Penury in the bread basket

Farmer suicides in Punjab are the result of indebtedness brought about by government failure, promotion of an unsustainable agricultural model and consumerism

Brinda Suri Chandigarh/Gurdaspur

Unnatural deaths of farmers in Punjab, the country’s food bowl, add up to 30,000 plus in the last decade. This state, the granary of India, had successfully spearheaded the Green Revolution in the 1970s, and redefined land productivity. Whereas Punjab represented only 2.9 per cent of India's cultivated area, for the year 1969-70, the state produced 7 per cent of the country's food grain, and 24 per cent of its wheat. Punjab saw an eight-fold growth from 32 lakh tonne in 1960 to 240 lakh tonne in 2004. The per hectare yield of wheat rose from 12.40 quintal in 1960 to 45 quintal in 2004, while paddy yields increased from 10 to 35 quintal.

However something is wrong. With the exception of villages in districts along the Grand Truck Road where industrial activity has developed, signs of acute economic depression are visible throughout rural Punjab. The image of the idyllic Punjab village, with its model farms, and indomitable human spirit lies shattered. Farmer suicides have been reported in many of the 12, 278 villages of the state, spread over 18 districts. Though Punjab initially denied there was rural economic distress, it was directed by former President KR Narayanan to investigate. In 2005, it presented a status report declaring that between 1988 and 2004 only 2,116 farmers had ended their lives.  Dismissing the report as “mockery of governmental processes”, NGOs in the state put the figure above 35,000 in the last decade. 

In southwestern Punjab, which has some of the worst-affected districts in Mansa, Sangrur, Fardikot and Bathinda, families have committed multiple suicides.
 
Take the case of Moonak subdivision in Sangrur district. According to field study conducted by MASR, a Chandigarh-based NGO, between 1988 and 2005 economic depression led to the suicide of 1,331 farmers in this subdivision comprising 90 villages.

Suicides are taking place across age and gender divides.  In Balran village three sons and a grandson of Gurdev Singh poisoned themselves to death in succession over a decade. In Bhoolan village, after selling of her last piece of land, widow Omi Devi drowned herself leaving behind three teenagers, among whom is a physically challenged girl.

“This is just one sub-division. In villages across Punjab the same pattern can be observed,” says activist Vandana Shiva, founder-director Navdanya, who has taken up the cause of farmers.

Why the robust Punjabi spirit is being broken, across age, requires detailed research. It is difficult to ascertain why a person takes the drastic terminal step. Farmer suicides have been reported widely in other areas, such as Andhra Pradesh, but these are in belts which are producers of classically defined commercial crop, such as cotton. In Punjab the cultivation is mainly in wheat and rice, most of which are not subject to the more dramatic fluctuations of the global agricultural market. 

Clues can nevertheless be found in economic indications. The cost of production has increased out of proportion to the value of the output, affecting productivity. The technological package has hit a plateau in productivity, with each year registering cumulatively lower yields. The government, the main purchaser of food grain, has not significantly increased its minimum support price (MSP).

“Farming input cost – which includes diesel, power and water besides the regular agricultural expenditure – is extremely high. The selling price barely covers costs,” rues
ex-armyman Subedar Tara Deol, a farmer of Harkhonwal village in Gurdaspur district.
 “One acre land returns 15-20 quintal wheat. With the MSP hovering around Rs 650 per quintal, earning from an acre after six months of toil is around Rs 10,000 which is woefully little.”

Input costs have risen in real terms, and this increase is not helped by the selective lowering of subsidies of some products. With poor availability of electricity, most farmers rely heavily on diesel for the mechanised operations. Prices of diesel have risen.

“The Green Revolution which introduced chemical fertilisers, hybrid seeds and mechanisation for better yield per acre, meant farmers invest heavily in tools and new techniques. While that shot up the produce it increased the cost of farming,” says Shiva.

There’s the question of the sustainability of the Green Revolution package. Vandana Shiva puts it forcefully: “The Green Revolution has led to reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, soil erosion, water shortages, reduced soil fertility, micronutrient deficiencies, soil contamination, reduced availability of nutritious food crops for the local population, the displacement of vast numbers of small farmers from their land, rural impoverishment and increased tensions and conflicts.”

Randip Singh of Rurki Kham village, in the better-off Ropar district says, “Land has ceased to be our golden goose. We have over-exploited it and the rampant use of chemicals is destroying it further. Prior to the Green Revolution land was left fallow. Today, to increase profits chemicals fill in for the fallow period. We have also lost many traditional drought and blight-resistant varieties of wheat. Despite knowing the ills we continue to toe the line. I’m earning well, but slow poisoning myself.”   

The logic of the market prompted farmers to flirt with the wheat-paddy alternate. Paddy is more productive per unit. However the crop is a water guzzler. Tube-wells were dug deeper, as the water table was lowered at the rate of 55 cm per year. Deeper wells meant increased expenses, more power consumption, and more loans.

“Landholdings are becoming smaller and the profits are reducing drastically,” sighs Deol, who despite getting a pension from the army, needs to supplement his farm income with the salary he earns as a driver with the state road transport. “My father brought up 20 family members on this farm’s income. I cannot feed half the number merely relying on farming,” he adds.

Economic factors alone cannot provide full explanation for the phenomenon. The Green Revolution boom brought in its wake heightened monetisation, consumerism and a new ostentation. “The societal reason stands out when Punjab suicides are compared to those in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Vidharba where it is essentially been crop failure. Punjab’s 72 per cent population is involved in agrarian activity and profits of the past have made them upwardly mobile. To maintain that standard, loans taken get diverted to consumerist needs,” says SS Johal, vice-chairman, Punjab State Planning Board and former vice-chancellor Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana.

The crisis is fundamentally a debt trap. In 1996 agricultural loans in the state stood at Rs 5,700 crore. In 2005 it was assessed to the tune of Rs 25,000 crore. The accumulated interest hangs heavy on the debt-ridden farmer. According to MASR’s study, institutional or government finance interest rate, which has been 16-18 per cent, covers only 20 per cent of the rural demand. The balance loan is taken from the arthiya (moneylender) at 40-60 per cent. Farmers ultimately sell their land to an ahritiya agreeing to work on it as labour. Conservative estimates show that between 25-30 per cent farmers have been reduced to seris or tenant farmers on property they once owned.

Governmental steps like crop diversification and lowering of interest rates have not showed adequate results yet. Experts insist that loans to farmers must be drastically cut. A silver lining was Finance Minister P Chidambaram’s 2006 Budget announcement: “short-term loans available to farmers at 7 per cent, letting farm credit double and a separate window for tenant farmers to ensure they get their share of loans”. But on closer scrutiny, experts believe that this announcement is welcome for the consumer industry but will only aid farmer dependence on loans. Instead of giving more loans, the repaying capacity of farmers must be increased by reimbursing pending interest, experts stress.  

According to Dr Johal, the faulty exim policy is responsible for much distress. “Though I would dismiss farm economics as the reason for all suicides, I’m critical of the Centre’s irrational export-import policy. Till January 2006, 18 million tonne paddy and wheat stocks were available with the Centre (Punjab contributes up to 60 per cent surplus stock to the Centre). What is the rationale then in importing wheat? When stock is not picked from local grain markets, depression does set in.” He suggests the government relate the MSP with market price index till such time that farmers can match import price. 

Given this fatal outcome of the first Green Revolution, it would be safer to greet the second Green Revolution with more caution.