Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Debt drives Punjab farmers to suicide

In the last 15 years, 49 Jat Sikh farmers in Bhullan village of Punjab's Sangrur district have committed suicide, leaving behind their women, children and staggering loans.

"Debt is climbing, please help us, we are widows. We should at least get something for our children's education," said Lajo, a widow.

Land ownership

Ever since cotton became the favoured crop along with wheat in Punjab two decades ago, excessive pesticide use, growing salinity and a ballooning debt trap have led to a major shift in land ownership in the country's grain bowl.

Civil society groups say more than 20,000 farmers have killed themselves across Punjab in the last 20 years. These suicides have become a grim equaliser, pushing small and marginal Jat Sikh farmers down the economic and social ladder.

A Jat Sikh woman, Shiela Kaur's 14-acre farm is now down to two acres after her husband could not payback a loan of Rs 2,50,000.

Kaur's husband borrowed money for a tubewell, but he died trying to repay the loan. His wife and two small children are forced to toil as farm workers on their own fields.

"I have begun labouring on my farm. I have no option as I don't have resources which I once had," said Kaur.

Little work left

For the land owning Jat farmer, joining the ranks of Dalits is a huge drop in social status.

With more and more Jat Sikh farmers finding themselves heavily indebted, the Dalits who once worked their land find little work.

Saund Singh, a 60-year-old Dalit Sikh farmer, got only 15 days of work.

"There's no work here whatsoever. I will have to look for other ways to earn money," said Saund Singh.

Saund Singh's sons, Mahinder, Jagraj and Inderjeet, dreamt of working on their own land rather than those of the Jats. They borrowed money and took land on contract. All three were unable to repay the loans and over five years, all three killed themselves.

Unending wait

In the village, the caste hierarchy is dissolving.

"A certain reform has come in the caste system which is good, but I wish such a reform had not come through destitution, poverty and suicides," said Inderjeet Singh Jaijee, a social worker.

The farmer suicides have received attention and subsequent relief in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka.

But for the farmers of Punjab, it has been one long and unending wait for acknowledgement and relief.

Sandeep Bhushan
Wednesday, May 17, 2006