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

07 May 2016
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.

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.

Amandeep Sandhu Amandeep Sandhu is working on a non-fiction book on Punjab.

Keywords: Punjab farmers agriculture Shiromani Akali Dal Rural indebtedness Farmer Suicides Aam Aadmi Party