Andhra Pradesh is now the top producer of paddy in India

Ludhiana, November 22
Andhra Pradesh has pipped Punjab to become the country’s top paddy producer, as per the data gathered by the Union Ministry of Food for the year 2010-11. While Andhra Pradesh procured 96.02 lakh metric tonnes (MT) of paddy, Punjab’s count stood at 86.35 lakh MT. Except for the year 2008-09, Punjab had for long been dominating the paddy production tally in the country.

In all, 339.89 lakh MT of paddy was procured across the country in 2010-11 (the market year ends in September). Andhra Pradesh and Punjab were followed by Chhattisgarh (37.38 lakh MT), Orissa (24.72 lakh MT) and Uttar Pradesh (24.66 lakh MT). Haryana stood next with the procurement of 16.87 lakh MT, followed by Tamil Nadu (15.83 lakh MT), West Bengal (12.34 lakh MT), Bihar 8.83 (lakh MT) and Madhya Pradesh (4.8 lakh MT).

Dr MS Sidhu, Head, Department of Economics and Sociology, Punjab Agriculture University, said Punjab remained at the number one position in terms of paddy production for the past several decades. “But, Punjab is still at the top in terms of wheat production,” he said.

Dr Pritam Singh Rangi, Consultant, Punjab State Farmer Commission, Mohali, said the main reason behind the loss in production was that a large number of Punjab farmers had of late taken to basmati production, the crop giving them good returns.

Secondly, the area under cultivation in Andhra Pradesh (43.9 lakh hectares) was much higher as compared to Punjab (27 lakh hectares).


Chemical fertilizers in our water – An analysis of nitrates in the groundwater in Punjab by Greenpeace

Source: India Water Portal

 This study by Greenpeace India Society is an initial investigation into the effects of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer on groundwater pollution in intensive agriculture areas in Punjab. The level of nitrate in drinking water was tested from groundwater artesian wells located within farms and surrounded by crops (mostly rice and wheat rotations).
Nitrate pollution in groundwater is associated with nitrogen loads in the environment. In urban areas, it is associated with sewage and in agriculture areas, with livestock sources and nitrogen fertiliser inputs. Nitrate pollution in drinking water can have serious health impact on humans, especially for babies and children. The most significant potential health effects of drinking water contaminated with nitrate are the blue-baby syndrome (methemoglobinemia) and cancer.

A chemical intensive model of agriculture was introduced in India in the 1960s as part of the Green Revolution. This model and the supporting government policies, such as the chemical fertilizer subsidy policy, provoked indiscriminate use of chemicals. This has not only led to deterioration of the environment but also degraded and contaminated the natural resources base, and is now posing a threat to human health.

Ironically, this intensive farming practice is also not living up to its promise of sustained increase in food production. As a consequence, food production is now affected by diminishing returns and falling dividends in agriculture intensive areas. Application of nitrogen fertilizers compromises future food production by degrading soil fertility, and compromises the health of the farmers and their families by polluting the drinking water they depend on. The situation is alarming as the intensive model of farming has already depleted the groundwater. This region might be suffering from widespread nitrate pollution on its diminishing sources of drinking water.

As a part of the study, groundwater was tested from artesian wells located in farms awayNitrate from other potential sources of nitrate contamination (animals, human sewage), in order to focus on the impact of fertilizer application. Farms located in three districts (Bhatinda, Ludhiana, Mukhtsar) in Punjab where fertilizer consumption is highest were sampled.

As control points, two wells that are also monitored by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) were sampled. These wells are located within the villages, with high pollution probably coming from concentration of human sewage and cattle. The comparable values from these tests and from the reported values by CGWB point to the agreement between the two methodologies.

The investigation in three districts of Punjab shows that 20 percent of all sampled wells have nitrate levels above the safety limit of 50 mg of – nitrate per litre established by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Also, this nitrate pollution is clearly linked with the usage of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers as higher the application of nitrogen (urea) in the adjoining field, the higher the nitrate pollution found in the drinking water from the same farm.

There is an urgent need to shift to an ecofriendly agricultural model, and identify agro-ecological practices that ensure future food security. It is necessary now to acknowledge the pattern of the hazards that is becoming a trend, and address them with research, political will, relevant policy and practices.

Download the report here –

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The Toxic Consequences of the Green Revolution

In India, farmers find that benefits of pesticides and herbicides may come at a tragically high cost

JAJJAL VILLAGE, INDIA—Four decades after the so-called Green Revolution enabled this vast nation to feed itself, some farmers are turning their backs on modern agricultural methods—the use of modified seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides—in favor of organicfarming.

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This is not a matter of producing gourmet food for environmentally attuned consumers but rather something of a life-and-death choice in villages like this one, where the benefits of the Green Revolution have been coupled with unanticipated harmful consequences from chemical pollution.

As driving their actions, the new organic farmers cite the rising costs of seed, fertilizer, and pesticides, and concerns that decades of chemical use is ruining the soil. But many are also revolting against what they see as the environmental degradation that has come with the new farming techniques, particularly the serious pollution of drinking water that village residents blame for causing cancer and other diseases.

“People are fed up with chemical farming,” says Amarjit Sharma, a farmer for 30 years who began organic farming four years ago. “The earth is now addicted to the use of these chemicals.”

For now, their numbers are small, perhaps 5 percent of farmers around the agricultural region in the Punjab state, known for its cotton production. But this is a trend that could become important if their numbers grow and cut into India’s agricultural productivity in an era of tightening global food supplies.

Starting in 1965, India’s Green Revolution transformed the country’s few fertile regions into veritable breadbaskets, quadrupling India’s output of wheat and rice. The revolution brought new irrigation techniques, hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and mechanization. Punjab’s farmers became heroes of a self-sufficient India no longer dependent upon shipments of foreign grain and making a clean cut with a past full of mass starvation and food aid from the United States.

Times have changed, says Prof. R. K. Mahajan, an agricultural economist at Punjabi University. “The Green Revolution is not as green as it was earlier—it has now become brown and pale,” he says. “The profit margins have skewed to the minimum.”

The Green Revolution hardly seems to have made much of an impact in terms of well-being here. Rural poverty abounds, malarial mosquitoes breed in stagnant pools of water, and bullock carts far outnumber motor vehicles.

And behind the walls villagers speak of cancer, which they say is on the rise along with other ailments such as renal failure, stillborn babies, and birth defects that researchers attribute to the overuse and misuse of pesticides and herbicides. Punjab represents only 1.5 percent of India’s geography but accounts for nearly a 20 percent share of its pesticide consumption.

In many cases, rural farmers don’t know proper usage and disposal techniques, with few using protective clothing or equipment when handling highly toxic chemicals. In farming villages, pesticide containers are sometimes reused as kitchen containers. And many farmers assume that applying more pesticides and herbicides is better, without understanding that the heavy use is gradually poisoning water supplies.

Lying under a tree on a charpoi, a traditional bed made of taught rope, Santosh Rani, 30, believes she is one of the victims. “I have cancer,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper as she clenches her stomach. Since 2001, 40 people have died from various forms of cancer in Rani’s village of about 3,300; until 10 years ago, village residents say cancer was very rare or at least largely unknown by villagers who now regard it as a menace stalking all of them.

Some research does support their fears. A recent Punjabi University study found a high rate of genetic damage among farmers, which was attributed to pesticide use. The study found DNA damage affecting a third of the sample group of 210 farmers spraying pesticides and herbicides, a level apparently unaffected by other factors such as age, smoking, and dietary habits. A second study, also made public this past year, found widespread contamination of drinking water with pesticide chemicals and heavy metals, all of which are linked to cancer and other life-threatening ailments.

The government’s top civil servant for health and family welfare in Punjab, Health Secretary T. R. Sarangal, says more time is needed to study the problem. “Certainly, we are in a danger zone as far as the toxicity and danger of fertilizers are concerned,” says Sarangal. But the last time cancer rates were measured officially in southern Punjab—about seven years ago—the rates were actually below the national average. The state government is now commissioning two new cancer survey studies in an effort to document the extent of the problem, and it is also financing two new public-private partnerships for the construction of cancer hospitals in Punjab.

“It is a perception by the hospitals and by the households that cancer rates are much higher than in previous decades,” says G. P. I. Singh, a public health expert who has worked in southern Punjab for over 25 years. “The entire area of Punjab today is overloaded with pesticides. What is troublesome are the chronic effects. They take generations or decades to manifest themselves.”

Some doctors, like Singh, and activists are pressing farmers to go back to earlier agricultural techniques, even at the expense of reducing India’s farm production. “What are you achieving by feeding people at the cost of their health?” says Singh.

Umendra Dutt, a towering, energetic environmental activist with chest-length locks and a thick beard, goes a step further, arguing that “the Green Revolution has devastated the entire ecosystem of our society—the ecology and economy—we have lost almost all of our biodiversity. [It] is input intensive, techno-centric, resource-guzzling. It is not a cultural transformation leading to self-sufficiency.” Not in the way that organic farming is, he argues. “Our [organic] farmers are living a life that is much more sustainable,” says Dutt.

The organic movement, if it qualifies as a movement, is running up against the strong incentives the government provides farmers to support Green Revolution techniques: from the minimum price support the government offers farmers for wheat and rice made with the aid of fertilizer and pesticides to the social pressure to prevent farmers from changing decades-long practices.

Can the economics pay off? That’s unclear. Sharma, who is now the custodian of his village’s organic seed bank, says his wheat yield is half that of his neighbors, who used pesticides and fertilizer. But he is able to sell his organically grown crop for something more than twice the going price. In addition, he doesn’t have to buy costly supplies such as hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, purchases which put many farmers into debt at the start of each growing season.

Sharma uses traditional homemade pesticides such as cow manure mixed with urine, soured milk, garlic, chilies, and the leaves of a native plant to ward off parasitic insects. He is making a bet that over time, organic farming will narrow the productivity gap if his methods are able to improve the quality of soil damaged by chemically intensive farming. The major difference between chemical farming and organic farming is that with chemical farming, the yield either decreases or stays stagnant over time while with organic farming, the quality of the soil increases, he says. “After two or three years, the yield will be equal.”

But while some farmers talk of going organic, India faces what could become a new controversy over expanding the use of genetically modified seeds in what supporters envision as a second Green Revolution. This may promise salvation for a hungry world but, in rural India, the pluses and minuses of the first Green Revolution are still being tallied.

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?