Rivers of Arsenic & Farmer Suicides: The Panjab Water Crisis
Panjab was once the most prosperous state in the subcontinent. Now, it is one drained and crippled by corruption, exploitation and wider neglect. It was once the flagship of agrarian modernisation and the land of abundance, now it is where India’s agrarian crisis is most acute; manifest in the continuation of civil unrest and farmer suicides amidst a falling water table.
‘Panjab’ literally translates as the ‘land of five rivers’. Tributaries of the Indus River and its fertile soil have ensured that it has been one of the most naturally productive lands settled in the subcontinent. Simultaneously, its location has also put it on the front line of invading forces for centuries. Whilst being skilled with the sickle many have had to be proficient with the sword to defend their homes when called upon. Even in its final days and while being heavily outnumbered, the Panjab gained victories over the expanding British Empire. However, organising political resistance in the face of neglect and exploitation, under the Empire and from the Central Indian government following independence, proved much more difficult as the powers and its resources were systematically weakened in favour of others.
It now only has 2 rivers running directly through it with its rightful share of water contested to this day. In 1955, unable to negotiate an international platform for water management, 80% of river water was allocated to Pakistan in the form of the Indus River Treaty; with the central Indian government overcompensating claims to receive 20% on behalf of the northern states.
Some 20 years later in the 70’s and 80’s, with global food prices declining and the government prioritising the water needs of Haryana and Rajasthan, despite challenges within the High court utilising international water laws, a downward spiral of poverty and debt became commonplace within the once prosperous farming community. The fertile land and water resources became more exhausted due to inappropriate farming techniques as the Panjabi people were left with little alternative options and no further investment in sight whilst still exporting their crops below value. The government attempted to combat the famine via the Green Revolution and pushing for higher yields, but this had the unintended consequences of increased electricity usage, with more energy required to pump water from even deeper depths.
To this day, Panjab is suffering a water crisis. A study in the Arabian Journal of Geosciences foundin 2018, that groundwater in the Malwa region was ‘unfit for drinking and irrigation’. In a region so heavily reliant on agriculture, these findings, along with others in the field are devastating.
According to the WHO, the arsenic found in the water in Panjab can cause “cancer, skin lesions, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes”. The team of scientists declared that while the contamination was from natural sources, they suspected there was also nitrate contamination from agriculture and pesticides.
As well as the obvious health risks, the over-exploitation of groundwater over the past 30 years lead to a diminished water table that has left little opportunity for growth in the region. This depletion can cause dried up wells, reduced water quality, as well as “increased costs and lower profits for farmers”.
The economic strain from the water crisis has led to the phenomenon of farmer suicides in the region. Sucha Gill from the Punjabi University in Patiala argues this is the result of “the hardship of pauperized peasant households, crop failure, unemployment and indebtedness”. Crucially, they also argue that this has happened as new production relations have emerged, without community support mechanisms.
A mixture of politics, mismanagement and corruption has thus lead to a situation not only in which the agriculture sector in the province struggles, but one in which the very force of life is dangerously contaminated, with the tillers of the land under so much pressure and debt that many have ended their own lives. Nilotpal Kumar, author and academic at Azim Premji University, argues that we must go further in our analysis of these suicides as not only statistical and related to farming-related distress in the Panjab, but as phenomena in the wider context of “rural suicides” and mentalities around social status and honour in modern India.
The Bharti Kisan Union (Indian Farmers Union) argued as recently as the summer of 2019, that the reported spike in farmer suicides was “due to harsh measures taken by banks as well as arhtiyas (commission agents)”. According to the People’s Archive of Rural India, citing a study from the Punjabi University, over 80% of farmer and agricultural households are in debt, and over a fifth of that is owed to these commission agents. These arhtiyas also act as moneylenders and dealers and also enjoy political power and influence – counting the chief minister of Panjab as a friend.
While the central BJP government promised debt relief and an agricultural revolution – the people in many cases are still waiting. Analysts have suggested that the party’s free market policies have introduced profiteering middlemen, exacerbating problems farmers were already facing. The BJP, or rather the RSS (its ideological sponsor, who many believe have an ‘’umbilical” link to the party) has a mixed history with the Panjabi and the Sikh community, with some Sikhs claiming that the RSS has historically denied Sikhs their individuality and uniqueness as a religious group. Today, unfulfilled promises and a violent Hindu nationalism means that relations between the Centre and Panjab look to remain strained for some time.