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Meaningful? Punjab govt's debt waiver offer for agricultural workers, landless farmers

By Dr Gian Singh*  
On July 14, 2021, the Punjab government announced that it would hold a state level function on August 20 to waive the debt of agricultural labourers and landless farmers(pure tenants) of Punjab to the tune of Rs 590 crore. Prior to the 2017 elections, the Congress party had promised in its election manifesto and public speeches that the Punjab government would waive all the institutional and non-institutional debt of farmers and agricultural labourers of Punjab.
According to official data, the Punjab government has waived only around Rs 4,624 crore. Promises made to the agricultural labourers have not been fulfilled even partially. Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh said that Punjab government would waive debt of Rs 590 crore of 2,85,325 members of Primary Cooperative Societies which would provide relief of Rs 20,000 per member.
In 2017’s election Congress party made promises about a debt waiver for the farmers and agricultural labourers of Punjab. It’s worthwhile to judge how Punjab government’s actions fared on their promises. According to various estimates, At present, farmers of Punjab are under institutional and non-institutional debt of around Rs 1 lakh crore. Out of this debt, till date only around Rs 4,624 crore relief was actually delivered only to farmers and not even a single rupee made it to the agricultural labourers.
Rs 4,624 crore is a very meager amount in comparison to the promises made by the Congress party to waive off the entire debt, as of today their promises made in 2017 still remain unfulfilled. More heartbreaking is the fact that this partial debt waiver was announced by publicly issuing cheques (of large size) to the farmers leading to a publicized humiliation for their inability to repay loans.
This situation sounds like if a kid from a poor family was unable to pay the tuition fee for school and the school administration publicly announces to waive only 1/5th of the amount from the total fee, make the kid hold a signed cardboard stating “School Helped to pay fee”, a symbolic albatross around the kid's neck.
Given the farmers have suffered humiliation and pity at the hand of government, now these 2021 claims of waiving debt of agricultural labourers and landless farmers would not be desirable to repeat the humiliating exercise again by holding a partial debt waiver function.
The number of landless farmers in Punjab is steadily increasing because agriculture has become a loss-making proposition, switching from agriculture to non-agricultural sector in itself is tough and there is a lack of employment opportunities in non-agricultural sectors too. Marginal and small farmers are becoming landless by selling their small holdings to repay their debt and get rid of its burden on their heads.
Some of them even become labourers. But most of them do not work in the villages under the false pretense of socio-cultural milieu. They can be seen wandering in the labour squares of cities seeking employment on a daily basis. Some of these farmers are leasing in land on contract basis for cultivation and when their agriculture is affected by natural calamities, they eventually owe more debt.
And unfortunately, when all their hopes of life are dashed by the government and society, their mental strength becomes so weak they resort to committing suicide. Different surveys conducted in Punjab have revealed the fact that around 40 per cent of the suicides committed by farmers and agricultural labourers in the state are of agricultural labourers. More than 75 per cent of the suicides committed by farmers are of marginal and small farmers.
The lowest rung of the ladder of the agricultural economy, the one that grinds the most, the one that breaks the most and the one that is beaten the most is the landless agricultural labourers. Their socio-economic conditions are worse than all the other categories of agriculture. They are forced to face many unspeakable and unbearable problems.
A field survey was conducted under me to study and analyze the various aspects related to debt and levels of living of farmers and agricultural labourers of Punjab for the year 2014-15 covering one village each out of 27 development blocks in all the three agro-climatic zones of Punjab. This survey covered 1,007 farming households and 301 agricultural labourer households.
At that time the average annual per household income of agricultural labourers in Punjab was Rs 81,452. Since the agricultural labourers are landless, they have no means of production other than selling their labour, so their labour in the agricultural sector is their main source of income. Around 91 per cent of the total household income of agricultural labourers in Punjab came from agricultural wages.
The average per capita annual income of an agricultural labour household was Rs 16,735. The annual per household consumption expenditure of agricultural labourers was Rs 90,897 and most of it was spent on non-durable items.
Number of landless farmers in Punjab is steadily increasing because agriculture has become a loss-making proposition
The per capita annual consumption expenditure of these families was Rs 18,676. The agricultural households in Punjab were spending Rs 112 on consumer goods for an income of Rs 100. It is clear that the agricultural labourers try to maintain a minimum level of consumption just to survive, whether they can afford it or not, for which they have to borrow and day by day their debt burden becomes heavier.
The survey revealed that an average indebted agricultural labour household in Punjab was under a debt Rs 68,330. Of this debt, only 8.21 per cent came from institutional sources (primary co-operative societies 3.33 per cent, and commercial banks 4.88 per cent) and the remaining 91.79 per cent from non-institutional sources (large farmers 67.81 per cent, relatives and friends 11.69 per cent, traders and shopkeepers 9.41 per cent, and moneylenders 2.88 per cent). As much as their 52.11 per cent of total debt was at the interest rate of 22-28 per cent and their only 7.28 per cent debt was at the interest rate of 1-7 per cent.
When agricultural labourers get a loan not just to survive, if the loan is not repaid due to their meager income it becomes debt and a serious problem for them. This causes many other unspeakable and unbearable problems for this lower rung of the agriculture economy’s ladder.
A vast majority of agricultural labourers are from Dalit castes and most of them live in areas with poor facilities and even poorer conditions. Their living quarters are often called courtyards with streets so narrow that if a woman is in labour pains, a person has a heart attack or any other fatal attack or an accident, a vehicle can’t fit in the street.
Oftentimes they cannot afford to rent a vehicle because of their low income, but if someone out of the goodness of their heart wants to help them too, they can’t bring their vehicles because of the narrowness of the streets.
Agricultural labour households have one or two animals for their livelihood, which are often seen tied up in the streets or common areas outside their small houses. Women usually own the responsibility of daily care of these animals and rearing them. Women of the agricultural labourers go to the fields of the farmers to get hay for these animals, where they are often exposed to the incidents of abuse and rape.
Some of these families cannot even afford to buy livestock due to their low income. They take the calves on a shared basis from the relatively rich families for milking and the whole family works hard on them until they start milking. The relatively high income families who give calves on adhiara (shared basis) eventually take the milking animals to their homes by paying some amount to poor agricultural labourers, once the animals are gone, they and their children are left scant of milk.
A vast majority of agricultural labourers in Punjab belong to the Dalit castes. One-third of the Panchayati land in Punjab is reserved for them on contract basis. It is not uncommon that big farmers take Panchayati land on contract in the name of Dalits or increase the contract rate to such an extent that the needy agricultural labour households are barred from farming by leasing in Panchayati land on contract. In addition, these labourers are beset by other numerous problems and difficulties day and night.
The Punjab government's announcement of debt waiver for agricultural labourers and landless farmers would be meaningful only if all their debts are waived and their income is increased to such an extent that all the people belonging to these sections could respectively satisfy their basic needs of food, clothing, housing, education, healthcare, clean environment and social security.
If agricultural labourers and landless farmers want to start their own small business units other than wages / farming, they should have the facility to take interest free loans but in the meantime their income should be at least enough so that they can repay their loans on time. 
These loans shouldn't later become a debt due to the inability to pay them back. To improve the socio-economic conditions of these sections, all those working under MGNREGA should be ensured employment throughout the year or as per their requirement. MGNREGA’s wage rate should not be less than the minimum wage rate set by the government.
The main purpose of income from the lands of village Panchayats and religious institutions is the welfare of the weaker sections of the society. In Sikhism it is considered 'the mouth of the poor, the sphere(Golak) of the Guru'. Therefore, it is the duty of the government and the society to provide lands of Panchayats and religious institutions to these landless sections for cooperative farming absolutely free of rent.
Apart from these resolutions, in order to raise the living standards of all the workers, the corporate and capitalist economic development model should be replaced by the pro- people and nature- friendly development model.
---
*Former Professor, Department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala

Comments

Unknown said…
Atleast Govt is waiving some loans of farmwrs in Punjab. And one more thing it's not a joke to waive 1 lakh crore unpaid loan by either State or Centre because a Govt has to pay money in other things also and not just farmers debts.. however it is unfortunate that political parties claim and make promises to pay such huge loans despite knowing fact that practically they cannot pay everything off and bring all loans to zero because nobody has so much to spare. Further if you want to really pay off loan burden of your citizens then you should pay off loans of not just farmee and agri labourer but also small entrepreneurs like neighborhood grocery shops, pan shops, auto drivers, taxi drivers, Group D staff, unemployed youth and women members of lower middle class and poor families who often take loans to invest and earn something back but end up in loss and inability to pay the loan back. In India it is a myth that only farmer and agri labourer income is less or hardship is more...there are many other segments of the society who are also facing hardship and low means of earning in India and they too need to be supported by the Govt.

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