In India’s grain bowl, farms face threat from MNREGS

By C.J. Kuncheria

CHANDIGARH, India (Reuters) – Sitting at the edge of fields in the heart of India’s grain bowl, Gurdayal Singh Malik shakes his head in resignation about the lack of workers needed for his 60-acre farm, blaming the government’s flagship welfare program, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS), for the shortage.

Ever since the start of the program, which guarantees 100 days of work a year for rural households, the flow of migrant labour to Punjab and Haryana has dropped to a trickle, forcing farmers such as Malik to hike farm wages massively — and still he cannot find enough workers.

“Labourers used to come every year to the large landholders, asking for work. Now they pick and choose and go about saying: Sardar (master), we don’t have time,” said the 58-year-old farmer in Kurukshetra in Haryana, 170 kilometers north of New Delhi.

“Four or five years ago, it used to cost 500-800 ($11-$18) rupees to plant an acre of paddy. Last year the labourers took a tenth of the paddy and 3,000-4,000 rupees.”

This rise in wage levels and farm costs in rural India is worrisome, with evidence it might be feeding into the high inflation that is the government’s biggest economic headache and prompting a hawkish stance at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

Food and headline inflation remain above 8 percent despite nine rate hikes since March 2010, the most in Asia, by the RBI. Few expect a quick decline.

That persistence points to the limitations of the central banks’ aggressive use of its anti-inflationary measures when confronted with structural problems such as labour shortages and supply-chain bottlenecks created by poor infrastructure.

“Much of inflation is coming from structural issues and the inability of the supply-side to respond to higher prices,” Laveesh Bhandari, director of Indicus Analytics, said.

“The government is not able to solve these issues, so we have to rely on the RBI to tighten policy … But everyone, including the RBI, knows this is not going to have an impact in the short term. It’ll essentially only slow down growth.”

In agriculture, labour shortages could reduce output over time. Farm labour shortages have been reported in places as far apart as Bihar and Tamil Nadu.

For years, labourers from the poor Bihar would travel to Haryana and Punjab, where a “Green Revolution” beginning in the 1960s boosted farm production and staved off widespread food shortages in the country of 1.2 billion people.

Now, as the MNREGS takes root in Bihar, the traditional seasonal migration has declined. Local labour is not adequate and itself is diverted towards MNREGS projects, accentuating the shortage on farms.

“If there aren’t Bihari workers, farmers will soon have to give up farming,” Malik said.

Rising wages is the latest woe to hit Haryana and Punjab, which produce one-fifth of India’s annual rice and wheat output of 170 million tonnes, but which have seen stagnant yields, declining soil fertility and a depletion in ground water levels.

The country consumes 76 million tonnes of wheat and 90 million tonnes of rice yearly, and any shortfall in production will force it to import grains, pushing up global prices.


Costing 1 percent of GDP, the MNREGS is the largest of India’s welfare schemes designed to protect the country’s 500 million poor who live on less than $1.25 a day. The program has been credited for returning the Congress-led coalition to power in 2009.

Critics say MNREGS is wasteful and riddled with corruption, and the infrastructure created is of shoddy quality.

A recent World Bank study on welfare programmes in India including MNREGS said they did not give the “bang for the rupee” warranted from such huge spending.

But mindful of its popularity, MNREGS has been backed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Her son Rahul Gandhi, seen as a prime minister in waiting, personally pushed for expanding it from 100 poor districts to all of the country.

Given the program’s support, the government has no plan to recast the system or take up a suggestion that it be suspended during the harvest season or that farm labour be included in the list of works.

Under the program, any villager can go to a nearby government office and enroll for building roads, digging wells or creating other rural infrastructure and be paid the minimum wage for 100 days a year.

That income has helped improve food intake and reduce child labour, especially at times when crops fail or prices shoot up. It has raised rural consumption, which has created new markets and shored up growth when investment has faltered.

But the run-up in farm costs from MNREGS puts pressure on the government to raise the minimum support prices (MSP), or procurement prices, for wheat and rice, lifting what is effectively a benchmark for food prices.

Since MNREGS began in 2004/05, the first year of the Congress-led coalition government, the minimum support prices for wheat and rice have risen 1.7 times. Haryana and Punjab also have seen the highest increases in the consumer price index for farm workers.

“That is going to lead to a cost plus food inflation. If costs are going up, I am supposed to be protecting the margins of the farmers,” Ashok Gulati, chairman of the farm ministry’s commission on prices and costs, said.

Estimating that labour costs to have gone up 60 percent in the past three years, Gulati said it was a challenge to keep up with the rising expenses.

“But if I don’t take these increasing costs into account, I’m not doing justice to the incentives of the farmers so the growth process is likely to slow down. So it’s a very difficult challenge.”

In Punjab, two weeks before transplanting of paddy starts, P.S. Rangi at the Punjab State Farmers Commission anticipates that labour shortages will persist.

“After expenses, there’s little for a migrant to take back home. So when he gets an opportunity there, why would be come here?” said Rangi, a former head of agricultural economics at the Punjab Agricultural University.

“But transplanting has to happen. There’s no other way, even if it means that school-boys who used to wear shiny clothes and watched from the sides have to shed them and get into the fields.”

(Additional reporting by Vikas Vasudeva; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Richard Borsuk)

Suicides among the Mazdoors

There is nearly one suicide a day on average by farmers or agricultural labourers in just two districts, Bathinda and Sangrur, where deaths due to indebtedness are common (Hindustan Times, 27 April 2009). But of this phenomenon, a large number is of agricultural labourers. But their suicides do not commonly make “news” despite the fact that agrarian suicides have always remained a topic of discussion. According to figures from the National Crime Records Bureau, there were at least 16,196 farmers’ suicides in India in 2008, bringing the total since 1997 to 1,99,132.4
Punjab too has its hefty share in this pool of suicides though it finds a rare mention in the national scenario. The establishment (both Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress governments) has always shied away from accepting this bitter truth. The sufferers have meanwhile been raising a hue and cry about debt-related suicides from the very beginning – sometimes demanding compensation for the families left behind on the basis of their independent surveys, sometimes producing the widows and orphans before the public at various forums. Soon after coming to power in 2007, the Akali-BJP government asked Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana to do a census survey on rural suicides, so that compensation can be given. But here too, showing a bias, the government refused to accept that there were any suicides by agricultural labourers in Punjab. The labourers were, at first, left out from this survey, but then the struggle of rural workers ensured that labourers were included in the survey on suicides. The results are astonishing and glaring.
So far, a study of the two worst-affected districts, Sangrur and Bathinda, has been completed. It reveals that a total of 2,890 farmers and agricultural labourers from just two districts killed themselves between 2000 and 2008. About 87% of those who lost their lives were either small farmers or agricultural labourers. A total of 1,757 farmers and 1,133 agricultural labourers committed suicide in Bathinda and Sangrur. The further break-up reveals that in Bathinda, 773 farmers and 483 labourers, and in Sangrur, 984 farmers and 650 labourers ended their lives. About 65% of the suicides were due to indebtedness. Agricultural labourers make up 39.2% of these total suicides.
The average annual income of the labourers who committed suicide due to debt was Rs 19,419. But the average debt owed is Rs 70,036. The average debt-income ratio is thus 3.6:1, when economists reckon that debt is double the annual income, it means the person is bankrupt. So far this particular study has just been conducted in two districts of Punjab (it is going on in the other districts). Economists fear that the results from Mansa will be even more shocking as labourers still face semi-feudal exploitation in certain pockets of Mansa. It is difficult to predict where the number of these suicides will halt after the completion of the survey in all the 20 districts.
Earlier, in 1998, a study by the Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh had already established that 45.2 percent of the suicides in rural Punjab were those of landless labourers. Take the case of Nata Singh, who tried to escape from the vicious cycle of debt, but somehow survived, perhaps to share his tale with the world. A decade back, Nata, an attached labourer of Hodla village (Sangrur), tried to get away with debt by consuming pesticide. “Unfortunately”, he survived. His miseries survived too and today, reeling under a debt of Rs 70,000 including Rs 45,000 borrowed for his treatment, he curses those who took him to the doctor. Such stories of survival and suicide abound all across the villages of Punjab’s cotton belt.
Widows, Children and Orphans
Suicides might offer an end to a distressed labourer’s woes, but for his surviving family, it is the beginning of another battle. That is why cold hearths and locked doors stare at you in labour colonies throughout the villages of Punjab’s cotton belt. These are houses deserted by widows and orphans of rural labourers who are no more. These hearths and doors tell the woeful tale of life after suicides of rural labourers, how one death changes the entire course of life for all the surviving generations.
Life for a labourer’s widow is much more difficult than for a farmer’s widow. A farmer’s widow generally stays back in the village because she has land to raise the kids on. A labourer’s widow, on the other hand, has no such asset but for her hands. Nobody lends them money as everybody knows she has limited resources to pay it back. Sometimes taunts by villagers make their life difficult in the village. It has been noticed in a number of cases that after suicide by a male member of the family, his widow too follows suit. From 2000 to 2008, over 50 women in Sangrur and Bathinda committed suicide owing to debt.
For the kids of labourers, the absence of a father means a childhood stolen. We met Jagseer of Kale Ke village in Barnala. Unable to pay debt, two years back, his father left home never to return. At the age of 12, Jagseer is an attached labourer while Jyoti, his eight-year-old sister, is a student of Class II. Their mother, who is suffering from mental retardation, cleans people’s cattle sheds. A small farmer, Roop Singh, with whom these kids are working, says he is doing a “noble deed” by raising the children. Jagseer’s daily chores involve getting the fodder and cleaning cattle sheds and Jyoti washes dishes and babysits the children of the farmer. However, nobody has a clue as to how much wages the trio gets. Neither of them holds a bank account nor do they get any wages in hand. Jagseer’s uncle, Major Singh lamented, “Being a BPL (below the poverty line) family, they are entitled to 35 kg of wheat per month at subsidised rates. It does not reach them. Where does it go?”
Changing Social Fabric
Mass Weddings
There come a few occasions in the lives of rural workers when they celebrate with their relatives and community. A wedding is the most prominent of them and marrying off a daughter is a matter of pride for a rural labourer in Punjab. But amid the entire picture of debt, exploitation and suicides, weddings of daughters have become a burden. It is easy to fi nd girls whose marriageable age is long past, simply because their parents could not afford to marry them. So this social crisis has given birth to a new kind of social service: organizing weddings of poor girls.
Such marriages, generally sponsored by the urban rich, are an indication of how a crisis changes social values in times of sheer helplessness. The agrarian crisis has forced a large section of agricultural labourers to accept this new social system. Clubs in small towns, charitable and religious organisations, moneylenders’ associations, non-resident Indians, non-governmental organisations and politicians are conducting such weddings.
No doubt, beyond the philanthropy or social service, mass weddings among agricultural labourers are a reflection of the agrarian crisis.
The truth is that poverty has forced a large section of people to accept this new social practice. It was Sinder Kaur, Kulwinder’s mother-in-law, who first got her daughter married in a mass wedding function two years back. So when Kulwinder’s father shared the idea of a mass wedding, she immediately agreed. “We know what poverty is. My daughter was also married in a similar way”, she says. Sinder Kaur is thankful to Keetu but at the same time expresses helplessness. “It was impossible for us to manage on our own. Otherwise, why would we not have done it on our own and celebrated the occasion with our brothers and sisters?”
New Generations,
New Survival Strategies
The crisis of the labour community is not just one generation’s suffering. Pushed out of agriculture, the quest for survival has turned the GenNext of dalit agricultural labourers into waiters, prostitutes and dancers. Once considered too lowly to pursue, today too this is not something a village is proud of, but then, a hard reality that offers no escape.
Take the case of Gurpreet Kaur. Divorced from her farm labourer husband, she is the daughter of a dalit, daily-wage worker from a Lambi village. She was barred from coming home for two years after her father came to know she was an orchestra dancer. Today, she is the sole hope of her elderly parents – their breadwinner. The village folk have been told she works with a cultural group where girls are fully clad. “I have been told not to perform around our village”, Gurpreet told us.
Till the late 1990s, these dancers were arranged from Delhi or Ludhiana or some girls from cities would work quietly. Over the past few years, Bathinda has emerged as a hub for orchestra girls. With the beginning of the wedding season, girls from nearby villages rent apartments in the Riot Victims’ Colony. Most of these girls, says Bathinda-based orchestra group owner Sanjeev, come from extremely poor, dalit families of nearby villages. They come to become singers but end up as dancers. The work goes on for five to seven years. Later, many enter prostitution.
Children of agricultural labourers have started working as waiters too, something done by urban poor in the past and regarded as extremely shameful in the countryside. Today girls are especially hired to serve liquor.
Amid this scenario of hopeless exploitation, debt and suicides, when instead of addressing the question of landownership under the Punjab Land Reform Act or the issue of common lands under the Punjab Villages Common Lands (Regulation) Act,7 the state government is trying to control the resistance through alms like the Shagun scheme8 or the Atta-Dal scheme. And when Punjab’s rural poor are looking towards Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) with great hope, at the same time along with newer strategies of survival, newer ways of resistance have also shown the way. And with them are arising new hopes

Farmers’ Indebtedness, Suicides in Punjab – Field Notes on Agricultural Labourers of Punjab

By Vishav Bharti

Like many other parts of the country, the phrase “farmer suicides” resonates in Punjab too. Though late, the term “agrarian crisis” had begun gaining ground in the State by the second half of 1990s with peasant struggles intensifying, and a hue and cry being raised by some politicians, besides newspaper reports, especially in the Punjabi press. However, in this debate, the politics and resistance of the crisis largely remained confined to the upper caste farmer community and the term “agrarian crisis” soon became synonymous with the crisis of farmers.
Of course, farm
ers were the
biggest sufferers of Punjab’s agrarian crisis. But they were not the sole sufferers. With reduced workdays, stagnant wages and deep in a debt trap, the lower caste, landless agricultural labourers of Punjab – 14.9 lakh1 – were also committing suicides along with the farmers in almost equal numbers on this landscape of so-called prosperity. But their plight was hardly explored by journalists, academicians and rural activists. In the last decade, however, a couple of remarkable studies did come up establishing the phenomenon of debt and suicides among agricultural labourers. Sadly, they never made it to the headlines.
But despite these studies, news items and opinion pieces, several questions loom large: Having lost their breadwinners to suicides and with no assets to repay their debts, how are the widows fending for their young kids and for themselves? Are the children attending school or are they too getting ready to enter the vicious cycle of debt? What are their living conditions? Debt-related suicides have also left many orphans, where both mother and father have been lost at a young age. What is their situation like? These questions pushed me to explore, understand and write about these wretched of the earth, whose crisis goes beyond the popular interpretation of the “agrarian crisis”.
As I set out to explore the condition of agricultural labourers in around 20 villages of four districts (Sangrur, Bathinda, Barnala, and Mansa) of the cotton belt in south Punjab in May-June last year, I noticed how hundreds of years of knowledge of seasons and understanding of soil, which the rural working class was proud of, had been rendered meaningless amid the crisis – how the economic crisis had led them to a social crisis; how new strategies of survival were being explored; how new ways of resistance were taking shape; how the spark was turning into a torchlight procession, how the landless had begun reclaiming their lost land.
An Overview
Punjab is amid an acute agrarian crisis. The crisis is such that according to the Annual Budget of Punjab for 2009-10, rural debt is estimated to be Rs 35,000 crore. This means that if the debt was borne equally, every person living in the countryside would have had a debt burden of Rs 21,745. The strings of the debt trap are long – economist Sucha Singh Gill (2005) traces it to when the greenery of the Green Revolution began fading. As he puts it,
The non-existence of formal and informal social support mechanisms caused many poor peasants and agricultural labourers to break under economic and social stress and to commit suicides. The phenomenon of suicides under economic distress has been observed in rural Punjab since the mid-1980s.
The green revolution’s technological leaps might have brought prosperity and fortune for some, but not for the agricultural labourers. It, in fact, added to the economic and political clout of the Jat landowning class in general, while further widening social inequalities. Things could have improved had land reforms been allowed (Puri 2003). Now those inequalities have reached such a level that total share of landless labourers in rural income has declined to 10.5 per cent of the rural economy. And, in contrast, the share of the rural rich in total rural income is 56 per cent. Moreover, he rural landless labourers have no control over the process of production. They survive only by selling their labour to the capitalist farmers. They have only 2 per cent of the productive assets – that too mainly things like sewing machines. On the other hand, the rural rich own the bulk of the productive assets (Singh 2008). Despite their immense contribution to the realizing of the Green Revolution, the phenomenon ultimately pitted them against the machine and the result is there in the shape of reduced days of work, stagnant wages and ultimately debt trap, despair and death.
The introduction of technology has seen a steady decline in the demand for human labour on Punjab farms, a process accelerated by the stagnation in overall agricultural growth, observes Sukhpal Singh (2009). Mechanisation has penetrated Punjab to such an extent that except for the northern belt of the state, one can not find bullock ploughs anywhere. According to the Department of Agriculture, in 2005 Punjab had 4.07 lakh tractors (over twice the required number), 3.48 lakh cultivators and 14,000 combines. Interestingly, there were 25,000 threshers in Punjab in 1980, which were used for the separation of grain from stalks after manual harvesting. The number increased to 3.05 lakh by 1995. But after that it saw a steep decline. Within just 10 years, the number had shrunk to 92,000 in 2005. This is also indicative of the fate of agricultural labourers during harvesting season as it was during this time that the combines started becoming popular and their numbers saw manifold rise between 1995 and 2005.
With shortened maturity period of wheat, harvesting takes place simultaneously and the advancement in harvesting technology and extensive use of herbicides have reduced the peak earning season of agricultural labourers to one week, which used to be a month till a decade back. About 67 per cent of agricultural labourers get 10-20 days of work in a month. That is why the average monthly wages of agricultural labourers are far less than their counterparts in non-agricultural activities.
The predicament of Chet Ram of Hodla village in Mansa is a typical example of the plight of agricultural labourers. The year 2010 brought a productive wheat harvest to his employer, but he finds himself out of sorts. The ‘advancement in harvesting technology’ has left him and many other agricultural labourers at the receiving end. Till a few years ago, working along with his siblings and parents, Chet Ram would gather as their wages wheat for the entire year’s consumption and straw for their cattle. Last year, however, the family had to buy wheat from the market, and straw too.
Pitted against machines, labourers on an average were given 1.6 quintals of wheat for an acre of harvesting, costing Rs 1,800 (it takes seven people to harvest an acre a day). Even the harvesting season lasted a meagre 10 days. “It was too short a period for us to collect sufficient wheat and straw”, Chet Ram told us. High mechanisation – quality straw reapers, which collect straw from wheat stalks left after combine-harvesting – has reduced the need for manual harvesting. The outcome is that a number of labourers of Chet Ram’s village could not even get work this harvesting season. For the lucky ones, it was not sufficient to earn enough wheat and straw. The price of wheat soared in the market.
Gurpreet Singh, a leader in his district, traces the root of the crisis to 2006 when prices of straw shot up to Rs 350 a quintal. ‘Straw became a commodity. Combine-harvesting alone wasted a lot of straw and thus, straw reapers came into the picture. Initial reapers failed to produce good quality straw, so farmers preferred manual harvesting and labourers were getting good work till then’, he said. But three years back, improved reapers came in. Their yield is as good as manual harvesting. Harvesting by machine costs much less than manual labour and the farmers’ choice was obvious.
Till some time back, along with wheat the labourers would also get three quintals of straw per acre, which would help them to feed their cattle. Now straw too fetches good money, so the farmer does not offer it to them. The cost of harvesting wheat by combines and straw by reapers is around Rs 1,500 per acre, if one were to go by prevailing market rates. So why will the farmer give 1.6 quintal wheat (costing Rs 1,800) and 3 quintal straw (costing Rs 1,100) to the labourer? The changed scenario has even forced many of the labour families to purchase straw from the market. As such, many helpless labourers are thinking of giving up the rearing of cattle. Chet Ram will now have to buy not just wheat or straw, but milk as well from the market.
In what could be another severe blow, the Punjab government has begun offering subsidy on paddy planters. With this, the task of paddy sowing is also ready to slip from the hands of labourers. In this battle of man versus machine, man, of course, is the loser and reducing peak earning seasons, reduced days of work have pushed him into debt.
Debt and Exploitation
So, here [in Punjab] though they [agricultural labourers] are not bonded as in a feudal system, they are not free either as in the capitalist system. They are semi-bonded; though they may be free to leave their employer (after paying off their debt), this means little, where employment itself is difficult, and becoming more so due to the use of modern technology and growing agrarian crisis.
The debt trap is so vicious that more than 70 per cent of agricultural labourers of Punjab are indebted (Punjabi University Patiala 2007: 93). Each case study reveals that the burden of debt – taken from landlords and shopkeepers at a high interest rate because arhtiyas offer loan only against some surety – on the labourers did not come to buy any luxuries as claimed in the case of farmers’ indebtedness. It mounted while eking out two square meals a day, arranging for basic clothing, medical treatment. After all, about 40 per cent of Punjab’s rural poor spend around 62 per cent of their total income on food. If we consider recreation, it becomes 76 per cent. The remaining 24 per cent is spent on clothing and fuel.
Since the labourers are unable to pay back the existing debt, most of them never get any new loans. The attached labourers are slogging it out to just pay back the interest. And when it comes to paying back the principal, the basic amount of the loan, at times, even the labour of generations is not enough. On how debt becomes a chain of slavery for generations meet Hamir Kaur of village Dhandolikalan of Sangrur. Today she does not want her sons to throw a feast after her death, a custom followed after the death of an elderly person. She fears they would come under debt for it. Hamir slogged for 30 years and her daughter-in-law for another eight to pay the interest on a loan of Rs 2,000. After 38 years of hard labour, she says, the village landlord “calculated” that she still owed him Rs 20,000! Hamir Kaur’s is too stark an example, but labour exploitation due to indebtedness is a reality across Punjab’s rural heartland. Hamir Kaur had to take care of 35 cattle for 30 years, that too without wages.
When she turned too old to work, the landlord gave her a calf and asked her to send her daughter-in-law instead to work on the same terms. When one day, in 2004, her sons asked the landowner for the account, they were told that the books had been lost. Following that, her daughter-in-law stopped working and the landlord said the family owed them Rs 20,000. Then the landlord’s henchmen came and beat up the entire family, including the kids. They took away the calf too. Hamir’s eyes welled up as she narrated this. “I gave them my entire life and this is what I got”, she said.
Labourers across the rural heartland of Punjab are meted out the same treatment; it is only the means of their exploitation that differ. They fall prey to debt in such a way that their condition becomes like that of bonded labourers. To meet their daily needs, the labourers generally have to borrow money from their employer. And it soon becomes a vicious circle of debt available at a high interest rate. There then is no escape but to live on the mercy of the landowner.
At times, children and women also land in this trap. Women are more prone to such kind of exploitation. Columnist Barsat (2009) writes: ‘They work for negligible wages. Sometimes wash dishes and clean cattle sheds of rich farmers in the hope of getting two meals a day and some used clothes. Their life is just like hell.’ Otherwise, cattle-shed cleaning in itself is fulltime work and takes six to seven hours a day, but the wages are negligible.
The landowners also devise new ways to exploit attached agricultural labourers. A study by Punjabi University, Patiala has found that these workers are denied even their basic labour rights. Almost 64 per cent of casual labourers work between 8 and 12 hours a day. Commonly, an attached labourer gets 5 to 10 paid holidays a year. But in the event of an ailment or if for some other reason the labourer stays absent from work for more than that period, twice his daily wage is deducted. If it is harvesting or sowing season, the deduction is thrice the daily wage. Else, he will have to send an adult member of his family as his substitute.
The government has not fixed the minimum wages for most agricultural work, which is leading to exploitation of labour. For instance, attached labourers work for more than 12 hours but are not given any overtime. Labour for poppy husk and food is another common form of exploitation. Also common during the paddy sowing and wheat harvesting season is rich farmers controlling wages by threatening labourers with social boycott. The recent paddy sowing season witnessed several such instances. Labourers in a number of villages in the districts of Sangrur, Barnala and Mansa faced a social boycott when landlords unanimously fixed the wages (sometimes even lower than minimum wages) to be given to labourers. They even announced punishment and fine for the landlords violating this “decision”. When labourers asserted their right to minimum wages, it led to a clash between farmers (led by landlords) and labourers. Their social boycott is not a new thing and has been reported in newspapers off and on. However, not many among those who announced the boycott were booked under the Atrocities Act. The silence of even Left-leaning farmers’ organisations was disturbing.
It is fairly common to see labourers being refused wages after the work being done. Most of the attached labourers are illiterate, so they are unable to keep an account of their wages. Generally, they are given money in bits and pieces, so at the end, whatever the employer says becomes the ultimate truth. To break free from such chains is never easy. That is why it is a strange reality among labourers that when a family falls apart, there is no division of property like in the case of farmers, but of debt. And the next generation is born in debt.


Flawed approach to hunger

Wprocurement by the Food Corporation of India is running at record high level. Punjab tops the list with an increase of more than 57 per cent, 69.51 lakh tonnes in 2006-07 to 109.18 lakh tonnes in 2011-12. All the states put together, the increase is more than 300 per cent, from 92.31 lakh tonnes to 261.86 lakh tonnes in the same period. This is a mind-boggling increase in offtake by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and the heavy wheat inflow into the mandis in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh continues. The current procurement at 25.38 million tonnes (mt) is about a third of the total expected current harvest of 84.27 mt (2010-11) in the country. The lure, of course, is the increase in minimum support price (MSP) to be announced by the UPA government any time now, which may range from 15 to 17 per cent, due to enhanced input cost.

It is important to juxtapose the above scenario with that of prevalent endemic hunger in the country, draw lessons and formulate a workable plan. The Indian government’s handling of hunger has been sharply criticised by Oxfam, in a recent report ‘Growing A Better Future’. It says: “India failed to make even a ‘tiny dent’ in the number of hungry people between 1990 and 2005, despite doubling the size of its economy”. A very harsh indictment, indeed, coming as it is, from a very reputable global institution. It is also an indictment of our so-called green revolution, which is supposed to have filled our granaries.
Just imagine, even in urban India, a common household spends in excess of 50 per cent of its income on food alone. And this steeply increases to more than 80 per cent in rural India. So, where does the aam aadmi go from here? A production level of 200 plus million tonnes of foodgrains, in the best of years, for a population of 1.1 billion plus pales in comparison with what China produces. Last year it harvested in excess of 550 million tonnes of foodgrains. And that is for a population of slightly more than 1.3 billion plus. Simply put, even if one takes into consideration the population differential, we are no match to China.
Between 1990 and 2005, the number of hungry people in India grew by a staggering 65 million, the Oxfam report says. In other words, India has roughly one in four of the world’s hungry. In fact, it is an eye-opener, when we compare our situation with that of Brazil, where the ‘Zero Hunger’ campaign launched in 2003 by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, which included a range of projects from cash transfers to poor mothers, to water tank construction and loans, made a tremendous impact in bringing down hunger in the country. The project has been lauded even by the United Nations Food And Agriculture Organisation (FAO). By contrast, India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the fertiliser subsidy programme failed to make any perceptible inroads in bringing down hunger.
Unless, the policy planners do something urgent right now, India will truly become a very hungry nation, once again, and the lives of millions of poor will be compromised. Can we allow that to happen? There are many steps that the government can take to address this problem.
The first and foremost is the enactment of an inalienable law not to let even an inch of arable land to any purpose other than agriculture. Any violation of this act must meet with the severest punishment. If Baba Ramdev were an agricultural scientist, he would recommend death penalty – the crime is as abominable as high-flying corruption, because it involves cheating millions of poor farmers. On no account will the government reduce the 60 per cent of the land mass in China earmarked for foodgrain production, essentially rice and wheat cultivation. This is in sharp contrast to what is going on in India.
For the over 26 million tonnes of wheat already purchased, a four-pronged strategy would be useful. First, distribution through railway wagons could be expanded and expedited. The current wagon despatch of about 30,000 tonnes capacity of wheat per day can easily be enhanced to about 1,00,000 with prior planning, which will meet the distribution needs of public distribution outlets. The next most important task is to erect as many grain silos as possible in the countryside to meet the emergent needs of the poor and hungry. It is important to recollect that nearly after a year of the Supreme Court passing strictures on the agricultural ministry that food must reach the poor and starving, nothing has been done.
The minister of state for food and agriculture made an extensive tour of China last year to study grain storage there and nothing has been heard about it since his return. The cost of building silos to store a million tonnes of grain will be about `500 crore. There is a strong case for a national grid for grain storage, starting at the farm level, and spread in the lakhs of villages around the country. These silos will not only cater to the local needs in emergencies but also ensure that post-harvest losses are minimal. Allow minimal export if the global food prices are attractive, and let the profit accrued come back to the tilling farmers and not go down the drain into the national kitty.
The right to food is an inalienable right. As early as 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations was passed and the right to food is enshrined in it. By 1989, as many as 85 countries, including India, had signed the covenant. Even after more than six decades, India is home to one in four in the world going hungry each day. Is there a greater shame than this?

Grapes of Wrath

Divya A, TNN, Apr 4, 2010, 03.02am IST

Many believe that a debt-ridden farmer’s problems end when he ends his life. But it is just the start of a tragic trajectory for those left behind. Especially his widow and children. By default, they become responsible for the debts the dead man has left behind.

Thousands of such widows are trapped in the web of debt in the cotton belt of Punjab, comprising sparsely populated districts such as Bathinda, Faridkot, Muktsar, Ferozepur and Sangrur.

A recent study by the Ludhiana-based Punjab Agricultural University in the districts of Bathinda and Sangrur found there had been around 3,000 suicides between 2000 and 2008. Every suicide, says the study, affects at least five people. Mostly, it is the women who have the burden of raising a fatherless family. Last year, the state government announced compensation of Rs 2 lakh for the families of farmers who had committed suicide. But, as with most bureaucratic procedures, the bereaved families are yet to receive the money.

Umendra Dutt, executive director of Kheti Virasat Mission, an NGO working for farmers’ rights in Faridkot’s Jaitu village, says it isn’t easy for the families to get their due. “After the announcement for compensation, the state commissioned a survey to enumerate the number of suicides. But it has not yet taken off”. It is especially hard for widows now, he adds, because they have to “prove” their husbands committed suicide on account of indebtedness.

Dutt says more often than not, officials attribute suicides to “something else”, not agrarian debt. Just weeks ago, G S Kalkat, chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, suggested that debt may not have been the only reason as many as 86% of the farmers committed suicide. Kalkat’s claim was disproved the very next day when 13 widows from Ludhiana district met the deputy commissioner with their case files, demanding Rs 5 lakh in compensation, a debt waiver and a government job for one eligible member of the bereaved family.

They described the desperation their husbands felt. Amar Singh of Bondli village near Samrala took a Rs 3-lakh loan after his crop failed. It was a desperate move at a desperate time. Singh went missing from home on April 1, 2009; his widow Manjeet Kaur had to sell off three acres to pay off the loan.

In Dhanur village near Samrala, Kashmir Singh consumed pesticide. He had five children, a wife, a mother, and debt amounting to Rs 5 lakh.

But this is not just the tale of two families, says Kultar Singh, Congress sarpanch of Sandhwan village in Faridkot. “Every month, we learn about at least three cases where a woman has to bear the brunt of life after her husband has committed suicide,” he says. Often enough, the despairing widow commits suicide as well, he adds. The late Indian president Giani Zail Singh belonged to Sandhwan village.

Activist Inderjit Singh Jaijee, whose documentary film “Harvest of Grief” takes a hard look at the agrarian crisis in Punjab’s Sangrur district, says that most villages in the Moonak and Lehra blocks have suffered anywhere between 40 and 80 suicides.

Vandana Shiva, author of “The Violence of Green Revolution” and founder of Navdanya, a movement for sustainable agriculture, says, “Hapless women in Punjab and Andhra Pradesh are bearing the cost of the profits that the seed and chemical industry are making”.

That is a larger issue. But for most widows of debt-ridden farmers, the politics of big business are deeply personal. Pramod Kumar, director of Chandigarh’s Institute for Development and Communication, has conducted a large-scale study on farmer suicides in the state. He says one of the saddest symbols of the spiral of despair is a 70-year-old woman in Ferozepur district who has been left to fend for herself and her daughter-in-law after both her sons committed suicide following multiple crop failures.

‘Punjab: 3,000 farmer suicides in 8 years’

Priya Yadav, TNN, 24 January 2010, 04:44am IST

CHANDIGARH: While Punjab remains, in popular perception, the land of plenty, a group of economists at Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) has revealed that the picture isn’t rosy at all — in fact it’s grim.

Rural indebtedness has touched Rs 35,000 crore and, worse, 3,000 debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide in the last eight years. Economists are also relating the suicides with high illiteracy among the poor farmers and say Punjab needs to increase expenditure on education.

“Rural debts are mounting rapidly and have touched Rs 35,000 crore in the year 2009-2010 as against Rs 21,640 crore in 2007,” said Sukhpal Singh, senior PAU economist in Ludhiana. In the first such survey commissioned by the Punjab government, door-to-door survey of two districts indicated that nearly 3,000 farmers had killed themselves in the last eight years. “About 38% of these were 20 to 30 years old and 60% had unpaid debts. Significantly, 47% suicides were by illiterate,” said Sukhpal Singh.

It’s the small farm holdings, of two acres or less, which have made farming economically unviable and driven farmers who took debts to keep their crop alive to kill themselves. “A follow up at the homes of suicides have shown that nearly 25% of such families sold off their land after the death,” said Sukhpal.

Inderjit Singh Jaijee, who launched Movement Against State Repression, blamed the government for keeping farmers’ suicides under wraps. “Most of these suicides are unreported because suicide is a criminal offence and families avoid going to the police. This helps the state to go into denial about these tragic deaths at the grassroots,” Jaijee said.

Linking the suicides to not just farm indebtedness but also to lack of education, R S Ghuman, professor and head of Economics, Punjabi University, said, “The state budget on education and its infrastructure is mere 11% and just 3.7% of children in Punjab are getting into professional education.” Emphasising on the need for better education infrastructure, Ghuman said, “The drop out rate in schools is unacceptably high at 60% until class X. This is making the farmers, especially those holding small farms, completely dependent on farming as a source of raising money to support their families.

A hidden truth of farmer’s suicide


Ludhiana, A glaring and sad aspect of suicides in the agriculture sector in Punjab is that the families of the victims not only had to sell land, but also other assets such as farm machinery, gold to repay their debts.

A government-sponsored study conducted by Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Bathinda and Sangrur districts came across 2,990 suicides in the farm sector from 2000 to 2008. Of these, 1757 were farmers and the remaining farm labourers. Of these, 1288 farmers and 671 labourers ended their lives because of debts.

As many as 227 families in Bathinda district sold land worth Rs 7.36 crore to repay their debts. The average value of land sold was Rs 3.24 lakh.

In all 550 farmers committed suicide in Bathinda district due to debt. A majority of them (87 per cent) were small and marginal farmers owning land upto five acres while 13 per cent cases were reported among the medium and large farmers owning more than 10 acres.

The debt ranged from Rs two lakh to Rs 8.20 lakh in case of farmers who committed suicide.

In the case of Sangrur district, 738 farmers committed suicide owing to indebtedness. Of these, the families of 353 farmers sold land worth Rs 19.05 crore to pay off their debt.

The average debt burden in Sangrur was Rs 5.39 lakh. Besides, 58 families of these farmers sold even machinery and other assets.

In Sangrur, 57 per cent farmers were in the marginal category and 29 per cent were small scale farmers. The remaining 14 per cent were medium and large farmers.

The debt against them ranged from Rs 2.8 lakh to Rs 7.87 lakh in Sangrur district.

Average debt against labourers who committed suicide was Rs 70,036 in Sangrur district, and their average income was Rs 19,419.

The average debt against labourers who committed suicide in Bathinda was Rs 47,347 and their average income was Rs 21,710.

In Bathinda district, the most affected villages include Vhauke where 18 farmers ended their lives while in Mandi Kalan 17 farmers and in Pitho 13 farmers committed suicide.

In Sangrur district the most affected village were Andana where 18 suicides were reported followed by Bhutal Kalan (20), Seron (14), Bhattiwala Kalan (11) and Nagara (10).

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Farmer & Agricultural Labourers Suicides due to Indebtedness in the Punjab State — a pilot project of Sangrur and Bathinda districts

A Punjab Agricultural Univeristy report Farmer & Agricultural Labourers Suicides due to Indebtedness in the Punjab State — a pilot project of Sangrur and Bathinda districts, submitted to the Punjab government a few days back has sirred a political storm.
The survey report says that 2,990 farmers had committed suicide in two districts — 1256 in Bathinda and 1634 in Sangrur district — between 2000 and 2008. This report, more or less like a household census, is considered to be the first authentic survey of the spate of suicides among farmers and agricultural workers.
This report comes within a month of the Punjab government’s decision to fix a price for farmer suicides — Rs 2 lakh to the families of those farmers who have committed suicide in the past one year.
In Sangrur district, 738 farmers who took the fatal path to escape growing indebtedness, had an average outstanding debt of Rs 3.36 lakh per farmer. For another lot of 246 farmers who committed suicide for other reasons, the average outstanding amount standing against their name was Rs 79,935. As far as farm labourers are concerned, the average debt was Rs 70,036.
In Bathinda, the average outstanding due against farmers who could not sustain the growing indebtedness, was Rs 2.94 lakh. As many as 550 farmers belonged to this category. For another lot of 223 farmers who too committed suicide but for other reasons, the average outstanding debt was Rs 85,825. For the workers, the outstanding amount against their name was Rs 47,347 on an average. The report also provides a list of such households.
Meanwhile, another report in The Independent, London, says 1,500 farmers in Chattisgarh State have committed suicide. It blames crop failure and the falling water table to be responsible for the serial death dance. If this is true, I don’t see why the Punjab farmers, who are endowed with assured irrigation, have to commit suicide. That means lack of irrigation alone cannot be the reason. The PAU report blames growing indebtedness for the spate of suicides. Indebtedness comes from various reasons, and somehow I find we shirk from pointing to the real causes.
Reports about suicides in Vidharba belt in Maharashtra also ascribe it to lack of irrigation and distress sale of produce. While all this may be true, but I sometimes wonder why are we all reluctant to dig it deeper and find out the real causes that triggers indebtedness.

Devinder Sharma Groundreality

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It’s high time farm pricing got a booster dose

Amrita ChaudhryPosted: Sep 26, 2008 at 0110 hrs IST

Ludhiana, September 25 With theWorld Bank giving a call to shift focus on agriculture to tackle food crisis, data gleaned from Punjab’s villages only add to its urgency.

The national census for the year 1991 showed Punjab as having 11 lakh farming families. Of these, 45 per cent were small or marginal farmers who owned fields measuring less than five acres. This figure in the next census in 2001 slid to 9.7 lakh and the percentage of small farmers to 30 per cent.

In other words, 30,000 farmers on an average quit agriculture each year. The primary reason for this has been the decline in profitability of crops, particularly paddy and wheat—a phenomenon that agricultural experts are trying to tackle along with suicides by farmers. For example, take the case of Gurdip Singh, a small farmer from village Mehla Kalan. Gurdip, who owns two acres of land, says, “I can just manage to raise food grains for my domestic use from these two acres.”

The situation of Avtar Singh, a farmer with 20 acres of land in Alamgir village, is no different. “My inputs costs over the years have skyrocketed while the prices of crops haven’t risen. And what we all forget is that farmer too is a consumer. I have to pay the college fees for my two children, which runs into lakhs per annum. Then there are the medical costs of my family.”

To drive home his point, Avtar Singh says, “A couple of years ago, one of my kidneys was damaged in an accident. I could not afford treatment. I know there will be a day when all my 20 acres will be lost in medical treatment.”

R S Sidhu, head, Department of Economics, Punjab Agricultural University, agrees as he explains, “The data speak so. The best period for agriculture in the recent past was between 1990 and 2000, more precisely till 1995. While the crisis in agriculture began around 1995, it was nationwide then. Now, however, Punjab alone is suffering. Our calculations have shown that while input costs have gone up dramatically, the rise in Minimum Statutory Price (MSP) of crops is very slow and this has resulted in reducing of profit margins for the farmers.

Sidhu adds, “Since 2001-2007 the input costs have risen by 8-9 per cent while the MSP growth has been hovering around 2 per cent. The wheat MSP announced this year (Rs 1,000 per quintal) had brought a relief for farmers and when the picture was easing out the latest news of Rs 850 as MSP for paddy this year is like a bolt from the blue.”

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Assault on farming: Punjab Government ties with Syngenta


Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Now it is understandable that government machinery in Punjab is more worried to offer market to MNCs rather then serving the genuine interests of farmers. Recently a Punjab government agency Markfed has signed a MoU with Syngenta to provide agrochemicals and its right practices on farmers’ doorstep.

This indicates that either the government officials do not have understanding of real crisis of farmers or they do not want to understand it. There is a strong third possibility also that Marked and its parent department wants to serve MNCs only sans the poor farmers.

Kheti Virasat Mission-KVM deplores this move of Markfed. The will prove a disaster for the farming and ecology of Punjab. This is an anti-farmer and anti-environment step and will jeopardize the possibilities of ecological sustainability of agriculture in Punjab. 

It is ironical that the Minister for Cooperation Capt Kanwaljit Singh was present in person in this MoU signing ceremony. This irony turned in to a tragedy when Minister speaking on the occasion urged the company to develop eco-friendly crop protection inputs. What an incident Capt Kanwaljit Singh is giving the responsibility of protecting ecology to a known environmental offender and poison merchant.

While speaking on the occasion Capt Kanwaljit asserted that ” The state is facing threat of disease due to overuse and misuse of pesticides, which is both unmanageable and unacceptable……so the need of hour is cutting costs and bringing in environment-friendly and safe methods of crop protection.”. It is a great statement indeed. But minister was betting on wrong side. Those who are known environmental scandalous cannot and should not be asked for environmental solutions. 

    The Markfed is more enthusiastic to serve MNCs and become their extension arm to market their products.  First it was Bt cotton in 2005. Then CM Capt Amarinder Singh very passionately makes Markfed the distributing arm of Mahyco for Bt cotton seeds. There was euphoria at that time and Markfed has published advertisements in newspaper singing happily about its achievement. Mahyco is a Monsanto owned company. 

After Monsanto now it is Syngenta.

Monsanto sold Bt cotton with a promise to reduce use of pesticides and now Syngents is entering with promise to provide extension services to farmers to educate them about right method of pesticide use. It is regrettable that government executives, agriculture experts and technocrats and departments dealing with agriculture or farmers particularly are still obsessed with the pesticides and their so-called safe use. They cannot think of agriculture without agrochemicals. After witnessing adverse impacts of pesticides several countries are now pursuing the pesticide free farming. There are several successful examples of chemical free natural / organic farming in the world, in India and even in Punjab. 

Chemical pesticides were pushed in indiscriminately. Forty years after the advent of green revolution, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Manila, Philippines now clearly accepts its mistakes in promoting pesticides and has gone on record saying that ‘pesticides were a waste of time and effort’ in Asia for rice. Punjab Agricultural University however continues to push in pesticides knowing well that these were not required in the first place. In case of cotton, agricultural scientists have compounded the problem by turning the insect profile hostile. There were only six or seven pests that worried the cotton farmers in the 1960s. Today the number of cotton pests has multiplied to over 60.

Studies done by ICRISAT and IRRI clearly demonstrate the sustainability, viability and successful economics of Non-Pesticide Management practices. Farmers in Bangladesh, Philippines and Vietnam have successfully opted for pesticide free rice cultivation. The Cuba has also shown the way. Former Director General of IRRI, Dr. Robert Cantrell had this to say: “It shows that the mistakes of Green Revolution where too much emphasis was sometimes put on the use of chemicals for pest control have clearly been recognized and corrected”.

But irony of Punjab is that the agriculture establishments are not open to this truth of pesticides and even they are not tolerant to any question and debate related to pesticides and environmental health crisis. They are still in green-revolution mindset and insulated from alternative paradigm for sustainable agriculture, environment and development. The agriculture establishments feel honour of their role played in green revolution, it could be their proud. They already got pat for that, they earned whole lot of admiration for the work they had done, but now it is time to have an honest introspection and constructive criticism. Those who are supported Green Revolution setups until now should own responsibility of its adverse effects.

The Markfed and Ministry of Cooperatives should open to know more about the alternative paradigm of agriculture, they should came forward  to learn from the farmers committed to ecological practices. Capt Kanwaljit rightly raise the issue of rising cost of production and depleting returns ,but he should be aware of the fact that every village is exporting cash roughly something between Rs  25 lakhs to 5 crors , depending upon its area, cropping pattern and ecological factors. If the minister is really sincere in saving and serving farmers he and his department should encourage natural farming. We should proudly shout -“Say No to Pesticides”. It is only way to save ecology of Punjab, it is only way to bring Punjab out of devastating environmental health crisis. 

Punjab government has no vision, no roadmap for restructuring agriculture to make its agriculture ecologically sustainable. Neither they have any plan to learn from farmers nor do they want to promote any civil society initiative in this regard. Government is just promoting corporate model of farming. This is symbol of intellectual impoverishment and bankruptcy of thoughts and ideas.    

Syngenta is also known for hiding facts related to adverse effects of its bestseller herbicide Atrazine. The scientists working on test the effects of Atrazine on African clawed frogs found that Atrazine inhibits development of the larynx in male frogs at low doses, that Atrazine, at even lower doses, feminizes male frogs by altering the testes so they will produce eggs. Syngenta even tried to purchase the silence from the concerned scientists.  

Pesticides are only one side of coin of doom, the Genetically Modified seeds are waiting to spill the new era of sorrow.  Syngenta will use this MoU to create market for its GM seeds. The company is trying to get proper IPR protection for its seeds. Syngenta has done a day light robbery on rice.  This Swiss biotech giant based at Basel in Switzerland, has tightened its monopoly control over rice. Seeking global patents over thousands of genes in rice (a single grain of rice contains 37,544 genes, roughly one-fourth more than the genes in a human body), the multinational giant is all set to “own” rice, the world’s most important staple food crop. Syngenta claims it invented more than 30,000 gene sequences of rice. Syngenta in collaboration with Myriad Genetics Inc of USA had beaten Monsanto in the game of mapping the genetic structure of rice by sequencing more than 99.5 per cent of the rice genome. Syngenta’s efforts to seek control over rice have severe implications for the future of rice research and its resulting impact on food security and hunger. For countries like India or Japan, one of the seats of origin of rice, it is an ominous sign. In other words, biological inheritance of the world’s major food crop is now in the hands of a Swiss multinational. If Syngenta’s application for global patents is accepted, the Asian countries will lose all control that comes through ‘sovereign’ control over genetic resources (as defined by the
Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992) of the staple grain.

Syngents is going to bring its GM seeds with in next few years; the company is preparing its market network from now courtesy Markfed.

Marked is working like Mir Jafar for MNCs which is highly intolerable. This MoU will prove battle of Plassey and will pave way for total corporate takeover of Punjab agriculture. Those who are signing these documents should prepare them selves to be known as Mir Jafars. History will teach then a lesson.

It is high time that farmers of Punjab should resist and revolt against this onslaught on their sovereign right over natural resources and knowledge system.

(Author is Executive Director of Kheti Virasat Mission civil society ecological action group based at Jaitu town in Faridkot district, Punjab. Phone: 9872682161, E-mail: