88% of more than 9,000 farmers in Punjab who died by suicide in 18 years were in debt: study

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Chandīgarh: As many as 9,291 farmers died by suicide between 2000 and 2018 in six districts of Punjab, according to a study by the Panjab Agriculture University (PAU) published in the latest edition of Economic and political weekly found.

The districts surveyed were Sangrur, Bathinda, Ludhiana, Mansa, Moga and Barnala.

The study found that heavy debts – mostly incurred against loans from non-institutional sources – were reported as the main determining factor in 88% of these cases.

Marginal farmers and small farmers were the main victims – 77% of farmers who died by suicide owned less than two hectares of land, according to the study.

The field survey also revealed that approximately 93% of affected households were those where a death by suicide had occurred. In 7% of families, there were at least two cases of suicide. 92% of total suicide deaths were male.

According to the study, the number of debt-related suicide cases was highest (515) in 2015. The cotton harvest failed that year.

Cotton is the main cash crop in Bathinda, Mansa and Barnala districts, and US cotton productivity was the lowest (197 kg per hectare) in 2015 over the past three decades.

The study conducted by Sukhpal Singh, Manjeet Kaur and HS Kingra, three senior faculty members of PAU Department of Economics and Sociology, consolidated the total number of deaths by covering all villages in these six districts through door-to-door surveys.

Of the districts surveyed, Sangrur, which is currently the main hub of the current Aam Aadmi Party government, is said to have recorded the highest number of suicide deaths – 2,506 – followed by Mansa (2,098) Bathinda (1,956), Barnala (1,126), Moga (880) and Ludhiana (725).

Reason for heavy indebtedness

Farmers in the region have historically gone into debt. In fact, as early as the early 1920s, British scholar Malcolm Lyall Darling observed, “The Punjabi peasant is born in debt, lives in debt, and dies in debt.”

To understand how a perennial debt problem seems to have fatal consequences, the study analyzed the evolution of the agrarian scene of the last century. Prior to the green revolution in the state, subsistence farming was prevalent. In it, agricultural inputs were produced by the farmer at home and agricultural output was for home consumption.

But after the mid-1960s, green revolution strategies launched commercial agriculture in which agricultural inputs and outputs became market-linked.

A farmer harvests wheat in a field in Punjab. Photo: Reuters

It was therefore necessary to borrow funds and these funds, lent at exorbitant interest rates, in particular by private organizations, pushed the farmers into the trap of indebtedness.

Moreover, the policies of neo-liberalism have reduced the profitability of farms through expensive agricultural inputs, stable real prices for crops and restricted agricultural subsidies.

Similarly, the privatization of social services (health, education and domestic services) has also weakened the family budget of peasant families.

This situation drove the capital-poor peasantry into an economic squeeze that added to their powerlessness.

75% of suicide cases among farmers under 35

About 75% of farmers who died by suicide were between the ages of 19 and 35, the study found. About 45% of those who died by suicide were illiterate and 6% had studied up to upper secondary level.

According to the study, families of suicide victims deeply feared their social insecurity. A third of these families lost their top earners to suicide and were left with no clear path to earning a living. About 28% of families suffered from depression, according to the study.

About 13% of families had to sell their land following the death, giving up their only means of subsistence. No less than 11% of children in families had to interrupt their studies.

The study found that families in which a member had committed suicide due to a burden of debt were also socially rejected.

Political intervention

According to the study, the compensation system for the families of the victims is tedious.

In March 2013, the state government had formulated a policy that compensation of Rs 3 lakh, along with other aid, should be given to the families of victims within a specified time after a death.

But, in many cases, these families were deprived of this compensation due to the lack of required documents, such as autopsy report, credit report, etc.

Extending compensation to all farming families with a member who has died by suicide is essential, as most of them are in severe economic distress, according to the study.

The study also points out that debt settlement – the very reason why farmers were driven to suicide – was often overlooked.

The study advises to give up institutional loans, which represent approximately 43% of the total loans taken out by victim families.

To settle loans advanced by non-institutional sources, a “borrowers’ debt swap program” should be set up to convert non-institutional debt into institutional debt, according to the study.

In addition, the study suggested that the interest rate on agricultural credit be reduced and that the functions and activities of non-institutional credit agencies be regulated and controlled.

Payment for farmers’ produce should be made directly to farmers, not commission agents, so that farmers are freed from the servitude of commission agents or moneylenders.

Third, there should be compensation for crop failure, the study notes. As for a long-term solution, farm profitability should be improved by mitigating production and marketing risks.

To this end, the supply of agricultural products must be efficient and effective. Moreover, cultivation costs should be reduced by providing agricultural inputs, such as seed fertilizers, agrochemicals and agricultural machinery at subsidized prices, according to the study.

A farmer walks through a paddy field in the village of Tanaurah in Punjab. Photo: Reuters/Ajay Verma

The next problem, according to the study, is related to the heavy agricultural mechanization which pushed the peasantry even further into debt. Many small farmers took out loans to buy tractors. This decision turned out to be economically unviable.

In Punjab, about a quarter of smallholder farmers in the state own tractors, which makes their operation unviable due to higher fixed costs and other reasons.

Therefore, agricultural machinery service centers should be set up in each village on a cooperative basis. In these countries, small farmers should be given priority for the rental of tailor-made machines.

The study also called for the strengthening of the public health and education sectors by providing effective and efficient free services to people in general and families in distress in particular.

All eyes on the new government

Ahead of the elections in Punjab, Aam Aadmi party leader Arvind Kejriwal had claimed that if his party were to form the government in Punjab, he would end suicide deaths among farmers.

Within two months of the AAP coming to power, two dozen farmers committed suicide.

The opposition, including Punjab Congress leader Amarinder Singh Raja Warring, criticized the Bhagwant Mann-led government for failing to deliver on its promise.

Punjab AAP spokesman Malvinder Singh Kang said The Thread that the Mann government is committed to taking adequate measures to make agriculture profitable in Punjab and to lift farmers out of debt cycles.

“The result will soon be visible in terms of political intervention and other measures,” he added.

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