The study said one in three farmers in Punjab earns less than Rs 2,500 a month. (Representational)
Pal Singh, 55, a resident of Sowhna village in Patiala who grows maize and paddy, owns two acres of land. With a monthly 'saving' of Rs 2,000 after selling the harvest and paying for his land lease, Mr Singh does not have enough to provide for his family. He has no money to buy medicine for his ailing sister and pay his sons' school fee, apart from meeting other sundry agrarian dues.
He carries a debt burden of Rs 8 lakh that has been accumulating for the last 10 months with borrowings from money-lenders and a local bank.
Mr Singh's plight is not an anomaly in Punjab, although multiple agrarian indices would have people believe otherwise. Punjab has the highest crop productivity and the largest irrigated area among the states, but such productivity puts pressure on small and marginal farmers, who together comprises 10.5 lakh farmers in the state.
According to a study by the state-run Punjabi University in Patiala, 86 per cent farmers and 80 per cent agricultural labourers in Punjab are facing indebtedness. The study said one in three farmers in Punjab earns less than Rs 2,500 a month -- or nearly a third of Punjab's farmers lives below the poverty line, based on an estimate by an expert group of the now-disbanded Planning Commission of India. The university's study covered 2015-16.
At least 66 per cent of Punjab's farmers earn less than Rs 57,300 a year, which is also the per capita income of the state.
The study, 'Indebtedness Among Farmers and Agricultural Labourers', analyses not just farming families but also agricultural labourers. The average debt per household for agricultural labourers is Rs 68,330, while the same for farming families is Rs 552,065, the study said. It said between 82 per cent and 99 per cent of agricultural labourers in Punjab are below the poverty line.
"These findings are extremely critical for a state like Punjab where there is often a perception that farmers, and farming, are prosperous. Marginal farmers, small farmers, semi-medium farmers and agricultural labourers, their (loan) repaying capacity is nil," Dr Gian Singh, Project Director of the study, said. "They are trying to maintain a minimum level of consumption regardless of whether they can afford it or not," he said.
Food policy expert Devinder Sharma said the study corroborates not just the bad financial health of Punjab's farmers, but also rising farmer suicides in Punjab. "The findings are shocking but unsurprising in a state where at least one farmer is committing suicide every day. It all ties in. Their poverty, their indebtedness, are all major factors," Mr Sharma said. "This is also an indication that farming policies in the state have failed to provide farmers a minimum basic income," he added.
The study's author said this is the first such report that looked into 'actual landholding', instead of 'operational landholding'. For example, a farmer may own only one acre, but may have leased four more acres - making five acres his operational landholding while the actual is only one acre. The study's author said previous anti-debt programmes only considered operational landholding while deciding compensation, which may give an inaccurate picture.
This study, however, focused on the actual landholding pattern, the author said.
The Punjab government's budget for 2017-18, tabled on Tuesday, provided a Rs 1,500-crore loan waiver
for 10.5 lakh small and marginal farmers. The ruling Congress, however, had promised farmers before the Punjab assembly election that it would announce a complete loan waiver. According to food policy experts, the individual benefits of the Punjab government's latest announcement are likely to be minuscule.
Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh had also recently told the state Assembly he would announce a crop loan waiver of up to Rs 2 lakh for every marginal farmer who owns up to five acres of land.
But farmers like Pal Singh in Punjab cannot tell whether the announced measures
would end their woes.