irrigation Department is actively considering getting the same refurbished in line with the views of Mr KS Pannu, Secretary, Irrigation Department, to enhance its capacity to 37 per cent.
Water logging in the south western districts of the State is a very serious, complex problem and requires persistent measures with a long-term planning for soil and water management. Large scale fish farming surrounded with extensive and intensive tree plantations with suitable tree species could be the answer.
- Implementation of Dr MS Swaminathan’s report for fixing MSP for most of the agriculture crops,
including diversified crops.
- Cheaper institutional priority sector loans, including agriculture loans.
- Effective crop insurance a must for manmade and natural calamities, such as, erratic monsoons,
unpredictable droughts, etc., due to the climate change.
- Agriculture and Agro Forestry loaning should not be more than at 4% rate of interest, including seed and
- Providing guidance to farmers, in areas under paddy, to prefer short duration Basmati varieties, and
undertake transplanting of paddy only after the 15th of June.
- Dr JS Samra, in 2013, advised diversification into robust and resilient animal husbandry and dairy
- Strict control on the supply of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, to keep the spurious ones out.
- Research on high quality, genetically pest-resistant new crop varieties.
- Refurbishment of canal irrigation system and restoration of ponds to improve the percentage area under
horizontal system of irrigation.
- Extensive drainage system supplemented with intensive tree plantations and complemented with fish
farming in the districts suffering from severe water logging. Dr JS Samra, in 2013, advised bio-drainage
by planting genetically improved tissue-cultured tree species, like Eucalyptus and Poplars.
[Unfortunately, trees may get adversely affected due to asphyxiation.]
- Availability of affordable quality education, health and de-addiction services, particularly in the rural
- Farmers of Punjab must adopt Agro-Forestry farming system with high quality, genetically pure, cloned
tree species of Poplar and Eucalyptus in combination with suitable agriculture crops managed under
economic rotations, preferably maintaining cyclic plantations of tree species – to get advantage of an
annual accumulated lump sum income from harvest of trees. This will help the farmer to pay back bank
loans and will also support the farmer for his social obligations.
State Govt will have to rescue the farming community as a whole, as farmers are the back bone of the Nation. Farmers are requested to stop committing suicides; they are the only ones to feed not only the human population but also the animal kingdom.
Gurdas Singh, Senior Manager (retd), Punjab & Sind Bank, lucidly outlined the following information for the benefit of all present. There are two basic parts of loans provided by banks to farming secto
r for agriculture purposes: 1. Production Credit, 2. Investment Credit.
Production Credit: Loan Limits are sanctioned for meeting expenses required for production of crops. Banks usually provide adequate limits for production of proposed crops both for Rabi & Kharif, i.e., for the whole year in one lot, to be availed as and when required by farmer. It includes expenses for ploughing the field, purchase of seed, fertilizer, pesticides and other inputs at the time of sowing; payment of irrigation electricity bills; purchase of diesel; repairs of farm equipments; meeting expenses for harvesting of crop and its processing; and so on. Banks have fixed maximum scale of finance per acre, say Rs 2 lac, as fixed by Punjab & Sind Bank. The limit is required to be repaid on harvesting of crop and receipt of proceeds of crop.
Defects in Availing Limit: (i). Practically, farmers avail the whole limit in one lot instead of availing in small lots spread over the entire period starting from sowing of crop and up to harvesting as per the requirement.
(ii). Banks, due to lack of knowledge of concerned staff, sanction maximum limit, say @ Rs 2,00,000/- per acre, which is much more than even the output of all crops produced during the whole year. The excess amount raised from limits is, generally, diversified for unproductive purposes, such as, marriage of daughter, sending son abroad through unlawful means, or the like. At the time of repayment, because the total amount received on selling of entire crop is much less than the amount borrowed from the bank and required to be repaid in one lot, puts the farmer in an embarrassing position. In such a situation, to bring the bank limit in credit balance, farmer raises the funds from a commission agent, who charges an interest for the whole month even if repaid in a day or so, putting an unnecessary burden on the farmer.
Suggestion: Banks should sanction adequate crop loan limits as per actual requirement of the farmer. Any over financing and under financing is harmful to the farmer.
Investment Credit: Provided by banks for purchase of farm machinery & equipments; installation of tube well and other irrigation systems; purchase of milch animal; construction of shed; purchase of poultry birds and equipments for poultry farm; or for other activities allied to agriculture undertaken by farmer. All these loans are repayable in half-yearly instalments over a period ranging from 5 - 15 years.
There is no problem in sanction of such loans, but farmer sometimes avails loans on existing assets and utilises the funds for unproductive purposes. He comes under pressure at the time of repayment, as no productive asset was created and no additional income generated for repayment of the loan.
Suggestion: Farmers should utilize the bank funds only for purpose(s) for which the loan is availed and increase farm income for easy repayment.
Insurance of Crop: There is no proper insurance policy for crops and the existing schemes of Agriculture Insurance Corporation of India are not viable with heavy premium and defective claim/ compensation procedures. Crop failures, due to natural calamities, put the farmer in an embarrassing position. When none comes to his rescue, suicide appears the way out.
There is one insurance scheme of Agriculture Insurance Corporation of India, wherein specified crops in specified areas, prone to natural calamities, are covered and insurance premium is shared by central government, state government and farmer (Subsidies Insurance Premium). Punjab Government is not participating in the scheme, whereas neighbouring states, Himachal & Haryana and some other states, are participating.
Suggestion: State government should negotiate with central government for participating in the above-said Scheme as also for a proper viable & affordable Agriculture Insurance Scheme providing immediate relief to farmer in the hour of need as is done in foreign countries.
Rescheduling/ Restructuring of Bank Loans for Repayment [at the time of crop failures and inability of farmer to repay loan instalment]: Banks, to meet the genuine requirement of farmer, like at the instance of failure of crop and the consequent inability to repay the loan instalments, ‘reschedule’ and ‘restructure’ the loan instalment for a further period, giving time to the farmer for repayment. Due to lack of awareness, the farmer, instead of approaching the bank for rescheduling/ restructuring of loan instalment, gets depressed by the heavy debt burden and takes drastic steps, like suicide.
Suggestion: Farmer should approach bank manager for postponement/ rescheduling the instalments and avoid payment of penal interest of 2% charged on irregular accounts by banks and also save self from the burden of immediate repayment of loan instalment.
Conclusion: Farmers should avail loan/ limits only to meet genuine expenses, create assets with loan, and utilize the same for agriculture purposes to supplement farm income. The increased earnings will permit regular repay of loan instalments. In case of loss of crop due to natural calamities, the farmer should approach bank for restructuring the repayment.
FLCC (Financial Literacy and Credit Counselling Centres): Financial Literacy Centres have been opened at all districts by Lead Banks as per RBI guidelines, to provide solutions to problems of farmers as also to create awareness about various deposit schemes and loan schemes of banks among them. Farmers should make use of these services. Now FLCCs are opened at tehsil levels for benefit of farmers.
Dr K Gopal Iyer, former Professor of Sociology, Punjab University, Chandigarh: He has conducted an elaborate comparative study of the farmers from many states, such as, Punjab, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. According to him, the causes of the widespread agrarian crisis can be attributed to the combination of macro liberalization and globalization policy of Govt of India. For farmers, however, the major adverse effect has been the combination of low prices and output volatility for cash crops. The debt burden is only a symptom of the wider malaise. The states severely affected were the ones where agriculture has been Capitalist in nature, like the states of Punjab, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The excessive indebtedness, particularly of the non-institutional agencies, accentuated the plight of the farmers and agriculture labourers; the commission agents, moneylenders and bank officials humiliated them to return the loans. The farmers preferred to commit suicide rather than face social humiliation. It may be stated here that supply of spurious pesticides was one of the major reasons for suicide epidemics in Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and other states. The number of suicides by farmers continues to mount in Punjab’s Malwa region.
NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) data has been subjected to scepticism, as it provides a very low figure of rural suicides in Punjab, whereas the census count of rural suicides in Punjab by the PAU and two other universities approximates 7,000 suicides. The hesitation by the Punjab and the Central government to acknowledge the gravity of rural suicides scenario in the state is detrimental to rendering social justice to the farmers and agriculture labourers in Punjab.
In order to provide relief to the suicide victim families, the Govt of Andhra Pradesh has increased the compensation amount from Rs 1.5 lac to Rs 5.00 lac and the Telangana Govt increased it from Rs 1.5 lac to Rs 6.00 lac. In this light, the Punjab government should also increase the compensation to rural suicide victims @ Rs 6.00 lac for each suicide-affected family.
Governments of many states recognize only few rural suicide cases as ‘genuine’ and eligible for compensation. This is a perplex problem faced by the suicide victim families, as it becomes very difficult for them to prove the suicide to be ‘genuine’. Only 6-7% cases of the total suicides are actually considered eligible for compensation.
Issues for Consideration: The data on rural suicides brought out by the three universities of Punjab through census method needs to be revisited, as a large number of cases in several villages of Punjab are still left out and justice to them has been denied. And, as the figures of rural suicides in Punjab published in the NCRB data are grossly understated, it should be asked to clarify the methodology of collecting data on rural suicides, particularly for the State of Punjab.
Punjab has not been enlisted in the suicides affected states, neither by the Govt of Punjab nor by the Central Govt. This is the reason for excluding Punjab from Central Relief of Prime Minister announced in 2006. This is a gross injustice to the rural suicide victims of Punjab, and this deliberate omission needs to be corrected immediately.
The Govt of Punjab should take cue from the Rehabilitation Package adopted by Baba Guru Nanak Foundation Society, Sangrur. In its rehabilitation package, the problems of widows, young girls, education of the children, livelihood issues of the affected families, and the needs of the vulnerable old people have been taken into consideration. The Punjab Govt should also implement a holistic Rehabilitation Policy for the suicide-affected families.
In Punjab, the survey conducted by PAU and other universities has also brought out that of the total rural suicides, nearly 57% are farmers and 43% are agricultural labourers. The high incidence of mechanization in rural Punjab aggravates the unemployment problem of the agriculture labourers. This needs to be addressed by the Govt of Punjab, both on short-term and long-term basis.
Among the farmers, the most vulnerable are the marginal and small farmers, who are almost on the verge of pauperization. The present agriculture policy is not addressing their issues of survival and subsistence. Already large number of Jat peasantry belonging to marginal and small farmers has been reduced to the status of agricultural labour. Govt of Punjab needs to formulate an Agriculture Policy, which strongly protects the economic needs of marginal and small farmers.
Dr Sukhdev Singh, Professor of Sociology, PAU, Ludhiana: Rural society of India, in general, and of Punjab, in particular, is suffering from multiple problems with far reaching consequences largely due to the precarious agricultural scenario. Shrinking profitability from crops particularly of small farmers, near stagnant productivity, loss of natural resources and emerging life patterns leaning towards materialism in the countryside are some of the prime reasons for agricultural distress. Areas under wheat and paddy crops have shown significant increase while other crops like groundnut, sugarcane, grams and oilseeds indicated declining trend over time. Assured MSP, less risk in these crops and mechanization helped farmers in adoption of wheat and rice. Most farmers availed credit between Rs 1 - 2.5 lakh from institutional as well as non-institutional sources and have been spending heavy amount in agricultural inputs and in numerous cases for social prestige also. Local labour is highly replaced by migratory labour due to various reasons. Jajmani system no more works in the rural areas. Generating non-farm employment, forming of self help groups and strengthening of rural development and agricultural schemes are need of the hour to save the peasantry and other ruralites. Besides, adoption of affordable life style by people, shunning the habit of show off may prove helpful to the ruralites in redressing the financial problems.
Dr Madhu Gill, Consultant, Punjab Agri Export Corporation, threw light on another aspect of the agrarian crisis. She pointed out that the current crisis in not only in terms of low income of the farmers, but the immense commercialisation of agriculture with unabated use of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides, has led to high levels of chemical build-up in the environment, contaminating air, soil, water bodies, ground waters. Chemical residues in food and reduced nutritional quality of food have led to a sharp rise in deadly diseases, like cancer and reduced body immunity. And, it is the farmer who is most vulnerable to this yet another dreadful feature of the current crisis.
A viable alternative to this advancing crisis is – Organic Farming, as it enlivens the soil, saves air and water from contamination, strengthens the natural resource base and sustains biological production at levels to commensurate the carrying capacity of the managed agro eco-system.
Organic farming in Punjab is as old as traditional agriculture, but it was without any set standards and organic nomenclature. Though various farmers had taken the initiative in organic farming on an individual scale, but the lack of guidance and uniformity in the production standards and certification could not find them the desired market. Govt of Punjab, through Punjab Agro, took the initiative in providing institutional support in promoting organic farming in an organized way. The members enrolled are pursuing organic farming under the aegis of the Organization, which is providing them guidance, technical know-how and facilitation in getting their produce certified as organic, with detailed documentation and maintenance of data required for the process.
The initiative has been taken, but other components in this vista, such as, research support; promotion of development of biopesticides, biofertilizers and botanicals through incentives; development of market infrastructure; contract farming having legal binding with super markets and multinational companies; low cost certification system for domestic market; subsidy on organic inputs on the pattern of chemical fertilizers; creation of organic farming zones; promotion of organic agro-tourism; subsidized loans during the conversion; credit and storage facilities to organic growers to avoid distress sale of organic products; etc., are the next steps required to be taken up at the government level, in order to take a big leap into the future with promise.
There is a dire need for allocation of funds to be earmarked in the State plan for the promotion of organic farming, as it is necessary to add more area every year to cater to quantum and regular supply to build up the organized marketing of Organic Produce, and to give an impetus to the growing awareness of organic amongst farmers and consumers.
In view of the increased awareness about the ill-effects of pesticides on human health, the tendency of Punjab farmers adopting organic farming for their home consumption is increasing. There are about 10 lakh farming families in Punjab and, as a social and moral responsibility, even if farmers convert one acre to organic farming for home consumption and local sale, the area under organic cultivation will be around 4 lac hectares, i.e., 9.5% of the net cultivated area in the state. This could be gradually increased for the mother earth to breath. This will be amongst the highest per cent cultivated area under organic farming in the world.
Harvinder Khetal, Senior Journalist, The Tribune, drew attention to the drug menace in Punjab, which is deep-rooted and has ruined many a youth and their families, specially, those of our debt-ridden farmers. They need to be rehabilitated, and merged into mainstream society, she stressed.
She pointed to some worrying reports that indicate that this drug menace is becoming a double trap. The reports concern buprenorphine – a drug that is used to cure the addicts. This drug is part of the state government’s oral substitution therapy (OST) available to a large number of addicts visiting rehabilitation centres across Punjab. It has been noted that patients undergoing treatment are now getting hooked to this drug, which was supposed to cure them. The government’s ambitious de-addiction drive, thus, has hit a roadblock. Worse still, this drug which is meant only for government-run centres is available even in the open market. Medics, pharmaceutical companies and health authorities admit to the misuse of buprenorphine. Also, instances of patients visiting OST centres in search of buprenorphine are rising. As such, the ‘prescription drug menace’ has now become the new hazard. The pill meant to cure, has become the substance of peril!
While rules governing de-addiction centres are good, their implementation is lax. Another reason for the drug’s popularity is that it comes at a fraction of a cost of the narcotics. And, dangerously, it gives them the same high as heroin or other opiates. While a buprenorphine tablet can be bought for Rs 7, one gram of heroin costs between Rs 1,500 and Rs 3,000.
There are 31 de-addiction centres in Punjab, 5 tertiary care centres, 8 centres in model jails and 70 private de-addiction centres. The government-run centres are unable to cater to the growing number of addicts, as these are cash-strapped. The private rehab clinics are known for ill-treatment of patients and fleecing of family in the name of rehabilitation. Further, in violation of the norms, they neither have proper infrastructure nor professionally trained staff.
Drug trafficking and crime go hand in hand. Punjab’s jails house 28,000 inmates in drug-related cases against a capacity of 18,000. The fight against drugs must not go in vain. The state must be alert as also well equipped to handle the peril.
Vaneet Kumar, Kartikayan Civilization Pvt. Ltd, KCL Gharaat, a young progressive farmer from Mansa, Punjab: He equates farmers to gods, as they satisfy the hunger of billions of people. But these days, he feels that this scenario has changed from gods to ‘miserable’ gods. The reasons identified by him for this pathetic situation are: lack of group farming and mismanagement of funds.
In Group Farming, all the adjacent farming fields become one farming field and all the farming tools owned by different farmers, having share in that piece of land, are used collectively on that single grouped piece of land. This saves every farmer from spending money on purchasing all the farming tools, and also save labour expenses because there are many helping hands in this type of farming. Also, all these families that form a group help each other on all occasions. In this system, the youngsters learn from their elders about all the centuries-old farming techniques as also about fund management. Practical wisdom passes from one generation to the next, which shields the young generations from experiencing fund deficits and provides guidance to manage the income purposefully.
Devinder Sharma: Agricultural Scientist, award-winning Journalist and Activist, presented data and logic, which expose the flawed approach of the Govt towards the agriculture sector. According to him, the tragic and shocking reversal of the role – feeding the farmers who have been feeding the country all these years – is the culmination of national policies that neglected agriculture and farming in the wake of globalisation and economic liberalization. For a country, which has 550 million farmers and another 200 million agricultural workers, the cost of faulty economic liberalization has come to the fore. Withdrawing state support to agriculture and farming, and increasingly leaving farmers at the mercy of monsoons and markets, the national policies were in reality being drawn to shift the national resources for the benefit of only the business and industrial houses. While agriculture continued to be neglected, industry continued to receive tax-holidays, cheaper credit, highly subsidized land, and excise duty relief.
Farmers defaulting the banks and private moneylenders were hauled up and put behind the bars. Thousands of the farmers in distress preferred to commit suicide rather than to be faced with humiliation that comes along with indebtedness. On the other hand, the industrialists who defrauded the banks adorn the government committees and even headed the Federation of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). Rs 42 lac crore tax concessions were handed to the corporate sector; so why ignore only one section of society? The government wants to give cheap food to the poor and the needy; but why penalise the farmer for that? Already, they are on artificial respiration! Focus should be on how to give a raise to his income as his basic right, and not by lecturing him to supplement his income by other means.
Government has no money to buy food grains from farmers; it’s fiscal deficit grows when farmers demand an increase of Rs 10/- in procurement price (hike of Rs 10/- means a burden of Rs 100 crore for the government), but doesn’t even flinch an eyelid while allocating Rs 140,000 crore for the agri-business industry for the next ten years. Recently, the government imported 2.6 million tons of daal worth Rs 16,000/- crore, an amount which is more than the budget for agriculture for 2014-15.
In the wake of the 7th pay commission, he observed that the hike announced coupled with emoluments is going to bankrupt the country. He pointed out that, in 1970, the MSP for wheat was Rs 70/- and today it is Rs 1,450/-, i.e., an increase of 19 times in 45 years. But during the same period, the rise in salaries of government employees is 120-150 times; of corporate sector 300-1000 times, of professors 150-170 times; of technicians 280-300 times; and so on. If farmers were given only a raise of 100 times, then there would have been no crisis. It is most unfortunate that only the farmers are asked to cut on their expenses, and no other section of society. Do they not need to educate their children, perform social ceremonies, look after ailing parents, or so on?
In recent meetings with WTO, there is talk of capping all input subsidies. Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh has already announced – no more input subsidies. Considering the urgency with which the ‘climate change’ issue needs to be addressed, it is proposed that agriculture should be sustainable. But what are the options before the farmer?! Radical reforms are needed in the agriculture sector.
Dr Gian Singh, Professor, Dept of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala, stated that the agrarian crisis is not limited to the farmers’ crisis; it has to be seen, in addition, in the light of other related aspects, such as, groundwater receding to dangerous levels, deteriorating environment, etc. Also, the condition of farm labourers is worse, and more so of their women. The main reasons behind suicides are debt and poverty. The debt is not much, but their capacity to repay the same is zero. The grim reality is that small farmers are born into debt and poverty, lead miserable lives under debt and poverty, and leave behind a heavier burden of debt and poverty for their coming generations.
Since 1970, and especially since 1991, courtesy the new economic policy, farming has become a profession, which is best avoided. The Central Govt, to suit its own requirements, fixes the MSP for paddy at a higher rate as compared to other crops of that season, thereby leaving no choice with the Punjab farmers but to grow paddy. This approach has led to lowering of groundwater in Punjab to alarming levels. The number of tube-wells in 1970-71 was 1,92,000, whereas by 2013-14, the same has risen to 13,83,500. To check this alarming situation, not only should the MSP of other crops, like maize, cotton, etc., be fixed at higher rates but also the sharing of Punjab river waters should be done on the basis of the internationally-accepted riparian concept. In addition, promotion of organic farming; easy accessibility to loan facilities; deserving assistance during calamities; processing units for agricultural produce; availability of latest machines at affordable rentals; reasonably priced quality education and health services; etc., shall prove very advantageous to rid our farmers and farm labourers of the miseries, agony faced by them.
Manjit Singh Bhullar, for Farmers For Safe Food Co-Operative Society, Mohali: He is an enterprising young professional, who preferred to move to farming. He explained how their model works to help the small farmers: A Society is formed by small group of likeminded, eco-friendly farmers. Majority of the group members are well educated urban citizens, who have given up their jobs or businesses and have changed their profession to organic farming. Collective marketing, both on retail and wholesale, brings the operation cost to a minimal. Most farmers process their farm produce too. This not only adds value to their produce but also increases its shelf life.
Beside farming and marketing, he believes proper ‘knowledge sharing’ to be the key to get out of the economic and health crises. Consumer’s eating habits are pushing farmers to grow unseasonal vegetables, which promote use of pesticides and chemicals. To tackle this problem, they have partnerships with leading naturopaths. Experience tells them that if proper knowledge about seasonal and regional eating habit is shared with consumers, they are ready to change their life style. They organize get-togethers of consumers, farmers, naturopaths and intellectuals at their Society’s Model Farm. To provide knowledge about environment and organic farming for newcomers into this field, they are in process of setting up eco-libraries (books and videos) at village level. They are hopeful of inaugurating the first Eco-Library by 1st February at their Model Farm in village Dadiana, Dist Fategarh Sahib, near Chandigarh.
JS Ahluwalia, IRS, and former Chief Commissioner of Income Tax, Chandigarh: Punjab’s farming sector is in crisis and shows signs of sickness as it suffers from shrinking returns. A study conducted by PAU suggests that 89% of the marginal farmers and 91% of the small farmers are in debt. The marginal and small farmers having up to 2 hectares of land had an average debt of Rs 2,35,000/- per household and earned only Rs 30,420/- a year. In the past few years, around 35% of the farmers have entered the labour market. The number of suicides by farmers in the last decade is 5,000. According to a Punjab Govt survey during the last decade, there were 3 suicides every 2 days. Bathinda, Sangrur and Mansa are the most severely affected districts of the state.
Immediate Steps: According to an NSSO (National Sample Survey Office) report, the peasantry of Punjab is most heavily debt burdened in the country next to Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The rural debt in Punjab is more than Rs 35,000/- crore. Both the Central and State Govt should take steps so that this burden is either reduced or waived off, by compensating the lenders. After reducing the exorbitant interest charge, support of social and religious organizations could also be sought by the Government.
The Government knows that the current cropping pattern (paddy-wheat cycle) is not viable. To encourage farmers to grow other crops, MSP for crops other than wheat and paddy must be provided. In addition to providing facilities for marketing, government must guarantee price stability as also an ensured market.
PAU, which ushered in the green revolution, should help the farmers to diversify their cropping pattern by providing technical knowhow. If the crop diversification is to have any tangible effect on the farmers’ plight, then not only crop diversification but also Punjab’s economy should be diversified, to deal with the issues of unemployment and low farm income.
Long term Steps: As, due to global warming, the monsoon has not remained reliable and water table is receding 1 to 2 meters per annum in various districts of Punjab, sprinkler irrigation is the need of the hour. The authorities will have to provide not only technical knowhow but also subsidise this new irrigation system, which saves water. May be help from countries like Israel could be taken.
If the farmers could safely store their grains, they could fetch a better price by selling the same at an opportune time. If a technology used in Argentina of storing grains in polythene silo bags [wherein a vacuum is created with the help of a machine to save the grains from pests] is adopted, then the farmers can keep their produce for longer periods, and thus earn higher income. Such bags store 2-3 tons of grains on the farm itself. When this problem was discussed with our Ambassador to Argentina in 2010, it was learnt that the cost of storage was hardly USD $ 4/- per ton. It may be slightly higher now. The panchayats should be encouraged to store grains of the entire village for 18-20 months.
For reducing the cost of inputs, PAU and other such institutes should be encouraged to examine the possibility of co-operative farming or corporate farming for the entire village, where the ownership of the land remains with the farmer, but the equipments are shared by the entire village.
Dr Balwinder Singh Sandhu, Agriculture Commissioner, Punjab: He noted that, in spite of the banks postponing the recovery of loans from farmers affected by natural calamities, suicides in the rural sector are a subject matter of news almost daily. He identified various reasons for the farming becoming an unattractive, unprofitable profession: Rising input costs as against minimal increase in MSP; submersible pumps getting costlier on account of receding groundwater levels; etc. He said that the Govt of India must form policies whereby farmers must be able to meet their demands from their own income; modern technology be available at cheap rates from government centres; marketing, processing and storage facilities be established; ready guidance be provided on animal husbandry, fisheries, bee-keeping, etc.; quality education and health services be met at low, affordable rates; a variety of vocational courses should be offered to the youth in the villages to enable them to qualify for a variety of jobs, which may also bridge the gap between the ruralites and the urbanites; and the like. He proposed that labour on one’s own field should be covered under MNREGA, especially for the debt-ridden farmer, as is the labour associated with baagbani.
It was heartening to learn from him that the Government was working on improving the lot of the farmers by proposing laws similar to the ones during the British period. Under these laws, it will not be permitted to recover more than double the amount of money given as loan/ lent. For this purpose, the affected farmers would be able to approach the district-level boards, and till a decision is reached, no interest would be levied on the period spanning between the time of approaching the Board to the time till a decision is taken by the same. Further, farmer’s land would not be attached for giving loans. He also informed that drone technology was being studied to precisely identify the fields afflicted by disease and/ or natural calamities to replace the current inefficient, impracticable procedures for the same to ensure timely, adequate relief to those affected.
Last, but not the least, he stressed that a movement against wasteful expenditure on ceremonies – birth, death, weddings, etc., must be initiated by leading social and religious organisations, as these can play a very significant role in this regard.
Capt Sarup Singh Dhillon, IAS (retd): There are many aspects of the Agrarian Crisis, which impact the farmers gravely and are responsible for the hardships faced by them. Having mediated the discussion through the day, he said he would not go over the more commonly understood causes of the farmers’ plight, but only mention certain official facts and figures related to the issue, which reflect the grim reality on the ground.
1. As per the data given in its Kharif and Rabi Policies for Season 2015-16 by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, the net return has been shown as Rs 38,000/- per hectare for Punjab. This clearly indicates that a farmer owning 5 acres of land has only Rs 76,000/- as annual income, or we can say that only Rs 6,500/- as income per month.
In Punjab, about 50% farmers have a land holding of less than 5 acres. So, one can imagine the monthly income of farmers having land holding of one, two, three or four acres of land! This is the main reason why small farmers have to take loans from banks/ moneylenders. And, when they are unable to pay back, their debt keeps increasing, courtesy the interest thereupon. The ever-rising debt, thus, is the major reason of farmers committing suicide.
2. Farmers do not get adequate power supply, which makes it impossible for them to grow crops. Getting power as per their need should be considered a legal right of farmers.
3. Though there is no income tax on agricultural income, but if any farmer supplements his income by undertaking some other activity(s), then his agricultural income also gets taxed. Income from dairy farming, for example from sale of milk or animals, is taxable.
4. There are 23 crops for which Minimum Support Prices (MSP) are announced by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, but only two major crops, i.e., Wheat & Paddy are purchased on MSP. All other crops, like Sunflower, Maize, Pulses, etc., are not purchased on MSP. Farmers have to sell these to the private traders at much lower rates than their MSP, thus causing very heavy financial losses to the farmers. Bhartiya Kissan Union of Haryana, led by S Gurnam Singh, has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Hon’ble Punjab & Haryana High Court seeking directions to govt agencies to purchase all crops at MSP. INA Rural Development Society is providing the necessary technical assistance to S Joginder Singh Toor, Advocate, Punjab & Haryana High Court, who is pursuing the Case.
He laid stress on the fact that farmers need to be educated about the rights they have, and seek redress of these through the legal channel.
Dr Gurcharan Singh Kalkat, Chairman, Punjab State Farmers Commission, in his Presidential remarks, touched upon the build-up to the current circumstances and also specified ways and means to come out of the difficulties of our times:
The State of Punjab achieved an outstanding growth in agriculture. It's contribution to the national food security programme is very well documented and appreciated. This was result of application of high yielding technology which needed assured and timely irrigation and adequate nutrients. The consolidation of holdings done by the State government in 1950s was helpful in the installation of tube wells, thus ensuring irrigation to the new high yielding varieties of both wheat and rice. Because of assured marketing and remunerative prices of wheat and rice, the farmers adopted new technology and invested heavily in land and water development. Today about 73% of the total cropped area is irrigated by tube wells. The farmers started taking up two crops a year because of the availability of water. The area under paddy increased from about 2.27 lac hectares in 1960-61 to about 28 lac hectares in 2014-15, and the area under wheat increase from 14 lac hectares in 1960-61 to about 35 lac hectares in 2014-15. The excessive pumping of ground water for paddy through tube wells has resulted in mining of ground water; the withdrawal of water getting much more than the annual recharge. It is of interest to know that, in 1973, less than 4% of area had water table depth lower than 10 meters, which is now about 90%.
The state is now faced with four serious problems, namely: i) depletion of ground water, ii) environmental pollution as a result of burning paddy straw, iii) low farm incomes and iv) farmers' indebtedness.
For ground water balance, it is necessary to replace appreciable area from paddy to low water requiring crops, mainly maize during kharif season. Maize cultivation depends upon marketing and assured prices as is available to wheat and rice. For avoiding pollution through burning paddy straw, Punjab Agricultural University has developed a machine called 'Happy Seeder' to sow wheat in the standing stubbles without burning the straw and stubbles. With the use of this machine, the organic matter gets incorporated in the soil and improves the soil fertility. They have also developed a machine for chopping wheat straw and stubbles which can then be incorporated in the soil, followed by the sowing of wheat crop.
The poor farm income is a result of higher cost of cultivation without a corresponding increase in the output price. Dr M S Swaminathan recommended that the price of output should be 50% above the cost of cultivation. This could eliminate the problem to some extent. However, the problem arises due to shrinking of holding sizes. Currently, about 3 lac farmers cultivate up to 2 hectares of land (they do not necessarily own all this area). Even with the cultivation of wheat and rice over this area and achieving very high yields, the income generated is not enough to meet the routine expenses of the family relating to education, health, etc. Such holdings are un-economical, unless the farmers can grow vegetables and are able to market the same. This is not possible for those farmers who are located far away from the consuming centres. We would need Collect Centres and Cool Chains to be established in such areas as also assured marketing of vegetables at reasonable prices to the farmers. However, simultaneously, a programme of skill training should be taken up to enable the under-employed/ un-employed persons to get off-farm employment. This would obviously require good rural education.
As for indebtedness, as stated in above paras, small holdings do not produce surplus income to meet any emergent needs of the family and the farmers borrow heavily, many times from non-banking sources at very high rate of interest. Their source of income continues to be the same and they, therefore, find it difficult to repay. Consequently, the principal amount keeps on increasing because of compound rate of interest. A number of speakers pointed out in the Seminar that many farmers use these loans for un-productive purposes (mainly for social ceremonies). It will, therefore, be very useful if some non-government organizations take up the issue of social reforms in the rural areas advising them to curtail unproductive spending. The solution lies in curtailing unproductive expenditure and providing them off-farm employment and to help them grow high value crops.
In the end, he congratulated the Institute of Sikh Studies for organizing this Seminar, where farmers, agriculture experts and economists participated.
The exchange of expert views brought to light the complexities and intricacies involved in the Issue. An urgent, multi-pronged approach is the need of the hour, with short-term and long-term strategies in place. A push to the agriculture sector shall also provide an impetus to the economy of Punjab, it being majorly agriculture-based. While some steps are already in place, more need to be initiated to ameliorate the agony of our farmers and farm labourers. The aim should be to ensure a life of dignity for farmers.
Everyone felt strongly that the Chamber of Agriculture must be revived and strengthened to provide a common platform to all stakeholders, in general, and the marginalized farmers, in particular, so that a holistic view may be considered, and long-lasting solutions found to the issues prevailing at any given time.
In order that the entire exercise leads to some worthwhile consequence, a Joint Committee for Farmers was proposed, to comprise of 2 members of the Institute of Sikh Studies, 2 members of International Sikh Confederation, 2 members of INA Rural Development Society, 2 members of All India Agro Forestry Association, and 1-3 private members who are actively engaged in the cause. The persons inducted into the same are: Bhai Ashok Singh and Dr Birendra Kaur of IOSS, Lt Gen Kartar Singh and S Resham Singh of ISC, Capt Sarup Singh Dhillon [IAS (retd)] and Adv Joginder Singh Toor of INA Rural Development Society, S Swaran Singh and S Gurcharan Singh Boparai of All India Agro Forestry Association, Dehradun, and Dr Madhu Gill and S Judhvir Singh, IFS (retd) as private members.
Dated: 1st December, 2015
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