Political silence on farmer suicides

Agrarian distress does not figure in the ongoing elections
Inderjit Singh Jaijee

At a rally in Sangrur (Punjab) women carry photographs of debt-ridden farmers and farm labourers who had committed suicide
At a rally in Sangrur (Punjab) women carry photographs of debt-ridden farmers and farm labourers who had committed suicide. A Tribune file photo

EVEN though campaigning in Punjab is at its height and candidates are leaving no stone unturned to corner their rivals, the issue of rural suicides finds hardly any mention.

One farm union leader – Sukhdev Singh Kokri, general secretary of the BKU (Ugrahan) — attributes the silence to class allegiance. He has been quoted as saying that leaders of almost all parties are either from the rich peasantry or from the urban rich class and since agriculture can be revived only through rigorous agrarian reforms – which go against their interests – they deliberately keep silent.

Occasionally candidates of the new Aam Aadmi Party mention the plight of the villagers and the crisis facing the farming community but often they are more interested in corruption and drug trafficking. An eminent Punjab economist, Sucha Singh Gill, Director, Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, attributes this silence to the “mahaul” of the 2014 elections which is a fight between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, or secularism versus fundamentalism, to the exclusion of all else.

And yet the blight that has stricken Punjab’s countryside is overwhelming. Farmers, farm labourers and persons in allied occupations constitute more than a third of the state’s workforce. As voters, they number about 35 lakh. The number of people affected and the intensity of their immiseration qualifies as the “the elephant in the room” that is the present general election. “Elephant in the room” is an American expression meaning something huge and obvious but at the same time too embarrassing to be acknowledged.

It is not that the Shiromani Akali Dal-led state government is unaware of the issue’s potential for evoking anti-Akali feeling. In the last week of March, threatened by a call by farmer unions to gherao Badal’s house in Chandigarh and the offices of the Deputy Commissioners in the six Malwa districts, the state government immediately acted on its eight-month-old promise to undertake a fresh survey of rural suicide victims so as to have data for a uniform time period.

The previous survey produced data for three different time spans. One university did the survey up to 2008, another up to 2010 and the third till 2011. The plan now is to complete the survey up to 2013 all over the state. The base year (2000) is to remain the same in the new survey. Principal Financial Commissioner (Revenue) NS Kang dashed off letters to the Deputy Commissioners instructing them to assist the universities assigned to carry out the enumeration work.

Presumably, this enumeration will start after a few weeks when farmers are free from the harvesting and procurement process and student enumerators are free from examinations. Here are some of the things that need to be said:

1. An inaccurate survey is worse than no survey at all:

a. There are many ways to nudge a survey into inaccuracy:

i. commission the work but don’t provide adequate funds;

ii. rely on underpaid or unpaid researchers such as students to collect the data;

iii. send police escorts with the enumerators Incidentally, anyone looking for an example of how the police are used to cover up the extent of rural suicides need only visit Khanauri in Sangrur district on the Punjab – Haryana border on the banks of the Bhakra Mainline Canal. The police have been instructed to manage the canal sluice gates so that bodies are not trapped on the Punjab side but flow on into Haryana.

iv. neglect to contact the entire panchayat;

v. do not publicise the survey among the villagers

2. Worse than an inaccurate survey is an inaccurate survey followed by a skewed distribution of compensation

(a) In 2013 the government earmarked Rs 30 crore for compensation and paid out half of the agreed Rs 2 lakh to 2,886 families (those affected up to 2006) out of a total of 6,926 farmers and labourers whom the first survey had declared to be eligible.

(b) In 2001 the then Akali government acknowledged rural suicides and sanctioned a compensation of Rs 2.5 lakh to the next of kin of each victim. (Adjusted for inflation this would be approximately Rs 5 lakh in 2014)

(c) Subsequently the Punjab Farmers’ Commission of 2008 recommended a lumpsum payment of Rs 50,000 and a monthly pension of Rs 1,500 for 30 years to the next of kin. (The lumpsum plus pension would work out to be about Rs 6 lakh)

Other experts have also advocated meaningful compensation. The state government has whittled down the amount to Rs 2 lakh per next of kin and has not paid that either.

3. Suicides are a symptom of the agrarian crisis of Punjab – and the rest of India. Treating the symptoms is necessary but the actual objective is to eliminate the disease. Here are some suggestions to address the issue:

a. Make institutional credit available to all farmers, and labourers

b. Waive agricultural loans

c. Scrap the Agricultural Produce Marketing Act

d. Implement the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission

e. On compensation to the next of kin of Punjab farmers who had committed suicide, implement the recommendations of the Punjab Farmers Commission

f. Provide free compulsory education of good quality to all rural children up to Class XII. Build skill-training into the school curriculum from Class VIII onward. Generously provide scholarships for higher education to meritorious students

g. Adopt the Haryana model for setting and distributing pensions to widows, orphans, the elderly and the disabled. Haryana has earmarked a pension of Rs 1,000 per month each to beneficiaries in all categories and its distribution is through the panchayats.

The new survey is all very well but it does not absolve the candidates in the present election from the sin of silence. One who occupies a political office represents the people and articulates their distress. If the candidates sincerely want to sit in Parliament on behalf of their constituents, let them start articulating these views even at this late stage.

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