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Run-up to Gurdaspur by-polls: Farmer unrest takes centre-stage in Punjab politics

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 21 September 2017, 13:32 IST

The farmers' issues are back on the centre-stage of Punjab politics once again. With the Captain Amarinder Singh-led Congress government having completed six months of 'grace' period in office, the masses, particularly in the rural areas, have started getting restless. They are now seeking action on the administrative front for the redressal of their concerns related to agriculture.

The Opposition, both the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) have also started raising their pitch. The forthcoming Gurdaspur Lok Sabha by-poll has provided them the timing and the opportunity to do so.

There is almost a daily war of words between the government and the Opposition on various aspects of the crisis being faced by the farming community.

To begin with, there is the issue of the continuing farmer suicides on which the most vocal attacks have been coming from the SAD. The former chief minister Parkash Singh Badal recently attacked the government for failing to compensate the families of more than 200 suicide victims who ended their lives in the last six months.

The opposition has been claiming that the rate of suicides has gone up tremendously. They have alleged that the Amarinder government has announced its farm loan waiver but is yet to deliver on that front since the notification is pending.

Amarinder hit back accusing the Opposition of misleading the masses with wrong claims and figures.

Citing official data, he stated that a total of 997 farmer suicides were reported from March 2007 to March 2017 when the SAD-BJP regime was in power. Of these, 155 took place in 2015 and 225 in 2016 which shows a sharp spike in the last two years of the SAD-BJP tenure.

He further pointed out that during March to September 2017 the number of suicide cases has actually declined as compared to the numbers from the corresponding period of the previous year.

Last year, 153 farmers had committed suicide during this period while the figure for this year is 131.

Amarinder's answer came as a rebuttal to the Leader of Opposition from AAP Sukhpal Singh Khaira's claim that stated that 250 farmers had taken their lives in the last six months.

No blame game please!

Asserting that every single farmer’s death is a matter of pain and concern for him, Amarinder said that while his government does not want to engage with either the AAP or the SAD in a number game on such a critical issue, he would not allow these parties to harm the interests of the farmers with their 'false and motivated' propaganda.

The Akalis have been saying that the loan of not even one farmer, out of the accumulated Rs 90,000 crore amount, has been waived off. Badal said the government even announced that farmers would not be subject to 'kurki' (bankruptcy) but it has not amended the Land Revenue Act to make this a reality.

In return, Amarinder claimed that the Akalis had failed to initiate even a single step to waive off the farmers’ loans or to otherwise ameliorate their sufferings. He said his government is going all-out to deliver on its promises despite the financial mess inherited from the previous regime.

The ball for the waiver of loans, up to Rs 2 lakh for farmers with up to five acres of land, and payment of Rs 2 lakh to other small and marginal farmers, was set rolling in June with an announcement in the State Assembly Amarinder added.

The Punjab Cabinet on Wednesday gave its approval to notify the crop loan waiver scheme announced by Amarinder in June this year. Besides taking over the entire eligible loan amount of the farmers covered by the debt waiver scheme, the government has decided to also take over the outstanding interest of farmers from 1 April 2017 till the date of notification, which will lead to an additional Rs 400 crore benefit to the farmers.

Amarinder has pointed that 'fraudulent statements' are discouraging the farmers and pushing them towards suicide by misleading them into believing that the government is not sincere in its commitment.

The government has also pointed that according to a survey carried out by Punjab State Farmers' Commission and Punjabi University, Patiala, the debt per household has gone up from Rs.1.79 lakh in 2005-06 to Rs.4.74 lakh in 2014-15.

Other options

The government claims to have initiated several steps for the welfare of the farming community, whose growing debt burden is largely on the account of non-remunerative Minimum Support Price (MSP) for crops, particularly wheat and paddy, as well as an increase in the cost of major inputs and near stagnation in crop productivity, among other factors.

Amarinder said that apart from debt waiver, his government is working on reorienting the state’s agriculture policy with a clear focus on improving farmers’ income through an Agriculture Sustainability Mission.

Senior Akali leader Prem Singh Chandumajra has countered Amarinder's claims accusing the Congress government of fudging figures on suicides. He claims that instead of taking care of the families of suicide victims, the government is issuing them wrong cheques that are bouncing in banks.

AAP too has gone on the offensive on the farmers' issue. The party scheduled a 'Kisan Sammelan' in Kotkapura on Wednesday to expose the betrayal and discrimination by both the centre and various state governments in the name of debt waiver with the farmers and the farm labourers all across the country.

AAP MLA and convener of the Farmers and Farm Labour Sangharsh Committee Kultar Singh Sandhwan said the farmers and farm labour are being treated as second-class citizens in their own country and being forced to end their lives because of the anti-farmer and anti-agricultural policies introduced by the successive governments.

AAP's Sangrur MP Bhagwant Mann has dubbed both the Amarinder-led Congress in Punjab and Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre as 'cheats and two sides of the same coin' who have failed to live up to the poll promises made to the farmers.

Mann said that in the run-up to the Gurdaspur Parliamentary by-poll, AAP would reach out to each and every household in the constituency to expose the double speak of both BJP and the Congress who have deceived the poor farming community only to get their votes and later left them high and dry.

Mann has attacked the Modi government of taking a 'U' turn on the implementation of MS Swaminathan Commission recommendations in the agriculture sector and Amarinder government for not delivering on farm loan waiver.

Taking it to the streets

Meanwhile, on the ground, several farmers' organisations have threatened to gherao the Amarinder's New Moti Mahal Palace in Patiala from 22 to 26 September demanding a complete loan waiver for farmers, or at least for those owning land of up to 10 acres.

There are reports of a crackdown on protesting farmers in Patiala and Bathinda zones with more than 300 farmers being arrested over the last three days.

On the other hand, potato growers went on to dump their produce on the outskirts of Chandigarh in Mohali over the poor prices for their output. According to the farmers, they are getting a mere Rs 70 for a 50 kg bag of potatoes.

The sugarcane farmers awaiting their dues for the last harvest have also been carrying out regular protests while seeking a hike in the State Advised Price (SAP). The government has cleared the dues of the sugarcane farmers in only the Gurdaspur area. The Opposition has been saying that this is because of the forthcoming by-poll.

Observers say that it is time that the Amarinder government starts taking immediate steps to address the farmer community with concrete measures. With farmers threatening to launch nation-wide protests Punjab faces the danger of being one of the main theatres of this unrest.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 21 September 2017, 13:32 IST