With the growing concern for farmers’ suicides, an article “Farmer Suicides: Let’s Stop Blame Game” has been written by Dr Baldev Singh Dhillon, Vice Chancellor, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) and Dr Sukhpal Singh, Head, Department of Economics and Sociology. ( Mobile no. 98760-63523). The article carries some important facts. You are requested to carry this article in your esteemed newspaper. I shall be highly thankful to you.
Farmer Suicides: Let’s Stop Blame Game
Sukhpal Singh and Baldev Singh Dhillon
Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana
As if out of nowhere, an old farmer approached the stage of Kisan Mela at Faridkot and requested with folded hands to not only explain new and improved technologies but also to discuss and educate farmers on the issue of suicides, which he felt was a stigma on the farming community. The seriousness and sincerity of the farmer's plea elicited a good response from the speakers and has also prompted us to address the issue in this article for sake of a larger audience.
Almost every day, we are witnessing farmer suicides, an extremely painful act. No doubt, farmers are reeling under economic hardship and media is duty bound to bring it to the notice of all concerned. As a result, an impression is growing in the society that there is an unprecedented upsurge in farmer suicides in the state. This is not supported by the facts. Every day, some figures are being quoted in the media about suicides. A Punjabi newspaper dated 22.10.2017 has quoted the maximum figure of 284 suicides during past 7 months. If we extrapolate this figure, the number of suicides apprehended in a year, assuming the same number of suicides per day as at present, comes out to be 487.
Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana and Punjabi University, Patiala was given the task of undertaking a survey on farmer suicides since 2000 in 13 districts of the state. In these census based reports submitted to the Government of Punjab, the number of farmer suicides was higher than 500 during 2000-2015, except the year 2006 when suicide figure was 487. Even during the years 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2015, the farmer suicide toll was more than 600. If we pool the data on suicides collected by Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar in remaining nine districts (the report is yet to be submitted), apparently the number of farmer suicides in Punjab per year during 2000-2015 will further increase. So, we can safely infer that, there is no upsurge in this painful event in the present regime. Further, the general belief that all suicides are due to indebtedness is also not wholly true. The PAU study revealed that three-fourth of the suicides by farmers were related with indebtedness, while remaining one-fourth cases were due to socio-psychological reasons. We, therefore, appeal that instead of building hype and blaming each other, let us focus our energy on working out ways and means for preventing the painful act of ending precious life.
Punjab agriculture has undoubtedly witnessed an unprecedented growth. The productivity of wheat increased from 1244 to 5046 kg and that of paddy from 1553 to 6193 kg per hectare in 1960-61 to 2016-17. The production (productivity x area) of wheat increased by more than 10 times (1.74 to 17.6 million tons) and that of paddy by about 56 times (0.35 to 18.9 million tons) during the same period. The state is the largest contributor to the central pool of food grains (wheat and rice). But ironically, Punjabi farmer, who is responsible for this record agricultural production, which is globally recognised as one of the benchmarks, is resorting to ending his own life.
India is agro-ecologically very diverse. The national agricultural policies, which are formulated generally keeping in view the whole country and all sections of society, have not been playing just role in farm sector in general at the national level and particularly for Punjab, Haryana and other high productivity regions. The terms of trade are unfavourable to agriculture due to mismatch between prices paid and received by the farmers. Therefore, farm profitability has been declining over time.
The golden period for Punjab’s agriculture was 1980s when the growth rate of GDP from agriculture was as high as 5.27 per cent and thereafter, the agricultural growth kept on sliding. The growth rate of GDP from agriculture was 2.3 per cent during 2002-07 which dropped to 1.9 per cent during 2007-12 and further to 1.6 per cent during 2012-17 in the state. This was also accompanied by higher growth of other sectors of economy. Minimum Support Price (MSP) for food grains, which was remunerative in earlier phase of green revolution due to national food security needs, also increased at a lower rate than increase in input prices in view of the interest of other sections of the society and national economy. Meanwhile road network and outreach of media expanded, and the latter also became very proactive. As a result, not only farmers became aware of progress by non-farming sector but their aspirations also got enhanced. This all fuelled frustrations.
Largely due to income of farm worker being lower than non-farm workers, declining farm profitability, non-viability of marginal and small farms and to smaller extent due to improvement in overall economy (as it has happened in all developed nations), the process of depeasantisation set in. Although, the farm sector provided employment to 35.6 per cent of the total work force (Census 2011) but still about 50 - 55 per cent of the population in the state depends on this sector for their livelihood. Marginal and small farmers were most seriously hit. For example, the number of such cultivators, declined from 5 lakh in 1991 to 3.60 lakh in 2011 in the state. Although Punjab Government is expected to provide during 2017-18, power subsidy of Rs 5977 crore to the farm sector, the marginal and small farmers merely get 7 per cent, compared to their proportion of 34 per cent in the total land holdings. These farmers have similar low reach for fertilizer subsidy (Rs 5200 crore) and canal irrigation subsidy (Rs 1000 crore). This is so because farm subsidies are directly related with farm size.
Farm profitability not only declined but sometimes became even negative particularly in case of marginal, small and lessee farmers (due to high land rents). Weather variability and unpredictability added fuel to fire, further worsening their position. Along with these issues, the Government policy made the availability of credit easier to the farmer which attracted them to avail credit to meet not only the farm expenses, but also for domestic needs. The farmers are availing loans for, health and higher education of their children. But in spite of having attained higher education, many a times youth do not get employment or is underemployed or even unemployable. Moreover, the working of public educational and health institutions pushes the people toward expensive private services. This resulted in a rise in debt carrying high rate of interest. The debt servicing capacity of marginal and small farmers is very low which undoubtedly led to desperation and suicides in many cases.
The Way Forward
We need to adopt multi-pronged strategies to address the issue of indebtedness and farmer suicides:
Agriculture markets are imperfect and therefore, needs to be rescued from the market forces of demand and supply by regulating the prices of farm inputs and outputs. An efficient and effective procurement of farm produce, though very difficult for all commodities, should be ensured and there should be a commensurate increase in MSP of all the crops in line with input price index and income in other sectors of economy. It is generally believed that high MSP and assured procurement is a panacea for all the ills of agriculture sector. It is not so for marginal and small farmers, who may have very small or meagre marketable surplus of farm produce. Thus, policies need to be framed that these farmers get seed, fertilizers, agro-chemicals, farm machinery, etc. at higher subsidized rates. This should be accompanied by strict checks on the quality and prices of farm inputs. Further, input subsidies must also be rationalised to focus on conservation of natural resources and awareness needs to be created on need-based use of inputs so as to reduce cost of cultivation and minimize adverse effects of their excessive use. Another important point, the land rent should not be allowed to exceed one-third of the value of farm produce as per 'Punjab Security of Land Tenure Act 1953.'
Identifying and development of crop niches in relevant agro-climatic zones, shift in crop patterns in favour of high value labour intensive crops, and to encourage their value addition can help raise farm income. This will lead to setting up of allied micro and small scale industries including primary agro-processing and commodity supply chains. Skill development and appreciation of skills by the industry can go a long way in achieving the desired objectives.
A time has come to vigorously promote allied professions like livestock and poultry farming, bee-keeping, mushroom cultivation, etc. This may be accompanied by making MGNREGS more effective. Each household should be provided the assured 100 days annual employment contrary to existing per household 30 days annually, and the output should be strictly monitored. Further, the consideration of stipulated work activities on marginal and small farms, as per provision under MGNREGS, should be effectively implemented.
Farm mechanisation is also a factor causing indebtedness. Many small farmers avail loans and subsidy to purchase machinery because it is considered a status symbol. For example, around one-fourth of the marginal and small farmers of the state own tractors, which makes their farming non-viable. The fixed costs of farm machinery are very high. Therefore, Agro Machinery Service Centre (AMSC) on cooperative basis needs to be set up in every village in which marginal and small farmers must get priority for custom hiring of the machinery. At present the state has 1560 AMSCs but 12581 villages. The studies conducted by PAU have shown a saving of about 35 per cent when machinery is used on custom hiring from AMSCs as compared with self-owned machinery.
Credit planning is a weak link and needs to be strengthened. The peasantry is falling prey to avail excessive crop loan and unproductive domestic loans even from the sources charging exorbitant interest. Credit supply should be rationalised in relation to demand and economic viability. More importantly, loans must be judiciously and productively used. To meet the challenge of loans advanced by non-institutional sources, which are around one-fourth of the total loan amount, the ‘Scheme for Debt Swapping of Borrowers’ should be made more effective for converting the non-institutional debt into institutional debt.
Public health and education sectors need to be strengthened so that they can provide effective and efficient services to the needy and poor peasants.
One-fourth of the farm suicides in the state were the outcome of sociological and psychological reasons like, social celebration, drug addiction, family discord, health ailments, mental health disorders, and litigation. The society needs to be sensitized on these issues.
Evidently, there are economic, social and cultural issues. Besides improving economic aspect, we need mass campaign to create awareness. It should be always remembered that human life is invaluable. Even a single case of suicide by any individual is a blot on the face of civil society. Let’s not enter into blame game and strive jointly to devise policies and programmes for the survival of the Ánn Daata (farmer).
Farmers suicide in 13 districts of Punjab
Punjabi Uni. Study
These data are on the basis of household census and has extremely high level of accuracy and precision