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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  How liberalization brought about the downfall of farmers in Punjab
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How liberalization brought about the downfall of farmers in Punjab

Reforms have not helped farmers anywhere in India and have badly hit those in Punjab, says Sandeep Singh Randhawa

Sandeep Singh Randhawa with his mother Surinder Kaur at Batala. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/MintPremium
Sandeep Singh Randhawa with his mother Surinder Kaur at Batala. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Amritsar: When dusk stole over Sandeep Singh Randhawa’s fields one May evening in 1988, he had little inkling that his life was about to change forever. The 18-year-old was on his way back from the family’s poultry farm when he saw his farmhouse, situated on the family’s verdant 87 acres of land in Batala, surrounded by men; a few were on the roof. It was when terrorism in Punjab was at its peak and no one ventured out after sunset.

“There were 13 men inside the house. They were either sitting or standing around my father. The leader was busy scribbling on a piece of paper," recalls Randhawa, now 47.

His father, Rajinder Singh Randhawa, was well known in the surrounding villages and the family’s yield of wheat was highly sought-after in the markets. “I asked the man writing what the problem was. He did not respond. He tore up the letter, asked for a fresh piece of paper and finally asked my father to step outside. One member of the group asked if I, too, should come but the leader refused."

The men shot Rajinder Singh Randhawa at point blank range, shouted ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ and melted into the night.

Silence descends on the room as Randhawa finishes telling the story. It’s the same room from which his father was taken. His mother Surinder Kaur and he stare into the distance for some time before composing themselves.

“Everyone around us sold off their lands and moved away. Our neighbours had 80 acres of land. All three of their sons were serving colonels in the army and still they chose to go. My mother refused to," says Randhawa.

The feisty woman tended to the land herself and continued with the family’s poultry business while her sons (Randhawa has four siblings, three sisters and a brother) studied.

“During terrorism our financial condition was badly hit. We could step out only during daytime and farming is not a 9-to-5 job," says Randhawa.

It was around this time that he moved away from the traditional crops of wheat and paddy to agro-forestry.

“I planted poplar trees; they are amongst the best crops for absentee farmers."

Randhawa’s family now owns some hundred acres of land in Batala and Pathankot. The family has a dairy business as well. Randhawa has also dabbled in gladiola farming. “There have been a lot of attempts in Punjab to cultivate new crops, be it strawberries or flowers. Potato farming was also booming at one point. In between we have dabbled in basmati too, but the thing is that with a lot of the fancy crops, there are very few people who do it but it gets talked up. The investment required is a lot but the returns are minuscule," says Randhawa.

His own investment in gladiola around 2004-05 did not end well. “ the open market we were being given one rupee per stick. Eventually I was told, ‘Leave the flowers; if they are purchased, good—if they’re not, your loss’," he recalls.

Randhawa is well aware of the image associated with the Punjabi farmer—one of prosperity, the custodian of the nation’s granary—a reputation gained after the Green Revolution of the 1960s.

“But a lot of it is eyewash. The Punjabi farmer today is beset with debt, struggling to make ends meet. There may be big kothis (bungalows) and lavish weddings, but everyone is trying to keep up with the Joneses. There are those who even go into debt to maintain the lifestyle," he says.

So, how did the Punjab farmer end up in this mess? Reforms, according to Randhawa, have not helped farmers anywhere in India. In Punjab, he says, they have been badly hit.

“We were never allowed to export our wheat throughout the 1970s and 80s because the rest of the country needed it. Today all our states are self-sufficient and we import wheat from Australia. Yes, there is a minimum support price but better policies could have been developed to safeguard the interests of the farmers once the markets opened up."

According to Randhawa, the government exercised so much control at one point that even breeding directions for cattle would be handed to universities. “But after the markets opened up, trade agreements were signed; we were not apprised of what the changing times would bring and how we can stay competitive."

Over the years, the falling price of different crops (due to a variety of national and international factors), coupled with expensive machinery, left many facing financial hardships. Small farmers leased out their land to bigger farmers in an attempt to survive. Randhawa says that no farmer really makes a profit from his fields, as whatever money is earned is put right back into the farms.

“There was a time when banks would not give you loans to buy a tractor if you did not have land holdings beyond a certain acreage. Now few banks follow that rule. It’s very tough for the small farmer to survive, as of now."

Randhawa says the government should renew its focus on the needs of farmers. “Bodies like FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) and CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) are invited for discussions related to policies and decisions but no such courtesy is extended to farmers. This is not how mature economies should behave."

This is the 51st part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization. To read more from Days of Our Lives, click here.

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Updated: 30 Dec 2016, 08:17 PM IST
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