Punjab – A Cradle. Now, grave!

Broken hearts float down the Bhakra Main Line canal. Broken by the endless struggle with the land, with the weather, with the creditor. Broken by broken promises, broken by the honour they lost, broken enough to kill themselves. And, at the sluice gate at Khanauri village they slow down, looking up with unseeing eyes. And, from the bridge across the canal, the beating hearts they broke look down upon them.

An outsider driving through Khanauri in Punjab’s Sangrur district will notice only the pretty village, the grain market and the blue-green Sutlej waters rushing down the canal. You need to look closer to see the knot of people at the sluice gate, their brimming eyes scanning the water, waiting for it to deliver their loved ones to them.

Punjab’s prosperity has been a folklore across urban and rural India for decades. Farmers here were among the first to welcome hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers, which powered the Green Revolution. The expansive canal network around the Bhakra-Nangal dam was ready just in time for the boom. The postcard image of a green and prosperous Punjab was formed around this time. The picture is fading, fading fast.

Farmer suicides in the drought-prone regions of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa are talked about. But, the lush greenery screens the spate of suicides in Punjab. THE WEEK visited four districts where the death toll is reported to be the highest¯Sangrur, Mansa, Bathinda and Fazilka. The state government is in denial about this trend, though the three recent surveys it commissioned found the main cause¯debts.

The first survey analysed suicide data from three districts up to 2008, and found shocking facts: 1) estimated debt burden on farmers was about Rs9,886 crore, and, 2) almost 58 per cent of the loans came from high-interest, non-institutional lenders. Combined, the surveys found that of the 7,000 confirmed suicides, around 5,000 were debt-related; 79 per cent of the victims were small farmers.

Today, even farmers with holdings under five acres claim to have debts of Rs5 lakh to Rs8 lakh. “With cost of agriculture going up and returns from farm produce becoming lesser, more and more farmers are choosing to end their lives unable to cope up with their debt,” said economist Sukhpal Singh, Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), Ludhiana.

Cost of farm inputs like pesticides, fertilisers and seeds has gone up by 40 to 100 per cent in the past five years, while price of produce has doubled in the same period. In 2010, Sukhpal wrote a paper proving that small- and medium-sized farms were disappearing.

The surveys were coordinated by PAU, assisted by Punjabi University, Patiala, and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. The more severe three districts were taken up by the first survey (2000-2008). An additional three districts were included in the second survey (2000-2010). Now, a third survey is on, covering 19 of Punjab’s 22 districts; the survey period is 2011-April, 2014. This report is expected to be ready this month.

There is a debate on the number of deaths. “The state’s official figures put farmers’ suicides between 2000 and 2010 at 6,926. But our sample survey found the number to be between 40,000 and 45,000. I wonder what the Central government is waiting for?” asked Sukhdev Singh Kokri Kalan, general secretary, Bharatiya Kisan Union Ekta (Ugrahan).

Sukhpal concedes that the surveys done by the universities have been plagued by shortage of funds at different stages. This has affected door-to-door data collection. Most data was collected from taluk offices and from village headmen.

Misery. Death. Misery.
Punjab does compensate families of farmers who commit suicide, but it is tangled in red tape. The package of Rs2 lakh per family was announced in 2001, but was disbursed only in 2010. Despite the decade-long delay, the amount was not hiked. And, only around 4,000 families have benefited. Many were left out because they could not produce official confirmation of the suicides. Widows of farmers who have committed suicides are allowed a monthly pension of Rs200, but very few are receiving it.

THE WEEK visited families of 14 suicide victims, who had died after 2010. Many families did not have death certificates. And, those families who had one will not benefit because the certificate does not certify the cause of death as being suicide or unnatural.

Computerised death certificates are a rarity; majority are hand-written. According to the Registration of Births and Death Act, 1969, a death certificate must mandatorily have the date, time and cause of death. Most of the certificates THE WEEK examined had just the date.

“No one goes to the police fearing harassment. The local health worker can issue death certificates with the village sarpanch initiating the process,” said Karanjit Singh, sarpanch of Kishangarh village. Kishangarh in Mansa district has among the highest farmer suicide rates in the state; 72 deaths in the past four years.

To compound issues, in the villages, after a farmer dies, his estate is not settled legally. This allows money lenders to step in and attach property towards outstanding loans. In many cases, the property would not be sufficient to cover the debts, leading to harassment of the widow and children.

The Baba Nanak Educational Society (BNES) surveyed four blocks in the fertile Malwa region¯three blocks in Sangrur district and one in Mansa district. The survey reported 2,096 suicides in these blocks, between 2010 and April 2014. In the society’s college¯J.S. Jaijee Degree College, Gurney Kalan¯children of suicide victims are taught free of cost.

“We sought affidavits from village panchayats affirming these suicides. There is no other way to confirm them otherwise,” said Inderjit Singh Jaijee, a BNES trustee and, convenor, Movement Against State Repression (MASR). Studies in Malwa indicate that propensity for suicides is highest among farmhands and owners of small- and medium-sized farms.

Commercial and social pressures, too, contribute to a farmer’s debt. Pressure from commission agents is considerable, say experts. Social pressures include raising dowry for daughters. “Here, dowry is paid according to your land holding. The going rate is Rs1.5 lakh for an acre you hold,” said Yashpal Singh, farmer from Kalachar village, Sangrur district. He attempted suicide twice after his daughter’s marriage.

On July 18, at Mari village in Sangrur district, a middle-aged Bhoora Singh jumped in front of a train at dawn. His wife, Sarbajeet Kaur, said the farmhand had borrowed Rs2.5 lakh for his daughter’s marriage in 2012. In the week after his death, women from Mari, including widows of suicide victims, disrupted rail traffic by blocking the tracks.

Poor and irregular availability of power and water are the other stressors. With the water table falling below 500ft, there is the additional cost of boring deeper and extending the pipeline. “A new borewell costs Rs2.5 lakh and they fall in need of frequent repairs,” said Harpal Singh, farmer from Balran village, where 91 farmers have committed suicide in the past four years. Because of power cuts, farmers run diesel generators for six to eight hours every day to power the pumps.

A fitful monsoon over Punjab has aggravated the water shortage. Faced with a near-drought situation, the state has sought Central assistance. Loss of the paddy crop has been reported from many districts and farmers have been borrowing heavily to replant fields.

The corpse canal
The crowds in Khanauri come from Mansa, Patiala and Sangrur¯the districts through which the canal passes. Three kilometres downstream from the sluice gate is Haryana.

The Khanauri police station, which is only about 800m away from the sluice gate, used to be a quiet place. Not anymore. It now has a register that records the number and details of bodies that wash up at the sluice gate. Most of the bodies that wash up here are those of males aged between 20 and 50 years. The first survey showed that 34.3 per cent of the victims chose canals.

“Around 35 to 40 bodies are caught every month at the gate. A dozen are identified on basis of clothes, possessions and identification marks,” said Kulwant Singh, the havildar on duty.

On the cliff that overlooks the canal is a temple, its walls covered with posters of missing people. A guest house for families of victims was built jointly by the state government and the Sahara Charitable Trust. Food for the grieving families comes from the gurdwara, and merchants from the grain market contribute towards the upkeep of additional rooms for families. The former MP, Vijay Inder Singla of the Congress, had funded two ambulances, which are now being used as hearses. The current MP is comedian Bhagwant Mann of the Aam Aadmi Party.

At Khanauri, divers retrieve the bodies for a fee. “Divers charge according to the position of the deceased in the family. They demanded Rs22,000 to bring up my nephew’s [Sukhwinder, 22] body,” said Maggar Singh from Jagsiri village in Fatehgarh Sahib district.

Vijay Kumar from Lagroi village in Patiala had been in Khanauri for almost a week, looking for his son Lalit Kumar, 23. “We will stay here till we find the body,” he said.

Khanauri residents list the things that would make the ordeal easier for victims’ families¯a morgue, underwater lighting at the sluice gate and government divers. “We are trying everything to help out in these suicide cases,” said Arshdeep Singh Thind, deputy commissioner, Sangrur. “Some of the requests are pending and we are exploring the options of having them done with state or private assistance.”

Jaijee said: “Imagine, if this is the case of one canal in Punjab, what would be happening at other canals? The tendency here is to overlook or devise techniques to allow the bodies to tip over the sluice gates. [On the Haryana side] bodies are dragged around by dogs. Fields there are littered with skeletons of victims as the Haryana Police claims no responsibility over them.”

Dying for honour
Jasbir Singh, farmer and BKU worker from Sangrur, said farmers commit suicide fearing dishonour. “One thing a Punjabi farmer values more than his land is his izzat [honour],” he said. “When that is hurt, they think very little about the family members they leave behind. What they do not understand is that there is no izzat for a farmer in life or for his family even after he is gone.”

Jasbir and other workers of the BKU now counsel farmers who are probable candidates for suicide. Many senior, district-level leaders of the BKU are in jail now, for leading agitations seeking hike in compensation for families of suicide victims.

In Lelkala village, Mansa district, only three widows and two children are left in a family. The patriarch, Sarjit Singh, 60, consumed insecticide and died in 2012. In 2010, he had borrowed Rs6 lakh from commission agents to maintain his four-acre farm. By 2012, the amount had ballooned to Rs8.5 lakh. Dishonoured, he committed suicide.

The dues fell on his eldest son Sukhjinder, 29. He hung himself on a tree in the family’s fields, four months after Sarjit’s death. This June 28, the second son, Nirmal, 30, too, hung himself from a tree. Sarjit’s widow Karnail Kaur choked as she said: “Half our land was sold after [Sarjit] died. The rest is with the moneylender. We do not have enough money to pay even the interest.”

Now, the family is reduced to Karnail; Sukhjinder’s widow Paranjit Kaur and their son Jasprit, 10; and Nirmal’s widow Jasbir Kaur and their son Khushprit, 7. The boys’ education is supported by relatives. “Jasbir has one meal a day and supports us by sewing clothes for neighbours,” said Karnail.

Wasted harvest
The state failing to procure grain is another hurdle faced by farmers. Last year, Punjab did not meet its procurement target of paddy¯12 million tonnes. As the state fails to buy grain, stocks are rotting in farmyards. It is common to see sacks of grain stacked under a tarpaulin. Come monsoon and the sacks rot, spilling the grain and wasting the harvest. Now, markets in Punjab are seeing the arrival of early kharif paddy; opening prices are at par with minimum support prices.

The situation of farmers will improve, promised Suresh Kumar, financial commissioner (development), the highest ranking bureaucrat in the state agriculture ministry. “From what I understand, the trend of suicide among farmers should be declining in the upcoming survey results,” he said. “We have taken a number of measures to reduce non-institutional borrowing, we have increased subsidy on power and support prices have been doubled in the past seven years.

“The state usually pays farm electricity subsidy of Rs1,500 crore and, this year, this figure was close to Rs2,000 crore. We decided to pay an extra Rs600 core to save [paddy worth] Rs30,000 crore. This expenditure will be borne by us, and the benefits will go to the Central government.” The Akali Dal, which rules Punjab, is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which holds Delhi. Kumar said the state was also training farmers in dairy farming and apiary to improve their income.

Villages for sale
It has been two months after the monsoon showers reached south Punjab, but Fazilka, the new district carved out from Ferozepur, is dry. Eleven villages in the district have put themselves up for sale. The paddy and cotton crops are almost dead. Here, the water table is at 200ft, but the water is laced with chemical salts. Good water lies at 600ft.

Fazilka lies close to the India-Pakistan border, about 30km from the bustling town of Moga. Villagers here have invited bids from industrialists to buy the villages as is. Residents of Khanpur, Shatirvala, Bandiwala, Sidhana, Sawana, Tillanwali and Kerwala have put out banners inviting bids. Price? Settle the debts of residents. Over the past few months, many residents have fled to the cities.

“Ever since the canal water was diverted for political reasons, our fields have been drying up,” said Gurpreet Singh, sarpanch, Shatirvala. “Two years back, the price here used to be Rs20 lakh per acre. Now, no one wants to pay even Rs10 lakh for these dry fields.”

Farmer Maluk Singh said, “Those who can afford [to run 600ft-deep borewells] still have green fields. We do not want to die here. It is better to sell everything and look for a new life in the cities of Rajasthan or Haryana.” Maluk has a loan of Rs18 lakh against his eight acres.

Gurpreet said that despite their protests, the district irrigation department, supported by the police, partially blocked the canal to the area and diverted water.

Ferozepur Deputy Commissioner D.P.S. Kharbanda told THE WEEK that the villagers’ agitation was a “non-serious matter”. “We have provided reverse osmosis water-purifying stations at some of these places and even piped drinking water is being provided at Rs20 per litre,” he said. As Fazilka is yet to get its own commissioner, Ferozepur bureaucrats manage the new district, too.

Hope for Punjab’s farmers and the grieving families now lies in the strong stand taken by the High Court of Punjab and Haryana. The court has asked the state to set up a commission to probe the reasons for suicide of farmers and to suggest steps for prevention. The commission should also frame a policy on disbursement of compensation, the court said.

Debt blow
* Farmers flock to non-institutional money lenders, such as the arthiyas (commission agents), whose interest rates (about 30 per cent) are much higher than banks (about 4 per cent). These lenders are unforgiving and demand full repayment even if the crop fails.

Often termed as “loans for social reasons” in government surveys, borrowing to pay dowry is a prominent reason for high debt among farmers. Depending on the amount of land a farmer in rural Punjab has, he has to pay a dowry of Rs1.5 lakh to Rs3 lakh per acre.

* P rices of all farm inputs, including seeds and fertilisers, have gone up by 40 to 100 per cent throughout the country. But, only a small subsidy for pesticides is borne by the state government.

* The lowering water table compels farmers to extend borewells and the recurring expenditure drives them to debt.

The way out
* Increase the minimum support prices for crops.

* Increase purchase of crops like maize, sugarcane and pulses, or allow private buyers.

* Reduce non-institutional borrowing by farmers with assistance from the Centre.

* Introduce cooperative farming.

Sorry state
According to a recent survey conducted by the Punjab government, Sangrur, Mansa and Bathinda accounted for 1,757 farmer suicides between 2000 and 2008. A second survey reported 6,000 suicides between 2000 to 2010 in Sangrur, Bathinda, Mansa, Moga, Ludhiana and Barnala. A third survey, which includes the above-mentioned districts as well as Faridkot, Muktsar, Patiala, Hoshiarpur, Fatehgarh Sahib, Rupnagar, Ferozepur, Nawanshahr, Mohali, Kapurthala, Tarn Taran, Amritsar and Jalandhar, is underway for the period starting from 2011 to April 2014.

The combined data from the three surveys reports 7,000 suicides, of which 5,000 were debt-related.

The first survey analysed suicide data from three districts up to 2008 and found shocking facts: estimated debt burden on farmers was about Rs9,886 crore in 2008, and almost 58 per cent came from high-interest, non-institutional lenders. Understandably, 79 per cent of the victims were small farmers.

Today, even farmers with holdings under five acres claim to have debts of
Rs5 lakh to Rs8 lakh.

A package of Rs2 lakh per family was announced for the victims’ kin in 2001, but was disbursed only in 2010. Despite the decade-long delay, the amount was not hiked. And, only around 4,000 families have benefited. Many were left out because they could not produce official confirmation of the suicides. A pension of Rs200 was announced for widows of farmers who have committed suicides, but few have started receiving it.

DEATH WISH

Poisoning
The burgeoning costs of farm inputs often push farmers over the edge. Pesticides now cost 30 per cent higher and, at Rs3,500 a litre, are often consumed by farmers, rather than pests.

Drowning
Drowning is the second-most common mode of suicide (after poisoning) even in urban areas such as Patiala.

Hanging
Most cases of farmers hanging themselves usually take place at dawn or dusk.

Trains
Some farmers jump in front of speeding trains to put an end to their misery. These trains, ironically, often carry their grains through the villages of Punjab.

~ Source: http://week.manoramaonline.com/

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