Sunday, October 2, 2022

Amid unabated Punjab farm suicides, 4 girls of a family brace for a grim future

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On May 10, Mewa Singh’s family, including his wife and four daughters, carried out their usual evening routine before turning in on the verandah of their two-room house in Kotlikalan village in Punjab’s Mansa district.

Mewa, a 47-year-old Dalit landless farmer, had been looking depressed for the past few days, but his family had got used to it over the years. Two days back, he had gathered the scraps strewn around the dingy cowshed, including iron grilles and an old plough, and sold them all for Rs 28,000, which he gave to some of his lenders.

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When Rajvir Kaur, 17, woke up early morning, she did not find her father on his cot. She had to take a bus to Patiala to get her higher secondary certificate from Punjabi University. As she was leaving the house, she saw her father hanging from the ceiling. Mewa had joined the statistics of farm suicides in Punjab.

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The Mansa deputy commissioner, Jaspreet Singh, said he had received 12 compensation applications from farm suicide families in the district since March 1 this year.

Punjab’s largest farm union, Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), pegged the number of suicides of farmers and farm labourers in the state at 55 since April 1.

The Indian Express visited the homes of a few suicide victims and found behind their deaths a mix of common factors such as runaway debt, especially from the informal sector, successive crop failures, high land rentals and rising farm input costs.

The Bhagwant Mann-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, which took the reins two-and-a-half months ago, has promised to tackle farmers’ distress through a variety of measures – including the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for moong daal, which is aimed at encouraging them to reap another harvest between wheat and paddy.

Mewa’s widow Manpreet Kaur, a MGNREGA worker, says the situation leading to her husband’s death by suicide had been building up for a long time. “My husband used to take 7-8 acres of land on an annual lease to do farming to support our family. Over the years, he had amassed a debt of about Rs 7 lakh, taken from landlords, ahrtiyas (farm commission agents), and had no way to pay it back.’’

The local Malwa region is known for high land rentals. “Our land is very fertile, and of late the land rentals have gone up to Rs 70,000 an acre,’’ says BKU (Ugrahan) senior vice president Shingara Singh Mann.

Kotlikalan sarpanch Balkaran Singh says, “The costs of farm inputs like diesel, DAP and pesticides have also gone up. While diesel price increased by more than Rs 30 a litre in two years, the cost of pesticides and DAP went up by 12%-20% in the last two years. This puts a farmer in a bind. One crop failure, and he falls in the debt trap.’’

In Mewa’s case, it was two successive crop failures, one of cotton ravaged by bollworm and then wheat, which was hit by premature heat.

A Kotlikalan resident, Malkiat Singh, says Mewa had borrowed about Rs 2.10 lakh from a big farmer and another Rs 2.69 lakh from his landlord. “He also had to pay the harvester and thresher rents. Two days before he died, he sold off his scraps to pay a few people.”

Sitting in a room of her small, unfinished house, Rajvir says, “I will never forget that sight,” referring to the moment when she saw her father hanging from the ceiling. Her mother and sisters burst into tears.

Mewa was a non-literate and Manpreet is a class 4 dropout, but they made efforts for their daughters’ education — Harmandeep, 19, is in BCA final year; Rajvir is in BSc first year, Pinki is in class 10, and Shagun, 7, is in class 3.

“We want to study further but there is no earning hand left in our house now,” says Rajvir. Harmandeep wonders if she can earn while undergoing training for a job, saying “I have heard that some coding training is being given in Sangrur, where girls are getting a stipend of Rs 5,000 per month”.

Mansa Sadar police station SHO Beant Kaur says, “We are aware of Mewa’s suicide, we conducted an inquiry under Section 174 of CrPC, the matter of compensation lies with the administration.’’

The deputy commissioner says the administration would process the compensation for Mewa’s family soon.

The Punjab government has a policy of giving relief to suicide victims, which was last amended in July 2015, under which the families of farmers and farm labourers who take their own lives are given Rs 3 lakh as compensation. In addition, the agriculture department is supposed to work with affected families for a year and help in raising their income.

Most farm unions also demand jobs for such family members on compassionate grounds and few have also been given jobs, although there is no mention of jobs in the policy.

As per the data of the Punjab agriculture department, the total number of farmers in the state are 10.93 lakh, of which about 1.54 lakh have land-holding up to 2.5 acres while 2.07 lakh have land- holding between 2.5 and 5 acres.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Dr Sukhpal Singh, principal economist (agriculture marketing), Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), said, “Punjab government had got a survey done which was conducted by Punjabi University, Patiala, PAU, Ludhiana, and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar. According to that data, there were a total of 16,606 farmer and farm labourers’ suicides during 2000-2018. After that no survey was conducted by the Punjab government, but according to the field reports of agriculture officers, around 900-1,000 farmers and farm labourers commit suicide per year even now, it hasn’t declined.”

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