Over 85 per cent of agriculture-dependent households in rural Punjab are debt-ridden, says a study published in the Journal of Rural Development. The average financial burden is Rs 5.52 lakh and Rs 68,330, respectively, per household of indebted farmers and agricultural labourers. These figures statistically demonstrate that self-sufficiency continues to elude the farming community. The Congress had been voted into power in the state in 2017 on the back of the promise of farm loan waiver. The populist promise also helped the party wrest the Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh from the BJP late last year. However, it is apparent that the scaled-down waiver has largely failed to lift Punjab’s farmers out of the debt trap in the past over two years.
The Congress has perhaps realised that this short-term relief is no panacea for the agrarian crisis. In its manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections, the party has promised to help farmers make the transition from ‘karz maafi’ to ‘karz mukti’. This is possible only if they get remunerative prices for their produce, adequate subsidies to cover input costs, and assured access to institutional credit. Efforts to promote crop diversification — an ideal way to bypass the wheat-paddy cycle — should no longer remain half-hearted and sporadic.
Amid the gloom, there is a ray of hope for the beleaguered farmers across the country. In recent months, the prices of several farm commodities have shot up. The development is being attributed to drought in many parts of western and southern India, besides the early onset of summer. Consumer food inflation stayed below general retail inflation from September 2016 to March 2019, but the scenario is changing fast. It’s the common man who is beginning to feel the pinch, while the farmers are hoping to make hay while the sun shines. The onus will be on the new government to safeguard the interests of producers as well as consumers, while ensuring that food security is accorded as much importance as national security.