Hamirgarh, Punjab: Unlike his father and brother who hanged themselves, Labh Singh gulped down pesticide to end his misery, leaving his wife to look after five children and pay off the family debts.
His widow Saroj was at her parents’ home and by the time she heard the news last November, Singh had already been cremated. “There was never enough to eat in the house, so the debt kept piling up,” Saroj said at her home in Hamirgarh village in the Punjab, a region long known as India’s breadbasket.
Digging deep: A file photo of farmers draining water from their field in Amritsar. Punjab’s water table has fallen rapidly, leading to rising costs amid the need to dig ever deeper wells.
Singh joined the thousands of farmers and labourers who have killed themselves in the affluent state in the past decade because of a crisis blamed on official neglect of the farming sector.
Experts say the government must pay immediate attention to agriculture if it is to save the situation, even as the price of the food grown by the farmers surges rapidly. While suicides in other states have been extensively recorded and acknowledged by the Centre, alarming numbers in Punjab have drawn far less attention. “The government refuses to admit there’s a crisis here as Punjab has always been the showpiece agricultural success story,” said Inderjit Singh Jaijee, a former legislator who works on farmer suicides.
As the majority of suicides are recorded with police as natural deaths because of fear of harassment, there is little official data on the Punjab cases. Jaijee’s non-profit Movement Against State Repression estimates that more than 60,000 debt-ridden Punjab farmers have killed themselves in the past two decades. More conservative estimates put the number at 20,000 since the mid-1990s.
Punjab farmers labour under a collective debt of Rs10,000 crore—three times the average for farmers in the rest of India, according to the non-profit Agricultural Heritage Mission.
Rising pesticide and fertiliser costs, shrinking land holdings, declining soil fertility and heavily subsidized farming in rich countries are some of the factors blamed for the tragedy.
In the past five years, 400,000 Punjab farmers have become labourers after selling their land to pay debts, said farmer Ram Daya Singh, who collects information on the suicides.
Punjab was one of the states that spearheaded India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s that led to a four fold increase in staple food production. It was hailed as one of the world’s most successful agricultural stories as high-yield varieties of wheat and rice were introduced, chemical fertilizers and pesticides promoted and irrigation intensified.
Though it brought food security and decades of prosperity to Punjab, many of those decisions are today blamed for the dismal state of agriculture.
Farmers were urged to grow paddy, which is not natural to the northern region and requires intensive irrigation, said activist Jaijee. Punjab’s water table has fallen rapidly, leading to rising costs amid the need to dig ever deeper wells and increased contamination of groundwater caused by rampant use of pesticides.
This year, the Union government has predicted a record wheat harvest of 76.78 million tonnes and ruled out wheat imports after buying from abroad for two years.
But experts said that if the government is to avert a famine, it must change many policies which they say benefit seed, fertilizer and grain trading corporations at the cost of farmers. “The rate of growth of food output in the 1980s was 3.8% per year. It has come down to 0.5% per year in the past six years,” said S.P. Shukla, a former member of the Planning Commission.
With an eye on next year’s general elections, the Centre in March announced a massive Rs60,000 crore bailout for 40 million poor farmers. But farmers say it will help only those who borrowed from banks, rather than from moneylenders.
“This debt has destroyed us,” said Baljit Kaur, whose widowed sister abandoned her three young children to marry another man after her farmer husband killed himself.