Prior to making Canada my new home about seven years ago, I worked as a Principal of a Post-Secondary educational institution in the Indian province of Punjab for about 7 years during the last decade of the last century. For the next 8 years I worked as a Full Time journalist with a national (Hindi and English) dailies, again, in Punjab.
The educational institution I served in Punjab (1992-99) was situated in the rural belt of the province where the majority of the people belonged to the farming sector. Actually, the majority population of the province lives in the rural areas and I saw my students struggling to pay their fee.
The government and the private service sectors are quite good and the people in these sectors earn quite good salaries. The labour and the farming sectors are in really shabby condition. As a head teacher I had to meet these poor parents of my students and thereby I came to know about their poor socio-economic position. The Green Revolution in India (1970s) brought with its prosperity the future doom of the peasants. The excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides sucked out the productivity of the earth and the poor marketing policies of the federal government did the rest of the damage.
When in 1999 I started my career as a journalist, I started writing about the crisis of this farming sector. Today Punjab’s farming sector is in crisis and showing signs of sickness as it suffers from falling productivity and shrinking returns. Farmers are reeling under debt, and owing to low profitability, small farmers, in particular, are quitting farming. In the past few years, around 28 per cent of them have entered the labour market.
Agricultural experts say small farmers are working under severe economic constraints — their earnings are very low and they are indebted — and hence many are compelled to leave farming. Tragically, some reach a stage where they commit suicide.
Dr Sukhpal Singh, a senior economist and head of the Department of Economics and Sociology at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) Ludhiana, told me during a live interview on Radio: “It’s high time that the authorities seriously looked into the problems of marginal and small farmers.”
He said the need of the hour was to make small farming viable through a massive public investment in agriculture.
A study of farmers’ issues conducted by Dr. Sukhpal Singh and a team of PAU reveals the farmers are reeling under debt. Of the sampled farmers, 88% had an average debt of Rupees 218,092 per household. The amount of debt per hectare was inversely related to the farm size. It was the highest among marginal farmers at Rs.170,184 followed by small farmers at Rs.1,04,155 and for other farmers at Rs.44,069.
“The rate of increase in cultivation cost has been much faster than that of produce prices. Therefore, the increase in income from farming has not been sufficient to meet the domestic and farm expenditure, which led a large number of farmers into a debt trap, and consequently forcing many to commit suicide,” Dr. Sukhpal Singh said. The study suggests 89 per cent of marginal farmers and 91 per cent of small farmers are in debt.
The study reveals small farmers are in crisis, both economically and socially, as their traditional source of livelihood has become unviable because of rapidly increasing input costs. “In a census-based study of farmers’ suicides in six districts of Punjab during 2011, it was found that the largest number who took their own lives belonged to the category of small farmers,” he said.
Of the 3507 farmers who committed suicide in Punjab between 2000 and 2011, about 80 per cent were marginal and small farmers (up to 2 hectares). These farmers had an average debt of Rs. 235,000 per household and they earned only Rs. 30,420 a year, which indicates the miserable condition of marginal and small farmers, says the study.
In another study of the PAU, Farmer & Agricultural Labourers Suicides due to Indebtedness in the Punjab State — a pilot project of the Sangrur and the Bathinda districts, submitted to the Punjab government stirred a political storm in 2009. The survey report said that 2,990 farmers had committed suicide in two districts — 1256 in Bathinda and 1634 in Sangrur district — between 2000 and 2008. This report, more or less like a household census, was considered to be the first authentic survey of the spate of suicides among farmers and agricultural workers.
The farmers have very easy access to the pesticides. These pesticides are known as ‘farming medicines’ in the layman’s language. The debt ridden farmers commit suicides by consuming these pesticides. This is the common and prevalent method. The other common way they adopt to end their life is by hanging.
Another reason of these farmers being under debts is their craze to settle in the foreign countries. The exodus started in the 1960s and it is at peak these days. The crooked Immigration Consultants looted these already poor farmers and left them poorer.
The illegal ways and means of these Immigration consultants have resulted in tragic deaths of the youth. The lack of will on the part of the Punjab government and its agencies to curb the activities of unscrupulous immigration and travel agents who lure youth from the state by promising them immigration to western countries has again brought misery to a number of families. The Panama boat tragedy in January this year is nothing different from the Malta one of December 1996 in which 283 youth from Punjab went missing after their boat capsized. In the past nearly 20 years, after the Malta boat tragedy, charge sheet has not even been filed against the 29 travel agents who were booked by the Central Bureau of Investigation. An activist Mr Balwant Singh Khera, who set up the Malta Boat Tragedy Mission, has been pursuing the case.
While three accused were punished in Italy, those accused in India have remained free. Seven of these accused have died in the past two decades. In April 2002, another boat capsized near Turkey in which 20 youth went missing.
The Punjab Prevention of Human Smuggling Act, which was passed in 2012 and notified the next year, was brought in to check illegal immigration from the state and save youth from falling into the trap of illegal agents. The law mandated that all immigration agents had to obtain a license from the state government to operate there. However, hundreds of unregistered agents continue to operate unchecked.
In April 2014, the North American Punjabi Association (NAPA) had brought to light the plight of Punjabi youth who were detained in a prison in Texas in the United States after being arrested for illegal immigration. The arrested youth, upset with the treatment being meted out to them, went on a hunger strike inside the prison. It is believed that over 15,000 youth from Punjab, who became part of the illegal immigration racket, are languishing in prisons in various countries.
The farming in Punjab has been a very noble ‘profession’ as it has been advocated by the first Sikh Master Guru Nanak Dev. The farmers have been holding their heads always high and borrowing has always been taken as a curse. For a farmer, socially, to be under debt is to be dead. When lenders start squeezing them, they are left with no choice but to die. The querns of the government policies and the craze of foreign lands are grinding these people to dust. That’s why the diaspora is making hue and cry here desperately.
News Director, Red FM 106.7
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(13 May, 2016)