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Sunday Special » Perspective

Posted at: Jan 6, 2019, 7:29 AM; last updated: Jan 6, 2019, 7:29 AM (IST)

In Punjab, Haryana, the poll year begins in despair, promises hope

In one state, legal action is initiated against defaulting farmers, in the other, they are named and shamed. Still, in election year, farmers are on every party’s mind

Ruchika M Khanna in Chandigarh

The New Year celebrations did not touch the lives of 14.08 lakh farmer households in Punjab. With banks initiating legal action against farmers who have been unable to repay loans, their year began with a five-day dharna outside banks. As the protest continued, the state cooperative department issued a statement, not addressing the core issue of farm distress, but calling the dharna illegal, accusing farmer leaders of misleading people and explaining why it was imperative to recover the loans.

In the neighbouring Haryana, farmers who have failed to repay their loans are being named and shamed by the banks. Posters with photographs of defaulters are being put up — a step legally correct, but one that would further alienate the distressed segment.

In both the states, farmers are a significant vote bank. Of the 9.02 crore farmer households in India, 14.08 lakh are in Punjab and 15.69 lakh in Haryana. With the Parliamentary election a few months away, no wonder that the two major regional parties — the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Haryana — are out to woo them.

In Punjab, the Congress has already implemented its ambitious Crop Loan Waiver Scheme in Punjab and announced a similar one for Haryana if the party comes to power. That leaves the two regional parties mulling over the options before them. However, they need to go beyond the sops the Congress has offered and what the BJP claims to have already done for the beleaguered sector. After all, both the Akali Dal and the INLD draw strength from rural voters who are mainly into agriculture and allied activities.

With the average agriculture growth rate in 2014-15 and 2017-18 being less than 2 per cent per year, the two regional parties know that the only way they can retain their vote base is by promising them the moon. It is another thing that just like the Congress in Punjab, both parties have no clue as to where the money to fulfil these promises would come from.

One of the ideas being floated is fixed income support to farmers. This would be fashioned on the lines of the Rythu Bandhu programme of Telangana, which provides a fixed amount of Rs 4,000 per acre per year as direct income support to farmers. Though the manifesto for the parliamentary elections has not yet been prepared, this is one of the main promises for farmers being discussed in this region.

Member of Parliament from Anandpur Sahib, Prem Singh Chandumajra, who has been part of the Akali Dal delegations that met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recently, said they want the alliance partners — the BJP and the Akali Dal — to promise farm production incentive to the farmers. “This could be per acre, per family or per quintal of grain produced. We want minimum assured income for landowners, landless cultivators and farm labourers as well. We are also stressing on interest-free loans for farmers who repay their crop loan instalments on time,” he said.

The INLD, on the other hand, has announced that it would go in for complete waiver of all farm loans — be it from institutional sources or non-institutional sources like arhtiyas and private moneylenders. It also plans to credit Rs 5,000 per acre into a farmer’s account as input cost to plant the next crop as assured financial assistance to farmers.

Parveen Atri, national spokesperson of the INLD, says party patriarch Devi Lal was the first one to announce debt waivers for farmers. Two years back, the party had announced a farm-loan waiver for farmers and small traders at the party’s Bhiwani rally, if people of the state voted it back to power.

“The party is also firm on building the Satluj-Yamuna link canal, which will solve the problem of water for irrigation, especially in south Haryana. We will also ensure that the farmers get 50 per cent profit on their produce, the price of which will be calculated on the C-2 formula. In case the Centre does not announce the MSP on this formula, the INLD, if it assumes power in the state, will ensure that it is followed,” he said.

Indebted for life

Studies have shown that while the lowest Central government job pays Rs 22,000 a month, the income of a farm household is about Rs 3,800 per month. Farmer indebtedness in Punjab and Haryana is among the highest in the country. The National Sample Survey Organisation puts the incidence of indebtedness in rural households in Punjab at 33.1 per cent (15.4 per cent in institutional and 22.3 per cent in non-institutional credit agencies). In Haryana, the incidence is 23.9 per cent (13.2 per cent in institutional and 14.8 per cent in non-institutional credit agencies).

The game-changer

The Crop Loan Waiver Scheme, first announced and implemented by the Congress in Punjab, is set to be replicated in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh by the newly elected Congress government. Under this scheme, farmers’ crop loans up to Rs 2 lakh are waived off. In Punjab, after covering the small and marginal farmers, it will also cover farm labourers. This has proved to be a big political game changer, prompting other political parties to follow suit. Keeping up with the Joneses, the regional political parties — be it Telangana Rashtra Samithi or Biju Janta Dal — have also announced direct income support for farmers, giving them an assured income. 

Experiments elsewhere

  • Telangana: Rythu Bandhu programme initially provides a fixed amount of Rs 4,000 per acre per year as direct income support. The money is transferred directly into the accounts of farmers. This programme set the trend for production incentives to be given to farmers. The programme is believed to have contributed in the recent stupendous success of K Chandrasekhar Rao on the hustings.
  • Odisha: The eastern state that goes to polls this year has now announced Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation, targeting 57 lakh farmer households in the state. The scheme will provide support to cultivators for cultivation, livelihood support to landless agricultural households, financial assistance to vulnerable agricultural households, life insurance support to cultivators and landless agriculture labourers and interest-free crop loan. The selection of the beneficiary will be taken up in three phases and the state is spending Rs 10,000 crore over three years as income support.
  • Jharkhand and West Bengal, too, have announced similar support schemes with the former giving Rs 5,000 per acre per year to small and marginal farmers and the latter giving Rs 10,000 per acre per year and a life insurance cover to farmers.

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