Farm loan waiver: Has Captain done enough to ease agrarian distress and prevent farmer suicides?
Debt waiver to farmers remains at the centre-stage of Punjab of politics and it will continue to be so at least till the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The reason is that it was the Congress-led government under Captain Amarinder Singh that set the ball rolling last year by announcing a 'partial waiver' and the Congress will try to cash maximum on this. The announcements on the waivers by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief ministers in the other states came much level.
Despite the criticism on the various aspects of the waiver in Punjab, Amarinder appears to be determined not to let go of the political advantage achieved till now. In fact taking it to the next level, he has now announced that his government would soon begin the waiving off farm debts from commercial banks, which would be completed by the end of the year. Till now the loans being waived off were those extended by co-operative banks.
Experts on agricultural economics point out that the government will have to think of a long term solution on the issue of farm distress and farmer suicides as on time waiver is no guarantee that the debt will not be accumulated by the farmers again or it will put an end to the suicides.
In addition to this, the waiver on loans from the commercial banks will add to the debt of the state government. The waivers can be seen as an instant measure to extinguish the fire but fire prevention measures need to be put in place for the future. Whether any political party has a blueprint for this is the main question facing Punjab at this point of time.
On Thursday, Amarinder handed over debt relief certificates worth Rs.156.12 crore to 26,998 farmers from six districts of the state. He also announced a financial assistance of Rs. 50,000 each to the landless labourers to bail them out of the current agrarian crisis. In a token gesture, he handed over debt waiver certificates to six farmers one from each of the six districts of Gurdaspur, Pathankot, Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Nawanshahr and Hoshiarpur and said that so far debt relief to the tune of Rs. 457 crore had been disbursed to nearly 1.02 lakh farmers in three different phases covering 16 districts.
He said that after completing the debt relief scheme of co-operative loans, the state government would soon begin the waiving off farm debts from commercial banks. He pointed that despite the massive financial crisis facing the state his government is giving the maximum financial assistance to the farmers in terms of debt waiver relief up to Rs.2 lakh. He claimed this is the highest in the country while pointing out that in case of Uttar Pradesh it is Rs.1 lakh, while Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are waiving off only Rs 50,000 each.
But the Opposition has been attacking Amarinder for not waiving off the entire loan of the farmers, a promise the Congress party had made in the run up to the polls. The attacks on Amarinder also indicate that the Opposition would not allow the Congress to walk away with electoral benefits on the issue. There has also been criticism of the government organizing elaborate functions to hand over the certificates of loan waivers to farmers which many feel amounts to public humiliation of the poor farmers.
Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and Sukhpal Singh Khaira who is also the leader of Opposition has castigated Amarinder for indulging in 'cheap political gimmickry' by holding functions to glorify absolutely 'meager, laughable and non productive debt waiver' being given to the aggrieved farmers. He said that this smacks of cheapness by a feudal, besides rubbing salt on the wounds of debt ridden farmers. Khaira said that instead of apologizing to the farmers for promising to write off their entire loan, be it banks or commission agents, Amarinder is on the contrary exploiting their indebtedness by holding these functions to distribute meager debt waiver. He stated that Amarinder has till now waived off a total of Rs. 485 crore worth debt including the Rs. 156.12 crore waived off at Gurdaspur which is not even half a percent of the colossal debt of Rs. 1 lakh crore. He pointed that 390 farmers and farm labourers have committed suicide during the Congress regime.
The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) too has attacked Amarinder saying that it is a shame that the Congress government is insulting farmers in the name of a loan waiver when nothing is being done for them or farm labourers even as farm suicides are on the rise with almost 400 farmers committing suicide in the last one year.
Senior Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia said it is shocking that the Congress government is using popular singers and an advertising blitzkrieg to be-fool Punjabis into thinking that a farm loan waiver is taking place in Punjab. “The truth is that the Congress government has failed to implement the promised Rs 90,000 crore farmer loans taken from nationalized and cooperative banks as well as private money lenders,” he said.
He said the SAD on its part would continue to fight for the cause of complete waiver of loans of farmers and farm labourers and would shortly announce an agitation plan for the same.
While the parties slug it out on the farm waiver on the political turf. Agriculture economy experts point out that the waiver would be futile in the face of the absence of a long term strategy to tackle agrarian crisis. They said that if the government goes ahead with a waiver on loans taken from commercial banks, it would amount to a debt burden of another Rs 70,000 crore on the state. The state will have to borrow this money to execute this.
“One time waiver is no guarantee that the farmers will not accumulate debt again or suicides will stop. The state will have to go in for diversifying the rural economy in Punjab. It will have to go in for value addition through agriculture processing. Emphasis has to be on skill development in the rural areas besides focusing on rural health. There has to be stress on making rural population employable and creating employability in the rural areas,” points out eminent agriculture economist Professor Ranjit Singh Ghuman who heads the Nehru SAIL chair at Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development in Chandigarh. He underlined that unbridled populism neither amounts to good economics nor good politics.
But for now, long term goals can wait. The politicians are more focused on short term electoral gains. One this is for sure that after the recent farmers' march in Maharashtra and a series of farmer agitations in states like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and just a couple of days back in Himachal Pradesh, agrarian distress will be one of the core issues in the 2019 polls and every party will try to exploit it for its electoral gains.