Panjab Farmer Suicide and Rural Support Project

The state of Panjab, nestled at the northern border within the Republic of India, has long been dubbed as the breadbasket of the nation; producing the majority of staple foods at its peak.

Farmers in Sangrur, Panjab

Panjab was once one of the most prosperous and fertile regions 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 consistent farmer suicides and civil unrest.

According to official government reports 10, 000+ farmers and farm labourers are committing suicide across India per year. However, these numbers are widely discredited as ‘wilfully gross underestimations’; especially in Punjab where the problem is not acknowledged as a crisis despite the disproportionately higher numbers for the relatively small state.

Panjabi institutions and prominent universities have been forced to conduct their own research. Reports put the number of suicides anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 per year – making a minimum of 10,000 over the last decade in Panjab alone. However, as in many cases families are not forthcoming with information and do not report suicides to police either; the true number is unknown.

In Panjab alone, reports put farmer suicides over the last decade at a minimum of 10,000.

The vast majority of livelihoods in the state still directly depend on agriculture. Input costs have consistently been rising globally and, in the face of declining output from the land, citizens have fallen into poverty. Under great pressure, they are unable to make ends meet for their families and subsequently falling deeper into cycles of debt.

Our project seeks to understand and advocate on behalf of the farmers' concerns against state and Central Government. Often survivor families of farmers who have committed suicide struggle with the very basic elements of life – our project seeks to fill that gap, offer hope through education and livelihood for the families and to ensure that they have legal rights of protection.

[Picture: family holding victim’s photo]

Suicides are just the visible tip of the iceberg. The crisis increasingly affects the entire nation and, despite the environmental core of the issue, remains a largely a man-made problem; which continues to multiply as it is ignored.

What is causing the distress?

Agricultural Policy

Panjab was used as a flagship for the ‘Green Revolution’ during the 1960s to tackle food insecurity. However, despite short-term benefits, this approach has proved to cause greater long-term problems and instability.- Imposed from international institutions but based on different climates and inefficient economic models, this highly industrialised approach incurs great cost to operate and is unsustainable for the environment. This has caused crop yields to decline over time in a multiplying effect, and even developed nations heavily subsidise agriculture to ensure the industry does not collapse. Many studies illustrate how this approach is inappropriate, especially for the Indian economy, and takes little consideration of local ecosystems.

Costs

The cost of farming this way is increasing whilst global food prices are unstable-This industrial model of agro-business marginalises farmers with small sized land holdings and agricultural labourers who would work the land. Large scale farm equipment and heavy chemical use is only viable for large and corporate level farms, with the average farmer having to risk taking on large debt to compete. Costs of required inputs and inflation consistently rise while food prices fluctuate; leaving the majority of food growers at the mercy of global markets.

No Safety Net

Most developed nations subsidise their farmers. The Indian government imposes a policy of what should be grown for the food security of the nation; however, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) offered for these staple foods does not actually cover the full cost of inputs. This means that many farmers often operate at a loss, struggling to feed their own families. [Update] The latest farm bills have the potential to create further barriers to access for a guaranteed price with the introduction of private market mechanisms.

1 in 3 farmers under poverty line in ‘suicide belt’.

Spiralling Debt

90% of farmers are in some form of debt. Unable to makes ends meet loans are required to cover costs of living and to purchase inputs needed to grow crops; in the hope that the next harvest will prove profitable enough to cover their risk. This often creates an inescapable downward spiral of greater debt – e.g. Marginal farmers debt-to-income ratio is 1.42. When official avenues of lending are exhausted they resort to illegal lenders who charge astronomical interest rates and employ aggressive tactics of collection.

Environmental Degradation

Soil damage and falling water tables as a result of farming policy and antiquated techniques exacerbate the distress-heavy use of chemicals destroys much of the nutrients in the soil, further limiting crop yields. The practice of only growing wheat and paddy(rice) all year round also does not allow the soil to regenerate. Water intensive industrial farming depletes the already scarce water resources, incurring a greater cost to extract. Climate change only exacerbates a situation that may soon be irreversible.

Panjab to be desert within 25 years according to Water Commission.

Water Disputes

Not enough water is made available for Panjab to meet its needs-Challenges to the disproportionate allocation of River waters stretch back to the Partition of India in 1947. Despite claims under international law to water access; other states have been given priority over Panjab through diversion of river water. Reports link areas of high water scarcity to higher concentration of farmer suicides – or the ‘suicide belt’.

Poor Governance and Lack of Agency

A lack of state autonomy limits decision-making within public policy; especially in terms of what can be grown and how funds are invested. Nonetheless, despite a long history of marginalisation from the rulers of India, both state level corruption and central neglect have led to underdevelopment and economic stagnation over the recent decades. Few opportunities for supplementing income or receiving adequate education to break this cycle are accessible for the rural population. Panjab sees record levels of emigration; a drain of local knowledge and expertise of those who actually work the land.

Wife and family members of a farmer victim to suicide.

Who is the most affected?

Marginal Farmers

Those with less than 5 acres of land who cannot overcome high costs and barriers to the market place.

Farm Labourers

Those who own no land and rely on Marginal Farmers for sporadic work in an increasingly industrialising and unequal industry.

Suicide Affected Families

Those who no longer have their main income earner, as well as dealing with the trauma of losing their loved one to suicide; often plunging an entire family into extreme poverty and distress – in many cases leading to further suicide.

Women

Women make up 75% of farm labourers but only 13% of landowners.-They are more vulnerable as they earn less income for the same jobs and often have the responsibility of balancing household livelihood and costs.

Scheduled Casts

A cultural legacy of treating certain groups as a lower caste still remains, leading to even greater marginalisation of those with already limited agency, of course many rural citizens fall into several of the above categories.

Our Work and Objectives

We are continuously working with local, national and international activists, academics, NGOs as well as potential decision makers in view of building networks to ensure necessary changes are made according to the needs of the most affected.

It is imperative that our initiatives are community and female led to build the capacity and agency of the rural population going forward.

Our key areas of focus are:

  • The prevention of farmer suicide, the rights of farmers (land ownership, understanding of changing legislations which will directly impact them), and the livelihoods and security of the families of farmers who have committed suicide (especially the women and children) is our primary concern for this agrarian project.
  • Working with farmers associations and academic institutions in India to raise more awareness and cultivate an interest in the rights and lives of this community.
  • Protecting farmers and their families who are threatened by moneylenders and loan sharks and also advocating for Government loan conditions to be fair.
  • Working with local and Central government to advocate for the safe and fair use of Panjab’s natural river water and resources. Over the last generation, Government decisions have led to river water from Panjab being siphoned off to other neighbouring states. Consequently, these decisions have adversely affected the livelihoods of farms and communities across Panjab leading to various social maladies.

Immediate Action

Aid for marginal farmers and labourer’s suicide affected families in the suicide belt of Panjab.

On-going Support

Village wide support to develop access to education, sustainable cooperative farming methods, and livelihood alternatives across the region.>long term support for rural population.

Timeline

  • 1947, Independence and Partition of India

    Upon Indian independence from the British, Punjab (the land of five rivers) is left in disarray as it is forcibly split, partly forming the new nation of Pakistan.

  • 1960, Indus Treaty and Unconstitutional Water Allocation

    India claims water on behalf of its Northern states to receive greater allocation of water before signing a treaty with Pakistan regarding the tributaries of the Indus River. Punjab is given assurances of adequate water access despite distorted claims for allocation during this political process.

  • 1960s, Green Revolution

    To combat food insecurity, foreign models of rapid agricultural industrialisation and chemical use were adopted through large debt, with Panjab utilised as one of the flagship states; producing the majority of the nations staple foods at its peak.

  • 1966, Punjab Reorganisation Act

    Despite a lack of consensus, the central government split up Panjab into its modern form, constituting a Sikh majority; with Haryana and Himachel Pradesh separated along linguistic lines. However, it’s capital Chandigarh is still in centrally administered union territory and shared with neighbouring Haryana; ultimately creating barriers to the self-determination of the people of Panjab.

  • 1973, First draft of Anandpur Sahib Resolution

    An official set of demands, building a political movement for the rights of Panjabi people in line with Sikh principles of promoting equality and eradicating poverty. It highlights the need for investment in rural areas and adequate allocation of river waters as critical. Ultimately it pushes for certain key powers being dissolved from the centre back to the state governments of India, in line with the constitution, to achieve local needs.

  • 1981, Distribution of Waters of Punjab Rivers Agreement

    Hammered out by Indira Gandhi this revised the allocation of waters without proper consideration to availability. Drawn to the disadvantage of Panjab, the other recipient states did not have to pay any compensation.

  • 1984, Genocide

    Growing poverty and marginalisation led to large-scale civil unrest; which was in turn met with violent draconian measures employed by authorities. An era of conflict ended with Indira Gandhi giving the order to launch an all out militarised attack and leaving the most sacred of Sikh Temples in ruins. Following her assassination, Sikh pogroms ensued across the nation, with authorities complicit in many cases.

  • 1990-2006, Emigration and Suicides

    In the fall out many fled the state and the country. From those who stayed in the harsh conditions; Farmers Union BKU-Rajewal estimates 90,000 suicides occurred during this time in Panjab.

  • Current Day

    Despite building pressure from Civil Society to improve MSP subsidies through a more fair costing system; privatising farm bills were instead rolled out by the central government. The 2020 Acts once again resulted in nationwide protests. Panjab-led Farm Unions with little left to lose organised an occupation and marches around the capital city demanding immediate change. December sees the beginning of the Farner Protests, millions of farmers marched to Delhi borders to stand against new farming laws and their mistreatment.

For a more in depth look in to the wider context of struggle within Panjab, click here.

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