Debating India

PUNJAB

Sunset in paradise

Friday 12 March 2004, by SWAMI*Praveen

A STUDY in 1998 found that the farmers of Punjab had a cumulative debt of Rs.5,700 crores, much of it owing to non-productive social expenditure. Debt-driven suicides are increasingly common.

in Ludhiana

Yields of rice and wheat have reached a plateau. Groundwater levels in much of Punjab have fallen precipitously; in some cases it is as low as 200 feet (60 metres), imposing punitive irrigation costs on farmers.

In rural Punjab, drug addiction and alcoholism are growing at alarming rates. Nandarshan Singh still remembers the time when Dhandra got its first tractor, a rusted smoke-spewing beast that his friend Mohinder Singh bought second-hand from Saharanpur. Hundreds of people gathered to watch the machine when it was operated for the first time some four decades ago, a scene repeated across Punjab and captured in dozens of Films Division documentaries. Irrigation pumpsets reached Dhandra at around the same time, along with high-yielding seeds and chemical fertilizers. Dusty rain-fed fields, which somehow managed to give life to scrawny harvests of peanuts, cotton and corn earlier, were transformed. The Green Revolution had arrived in Dhandra.

On the face of it, Dhandra looks just like an India Shining advertisement. Farmers here actually talk on mobile phones, and cars wind their way through the well-paved streets of the village. Over the past decade, the more prosperous farmers of Dhandra have built spanking new Ludhiana-chic homes, complete with air-conditioned bedrooms and marble-tiled, Western-style toilets. Even the Dalit quarter in the village is clean and well-paved, and all the children seem to go to school. If the Jat landowners resent the recent election of a Dalit woman sarpanch, their ire is restricted to vague mumbling about how reservations have killed the job prospects of educated upper-caste men from the village.

Paradise? Not quite. Scratch the surface, and enormous anxieties about the future emerge. A good deal of these have to do with concerns over the costs of sustaining the agricultural model on which Dhandra’s prosperity is based. While India’s poor still do not have enough food to eat, cuts in the public distribution system (PDS) mean that the country’s storage system is awash with rice and wheat. Punjab farmers are under pressure to cut back the production of these cereals, and one method of doing this has been to put a freeze on procurement prices. Says Jagdeep Pal Singh: "It costs me about Rs.5,500 to sustain each cropping cycle on an acre of land and if I am careful, I should get some 18 quintals out of it, which will bring me Rs.12,000 or so. That is not a lot of money, given the risks of sudden rain or drought."

Jagdeep Pal Singh, like most landowners in Dhandra, is a small farmer with just 3.5 acres (1.4 hectares) of land in his name. His principal problem is that even as costs are rising, yields are not going up; the State has already attained production levels that are close to world standards. The tired soil needs more urea and pesticides than it did even a decade ago, and the prices of agricultural inputs have spiralled upwards as subsidies have been slashed.

The availability of water is a bigger problem. Despite a good monsoon, the level of water in the wells in Dhandra is below 60 feet (18m). More and more farmers are being forced to use submersible pumpsets, which means a one-time investment of Rs.100,000. Those who do not have an electricity connection must pay punishing diesel charges. Moreover, submersible sets are just not economical in the case of small holdings. Farmers have adapted, swapping land to adjust to the demands of the new pumpsets, but smaller farmers already have their backs to the wall and can ill-afford the rising irrigation costs.

Farmers who do not own substantial amounts of land generally rent holdings from larger landowners; all Dalit farmers, who rarely own land, rely on rented plots. Only some 70,000 families in Punjab own over 50 acres (20 ha) of land; in Dhandra, only some 110 families have holdings of more than 10 acres (4 ha). Some of them rent out land that they cannot farm on; others, like Bacchan Singh, emigrated with family to the United States. Rents vary depending on the quality of land, but a well-irrigated one-acre plot is available for around Rs.5,500. In essence, farmers barely make money on rented land. "You make a couple of thousand rupees on an acre if you are prudent," but it "will hardly take care of the school fees of one child," says Dilbagh Singh.

MATTERS have come to this stage not because of the evident absence of new State investment in improving agricultural infrastructure. The Focal Point, a massive fertilizer and crop storage facility that was set up a decade ago, lies abandoned and shops built next to it for use by merchants have never been used. If the Punjab government has any scheme to recharge the area’s depleting groundwater resources, the villagers have never heard of it. Basic infrastructure to recharge the village aquifers exist in the form of a network of village ponds still laden with monsoon water. While the government seems happy to pump in money into crop diversification programmes or improving electricity supply, no initiative has been taken to address the depletion of groundwater. Social infrastructure is also poor - a 10-bed hospital built in the 1980s was, for example, never made operational; it is now home to a Dalit family.

Incomes in Dhandra, of course, are not bad in absolute terms. For all their problems, the farmers of Punjab are not, by any stretch of imagination, poor. Yet, expectations have also increased. One of the less understood gifts of the Green Revolution was an enormous pressure to live in a manner that demonstrated the new affluence. "One of my friends," says Jit Singh, a local cleric, "spent over Rs.7 lakhs on his daughter’s wedding. He didn’t want to, but just couldn’t get a boy with a few acres to his name for less." Most farmers borrow from the local cooperative for expenditure on seeds and fertilizer, but the credit for social spending comes largely from Arthiyas, traditional moneylenders. A 1998 study by the eminent economist H.S. Shergill found that the average farmer in Punjab had taken loans worth Rs.727.9 crores for non-productive purposes; suicides by loan defaulters are depressingly common.

The changes have also had an impact on the young people in Dhandra. The walls inside the Focal Point building are covered with elaborate graffiti, scrawled by the village’s growing tribe of adolescent junkies who gather there at dusk along with the pigeons. Dozens of young people in Dhandra use a mind-boggling array of prescription drugs, freely available at the local chemist’s shop, for recreation. Most of them are children of landed farmers, for whom there is no real work on the land and no prospect of inheritance. Some from Dhandra’s farming families have found jobs in nearby Ludhiana, but employment opportunities for school-educated youth in both the public and private sectors are declining. Incredibly, the local government school does not hold high school classes because teachers are not available for classes after the 10th grade. Clearly, few in the village have much of a future.

If the Punjab government has its way, villages like Dhandra will soon face a second transformation. The economist S.S. Johl has recommended that the State fund farmers so that they can move away from the wheat-rice crop pattern and take to alternative crops such as pulses and oilseeds. If the Johl recommendations are implemented, areas cultivating wheat and rice will be reduced to 1975-76 levels, saving the Union government Rs.8,967 crores in procurement, transport and storage costs. Farmers will be paid Rs.12,500 a hectare if they retire from wheat and rice cultivation. The scheme has attracted savage criticism from analysts like Shergill, who say it will in fact dent the income of an average farmer by Rs.13,280 per hectare each year. "On top of it all," Shergill says, "it won’t work. Farmers will retire the least productive land, and concentrate their resources on what they have left, so production will remain near current levels. The real answer is to reduce the amount of labour committed to the countryside, and to encourage well-off farmers to move elsewhere."

A few years from now, Dhandra will cease to exist - and Shergill’s recommendations will be realised, if not by design. Ludhiana’s urban sprawl is already visible from the edges of Dhandra’s fields, and in a few years the city will colonise the countryside.

Most landowners hope to sell their land, and invest in urban property and businesses. A few say that they will buy more land elsewhere and use their profits to mechanise. "Using machines is already cheaper," says Ajit Singh, "but we get more straw for the animals from manual harvesting. With larger holdings, we can just buy straw instead." Sarju Ram, a native of Bihar who made Dhandra his home two decades ago, says: "There is much less work here than there used to be when I came here and more and more migrants now look for work in Ludhiana, not on the farms." Dalits in the village, who do not own land and are generally poorly educated, will most likely suffer the most, as the new order pushes them into the ranks of the urban poor.

Some people believe that the landholding Jats will do no better. "People will waste the lakhs gained from selling their land on building fancy houses and buying cars," says Dullo Singh. "Soon, all we worked to build will be just a memory."

See online : Frontline

P.S.

in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 05, February 28 - March 12, 2004.

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