How Punjab’s State-approved Systems Continue to Let Farmers Fall Prey to Rural Debt

According to data submitted to the Lok Sabha last month, from the beginning of the year until 11 March, 56 farmers in Punjab had taken their lives due to agrarian reasons—failed crops, outstanding debts, and threats of the arthiyas. PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
07 May, 2016

The state of Punjab’s revenue officials had marked 26 April 2016 to evict Baljit Singh and his family from their house and land in village Jodhpur, district Barnala. That morning, at around 11 AM, so confident was the arthiya—a commission agent—Teja Singh from the nearby Cheema village that he came to the site to evict Baljit and family while the police and revenue officials that oversee the eviction were yet to reach. Teja, a former policeman, was accompanied by his sons, Jaspreet Singh Jassa and Manpreet Singh Manna, as well as two other men, one of whom was his nephew. Armed with the kabza warrant—possession order—to evict Baljit Singh, they barged into Baljit’s house.

In 2002, Baljit’s father, Darshan Singh, also a small farmer, had borrowed Rs 1.8 lakh from Teja. For this loan, he mortgaged his land—roughly two acres—on which his house was also located. Darshan was unable to pay the loan, and after he died in 2012, his debt was transferred to his son. Due to extreme poverty and changing interest rates on the loans, Baljit had been unable to pay back the debt for many years. That morning, Teja demanded that Baljit and his family vacate the premises and hand over the land. Baljit pleaded with him for a little more time, but Teja did not relent. A scuffle broke out between them. Meanwhile, hundreds of policemen, with revenue officials—the tehsildar; the patwari, a land-record clerk and his supervisor, the kanungo—had turned up. “It’s because Jassa is a district office holder of the Shiromani Akali Dal’s”—Punjab’s ruling party “students’ union, Student Organisation of India,” said Manjit Singh Dhaner, the state vice president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union-Dakonda, a farmer’s group. Over a hundred activists from BKU-Dakonda were also present. According to news reports, the superintendent of police for Barnala, Swarn Singh Khanna, stated, “These were court orders. The police have to perform its duty according to law and procedures. We had to take action.”

When BKU activists tried to prevent the eviction, they were arrested. This is when Baljit ran to the roof of his small home, with a bottle of pesticide in his hand. Villagers milled around his house and pleaded with him to come down, but he gulped down the contents of the bottle, and collapsed. When his mother Balbir Kaur saw what happened, she too consumed poison. The police and villagers rushed the mother and son to the Civil Hospital in Barnala. Balbir Kaur was declared dead on arrival. The doctors referred Baljit Singh to Rajendra Hospital, Patiala, but he died on the way.

Baljit Singh and Balbir Kaur’s deaths have shaken up the state. Any suicide is a complex matter, but at the heart of this particular one—and many others like it—is the fear the farmer has of the loss of their dignity and land, often the only source of income available to them. According to data submitted to the Lok Sabha last month, from the beginning of the year until 11 March, 56 farmers in Punjab had taken their lives due to agrarian reasons—failed crops, outstanding debts, and threats of the arthiyas. This number is second only to Maharashtra, which saw 57 such deaths by 29 February. Since then, in Punjab, the number has reportedly climbed to 93. An undeniable cause that underlies these deaths is the state’s role in them. Through both the law and tone-deaf bills such as the recent Rural Indebtedness Bill, passed by the Punjab government in March this year, the state approves, aids and facilitates processes that invariably lead to the loss of a farmer’s land, and does little to resolve their indebtedness.

Commonly, lenders follow a three-step process when a farmer is unable to repay a loan. First, they get the assets of the farmed attached—they approach the courts and obtain an order banning the farmer from being able to sell the land. Then, if the farmer is still unable to pay, they then conduct a public auction. Though this auction is supposed to be conducted at the site itself, this is rarely done—the lenders often conduct the proceedings within the court, and many times in the presence of their acquaintances or relatives, and sell the land to them. Finally, the court allows new owners to evict the farmers, and take possession of the land.

But this process is rarely transparent or fair. According to an independent enquiry by the Bathinda-based Association for Democratic Rights Punjab, when in 2003, Baljit’s father Darshan failed to pay back the amount, Teja got him to sign blank papers—a common tactic of the money lenders. In 2007, Baljit moved the civil court, accusing Teja of adding interest on the loan amount in an arbitrary manner. His petition was turned down, and Teja sought to take possession of the property. He got the land attached, conducted a dubious auction and reportedly got the land registered in the name of another Baljit Singh, said to be his business associate. When Darshan died, in 2012, the tehsildar issued a possession warrant in favour of the new owner. In February this year, the High Court, dismissing Baljit’s plight, issued orders for him to evict his home and hand over the land. It asked for a reply on its orders by May 6. This was the reason for the revenue officials and police’s haste in evicting Darshan’s family from the land.

The callous attitude of the law and the courts is significant. According to a survey by Punjab University, Patiala, published in January 2016, the outstanding debt in rural Punjab stands close to Rs 70,000 crore, of which about one fifth is from loans extended by private money lenders. Punjab has 20,000 arthiyas and the extent of farm indebtedness has doubled in the past 10 years. But while the arthiyas are strengthened by their position on the right side of the law, support for farmers is scarce. Members of the BKU told me that, over the last 15 years, via protests, they have prevented over 2000 sales from taking place. In Baljit Singh’s case, the BKU prevented the possession about 15 times. The BKU also mediated four rounds of talks between Baljit and Teja, even offering a deal by which Teja could leave the house and a third of the land and take the rest, but he refused to budge.

Even the government acknowledges rural indebtedness, although their efforts to curb it are arguably hollow. In his intention statement accompanying the Punjab Settlement of Agricultural Indebtedness Bill—which the government passed on 24 March—the Punjab agriculture minister Tota Singh wrote, “This legislation provides for a framework for regulation and settlement of agricultural debts.” The bill was first introduced in 2001, and suggests that this settlement of non-institutional agricultural debts occur in district level forums. But according to the Bathinda-based advocate Narinder Jeet, it will fail in its attempt. Jeet has been defending cases on behalf of small farmers and farm labour for several decades now. “The bill was supposed to address farmers in debt but actually takes the burden off the courts and benefits the arthiyasby assuring them a double return on the money they have lent,” he told me.

For instance, the Clause 2 (H) of the Bill, which defines “debt,” does not cover loans other than rural indebtedness. But, needless to say, loans are often taken by poor farmers for activities other than agriculture and livestock. In Malwa—known for having some of the highest rates of cancer in the state—many loans are for health, for building a room, for small trade, and so on—activities that are not unrelated to the farming trade. The Clause 4 of the Bill, which specifies how the interest will be calculated, does not put a cap on non-institutional interest rates. Instead, it proposes the government will decide the rate annually. But a floating rate cannot work for non-institutional loans, and will certainly not assuage farmers.

One of the crucial clauses in the bill is Clause 5, which includes an arthiya in the suggested settlement forum, instead of an official or expert, along with a retired member of judiciary and a farmer representative. It does not, however, specify how these members will be fairly chosen; nor does it guarantee any means for transparency in the process. Clause 8 states that a decision of the Forum will be effective even if there remains a vacancy. Simply put, decisions can be passed even in the absence of the farmer representative.

The Bill has also evaded the recovery mechanism. By doing so, it bypasses the most contentious of the recovery provisions: seizing a farmer’s movable and immovable assets. The Clause 24 mandates the orders of the forum to be executed by the civil court as if it were a decree or an order of that court. This returns the problem to square one—the police and revenue officials will remain involved in ensuring repayment, and the debtor’s land and possessions will be attached, auctioned and the possession will change hands. The bill also makes no mention of curbing processes such as forged promissory notes, tampered accounts, false witnesses—all of which are common practices employed by arthiyas to hold the farmer to ransom. It falls way short of providing any actual relief and is really a face-saver for the government which faces elections early next year.

Meanwhile, according to Navdeep Singh, the station house officer for Barnala, cases have been registered against Teja, his sons and others that accompanied him under Sections 306, 452, 148 and 149 of the Indian Penal Code: abetment to suicide, trespass, rioting, and being armed with deadly weapon. For now, they are in jail. The BKU-Dakonda and the villagers initially refused to allow the bodies of Baljit Singh and Balbir Kaur to be cremated. Buta Singh Burjgill, BKU-Dakonda’s president, said, “Charges have to be filed against all who are complicit: the government and police officials too.” On April 26, they sat in protest and refused to allow the bodies to be taken for post-mortem and cremation until the Barnala district authorities agreed to pay Rs 6 lakh in compensation to Baljit Singh and Balbir Kaur’s family, provide one member of the family a job, and waive off the loan. The only survivors of the family are Baljit’s younger brother, Manjit Singh who, until now, has earned his living by grazing goats, and his wife and children. Once the bodies were cremated, last Thursday, on April 28, the arthiyas, supported by SAD and BJP entered the SP’s office and demanded that police file cases against the BKU leaders.

While Manjit awaits compensation, crucial steps the government should take would be to correct the framework of relations between arthiyas and poor farmers, and regulate credit. But entrenched in political manoeuvres and protecting the powerful arthiya groups, the SAD does not seem to have the inclination to do so. The chief minister Prakash Singh Badal said, “I don’t know what was the reason but we are helping those in need,” before referring to the crop failure and adding, in his rustic style, “Government can’t bring the water level up all of a sudden.”

The other political parties too, inspire little hope. Owing perhaps in large part to the upcoming elections, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party both of whom are attempting to gain political ground, also jumped in. Captain Amarinder Singh from the Congress said, “Aggrieved by helpless farmers committing suicide as police watch. (If elected) I will outlaw land auctioning of indebted farmers.” The village falls under the member of parliament Bhagwant Mann’s constituency. Initially, the AAP did not speak on the matter, but on 1 May, Mann announced that Delhi chief minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal will adopt the farmer’s the two children—Manjit’s, since Baljit was unmarried. The AAP did not mention what it intended to do about the families of the other farmers who have taken their lives.

The wheat procurement season is ongoing, and the Punjab Arthiya Association, many of whom are traders who buy the wheat from farmers and sell it ahead, has threatened to go on strike in order to secure the release of Teja’s sons and file cases against BKU leaders. On the other hand, the farmer unions have decided to start protests in front of the Barnala District Magistrate’s office, on 16 May, to demand loan waivers for all debt-ridden farmers in Punjab. It is clear, however loud be their rhetoric, this time the political parties in Punjab cannot deny ground realities.