The Burden of Debt
Both the Centre and the Punjab government have tried to hide the truth about rural suicides. Not only farmers but also labourers, artisans and shopkeepers are driven to suicide because they are all tied to the economic position of the village.
by Inderjit Singh Jaijee
IN February this year the Government of Punjab began the disbursal of the promised compensation/rehabilitation to the next of kin of the debt-related rural suicide victims. Suicides are a very sensitive issue in Punjab’s villages and one would expect that if the Akali-led state government is now actively implementing a programme to compensate and rehabilitate the next of kin of these victims, it would strongly redound to the party’s credit. Instead, villagers are as keenly aware of the programme’s negative points as they are of its positive points.
The first of the negative points is the way the number of eligible families was determined. After a state-wide survey (wrongly termed as a “census”) to determine the number of cases, the list of suicides numbered 6,476 of which 4,687 were accepted as debt-related for the period 2000 to 2011. The number of rural families enduring severe privation on account of the suicide by the bread-winner in the debt-related cases vastly exceeds 4,687. Earlier reports by several State-sponsored research agencies point to an average of about 2,000 a year. Human rights and farmers unions’ estimates are much higher.
Eligibility for compensation
Care needs to be taken in ascertaining eligibility. Information regarding debt is collected from the widow. If her husband owes a debt the widow may not know, or even if she knows in a general way, she may not know the specific amount and to whom it is owed. Information gathered from the panchayat at a collective meeting is more reliable. Investigation in the presence of the entire panchayat also steers the investigator clear of the sarpanch’s possible party or group biases.
In Bathinda and Sangrur, both badly affected by rural suicides, villagers point out that their districts were covered in a pilot study conducted in 2008. For other districts the period was 2000 to 2011. Between 2008 and 2011 many more farmers and farm labourers in these districts committed suicide but their cases were not tallied. They want a gap-filler investigation to be conducted to bring the toll for their districts up to 2011 like the rest of the state – and this second investigation should be a door-to-door census. Better yet, a real census should be repeated for the entire state, taking cases up to date.
Another point is that compensation should be given to the next of kin of all debt-related suicide cases, including those in which gram panchayat affadavits were given to the government prior to the official survey.
Delay in rehabilitation
As early as 1990 the Punjab government received reports that economic distress was driving farmers and farm labourers to take their lives. The government examined those reports and found them to be correct. This made Punjab the first state in the country to have this information. However, Punjab was not the first state to attempt the rehabilitation of the families of suicide victims. Southern states came forward much earlier and the eligibility for compensation was dated to 1995. Compensation packages in some southern states also included a house and a job. It was not until 2001 that Punjab officially acknowledged rural suicides. In that year, the Shiromani Akali Dal-led Punjab Government Budget sanctioned Rs 2.5 lakh for the next of kin of rural suicide victims. This amount was not disbursed despite the government remaining in power for a year after the announcement.
The SAD returned to power in 2007 and again in 2012. In the state’s 2012 Budget, sanction was given for Rs.2 lakh compensation to the next of kin of each debt-related suicide victim. In other words, as inflation soared over the years, the SAD government reduced the amount per recipient. The state government has now paid a first installment of Rs.1 lakh up to 2006. The balance is to be paid in the following year. The state knows that inflation is eating away at the balance every day but there is no mention of adjusting for this.
An approach to compensation/rehabilitation emerged from the 2006 Punjab Farmers Commission’s report. The Commission recommended for the rural suicide next of kin a lumpsum payment of Rs 50,000 and a monthly pension of Rs 1,500. This recommendation was rejected by Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, as in his view “handing out Rs. 2 lakh looks better”. From the political point of view, a lumpsum compensation may “look better” but other modes of compensation/rehabilitation may in fact be more advantageous for the affected families. For instance, a large lump-sum payment will surely attract the arthiyas/moneylenders. A lumpsum payment is likely to mean that the money leaves the recipient’s hand on the very day it arrives – grabbed by the very creditors who drove the suicide victim to end his life in the first place.
If the party’s approach to rural suicides has made the Akali’s appear to be willfully blind, villagers see the Punjab Congress party as the mindless slave of its “High Command” which is totally identified with national level corporate interests. It is not difficult to see why the Congress is blamed. The year 2006 saw the Prime Minister’s rehabilitation package for farmers in the suicide-prone districts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Maharashtra. Under the package, Rs. 9,650.55 crore has been allocated to Andhra Pradesh, Rs. 2,689.64 crore to Karnataka, Rs. 765.24 crore to Kerala and Rs. 3,873.26 crore to Maharashtra. Punjab has got nothing.
The debt write-off
In the Union Budget of 2008-09 the Finance Minister announced a massive debt write-off to the tune of Rs.70,000 crore of farmers’ outstanding loans. Punjab’s share was around 1 per cent although Punjab’s contribution to the central foodgrain pool is in excess of 50 per cent. The 1 per cent to Punjab in the Central package was meant to cloud the reality of rural suicides in Punjab.
The reasoning of the Union Government seems to run like this: Punjab, by definition, is “the most agriculturally progressive state” and therefore “immune to suicides”. The actual position is that, proportionate to the population, rural suicides in Punjab are far more than in other states
Both the Centre and the Punjab government have tried many subterfuges to hide the truth about rural suicides. It has been made out that only farmers commit suicide, when in fact the entire rural sector is stricken. Labourers, village artisans and village shopkeepers are also driven to suicide because they are all tied to the economic position of the village. This is true of all rural areas in all states and not just Punjab.
Again and again, the villager has seen the government tie itself in knots in its effort to evade the plain truth about Punjab’s agrarian crisis. Before Khalistan everything was blamed on Naxalites. The Naxalites were wiped out and when trouble arose again it was blamed on Khalistan. Now the government wavers between declaring that agrarian unrest is ‘unreal’ or that it is real but it is not agrarian and sometimes the government declares that Naxalites are regrouping and sometimes it says that the Khalistanis are coming back. And all this time, Punjab’s village communities are saying: ‘Look at us … we are just farmers and all we want is a fair deal.’ This is the basic political issue in rural Punjab no matter which election is impending.
The writer is a retired Punjab legislator and a human rights activist
What should be done
Here’s what ought to be done to tackle not just the compensation issue
but suicides per se
* In compensation, the balance payment of Rs. 1 lakh plus interest should be converted into a pension of Rs.1,500 per month as recommended by the Punjab Farmers Commission.
* The Punjab government should accept gram panchayat affidavits verifying that debt drove a person to take their own life as establishing the eligibility for compensation.
* The Sangrur and Bathinda figures should be updated to include all cases occurring between September 2008 and 2011 to bring the suicide data on a par with the other districts. The districts of Sangrur and Bathinda were covered in a pilot study conducted earlier by Panjab Agricultural University in 2008.
* Wrangling over suicide figures can be completely eliminated by two simple measures: First of all, decriminalize suicide. Families should not be afraid of owning up the suicide by a member. This will also remove the temptation to the police to exploit already depressed families. Secondly, restore the entry, ‘Cause of Death’, in the registers of deaths maintained by the village chowkidars and their entries are accepted as legal evidence. Restoring this entry would allow up-to-date information not only on rural suicides but also other types of mortality. In fact, these registers should be fed into a computerised district register.
* Government officials should bear the responsibility for ensuring that the eligible persons receive state pensions offered to the elderly, widows, destitute children and disabled persons. Immediate family members of suicide victims are almost always impoverished, physically infirm, illiterate and unable to cope with government procedures. At present pension coverage is not more than 30 per cent of the eligible. Nor is the pension amount received regularly. December, 2012 pensions were paid in June, 2013. In case of delay of over three months, a compensatory amount should be given. Incidentally, Haryana pensions are almost three times higher than those of Punjab. The minimum pension should be fixed at Rs.1,000 per month.
* The Punjab government should send the gist of a suicide survey report to the Central government so that a Central relief package is extended to Punjab farmers. They were excluded from the first package. Punjab must be acknowledged as a suicide-affected state on the same terms as other states.
Courtesy of www.tribuneindia.com/