Farmer suicides continue…

Posted by Reema | Thursday, January 24, 2008

A couple of years ago, in the farmer suicide capital of Punjab (Sangrur-Mansa belt), the first People’s Tribunal on farmers’ suicides took place, organized by the Human Rights Law Network and the Voluntary Health Association of Punjab. Word got out about the tribunal by word of mouth and women traveled to Lehragaga, Sangrur by bus and foot to have their stories heard and recorded.

As people from 10 villages spoke of how their families had witnessed double, even triple, suicides in a year, everyone knew of the havoc debt and unsustainable agricultural practice had wreaked on farmers in the state.

So they spoke fearlessly, revealing shocking details. National Samples Organisation data shows “whereas the average annual loan taken by farmers in India is Rs 13,000, the corresponding figure for Punjab is Rs 40,000.” It also shows that around 40 per cent Indian farmers want to quit farming due to the cost it involves.

Why are farmers in such debt? Agriculture is no longer the profitable livelihood it once was, yet many do not have the skills or education to turn to other forms of livelihood.

For a country, which has 600 million farmers and another 200 million agricultural workers, the cost of faulty economic liberalization has just begun to show. Withdrawing the State support to agriculture and farming, and increasingly leaving farmers at the mercy of the monsoon and the markets, the national policies were in reality being drawn to shift the national resources for the benefit of only the business and industrial houses. Successive governments, since the noted economist Dr Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister made the blunder of buttressing industry at the cost of farming in 1991, have only exacerbated the crisis by moving the scarce resources to bolster the industry. While agriculture continued to be neglected, industry continued to receive tax-holidays, cheaper credit, highly subsidized land, and excise duty relief.

Farmers often have nowhere to turn for small (or large) loans for things such as tractors, other farming expenses or living expenses (including cost of daughters’ weddings and dowries). They’re forced to turn to loan sharks who charge exorbitant interest rates for loans.

Voices of dissent against commission agents (who charge 36 per cent annual rate of interest on loans) and the police were louder than before, with Buta Singh from Harkrishanpura (Bathinda) demanding action against Commercial Bank and the commission agent who forced his brother to repay debt of Rs 3 lakh. His brother hanged himself.

(Not) Surprisingly, the government’s claim of estimated suicides is FAR below what local and non-governmental organizations estimate.

The government claims there have been 2,116 suicide cases between 1998 and 2005, but activists say this is gross under-reporting.

Inderjit Jaijee of the Movement Against State Repression says: “Andana and Lehra blocks of Moonak subdivision in Sangrur alone have reported 1,360 farmers’ suicides between 1998 and 2005. If all of Punjab’s 138 blocks show roughly the same level of suicides, the number would exceed 40,000 for the given period.”

I’m using this old article because it was the last major move regarding farmers’ suicides I’d heard about. After recording of 60 heart-rending testimonies of farmers’ suicide by legal experts, the stage was set for filing of the first PIL in the Supreme Court.

Colin Gonsalves, SC lawyer and Director, HRLN, said: “We will file a special leave petition and demand action against the Government of Punjab. The stories reflect trauma and hopelessness and these need to be highlighted lest the deadly spate should continue.”

The PIL will seek total moratorium of outstanding debt of farmers’ families, stay on transfer of farm lands to commission agents, prosecution of commission agents who have, in 90 per cent cases, abetted suicides by forcing victims into repayment of loans when they had no money and rehabilitation of widows and children.

Does anyone have more recent or follow up information about this case, legislation or moves against the loan sharks being considered? I’ve heard of groups of farmers protesting, but am curious about whether any political ground has been gained. In a functioning, efficient political system, it shouldn’t take so long to pass a law capping interest rates on loans to farmers.

I’ve heard from a friend who was recently in India that there are small non-governmental organizations supporting some of the families whose husbands, fathers, or sons have committed suicide. But these organizations only have funds to support a small percentage of families who need it. For many families, the man who committed suicide was the main breadwinner for the remaining family members. Elderly grandparents are left with their widowed daughter-in-laws to provide for young children.