In Punjab’s Debt-Ridden Malwa Region, AAP Is Seen as the Only Hope

This story first appeared on The Quint on 3 February 2017.

In the remote village of Bhaini Bagha, about 60 km from Bathinda, Badal Singh, 43, shook his head in disapproval with eyes shut when asked his name.

Sitting on a khat on the verandah of his neighbour’s typical Punjabi house, which was enveloped in the early morning fog, Badal said the name invokes hatred in Bhaini Bagha.

As one travels deep into Punjab’s Malwa region from Majha and Doaba, the anti-incumbency against the Akali Dal and the Badals – the family in charge of the ruling party in the state – turns into contempt and anger.

In fact, some of the things they say here are unprintable. Spanning the whole region lying on the Sutlej’s left bank and bordering Haryana and Rajasthan, Malwa is an overwhelmingly agrarian area. The majority of its residents are small and marginal farmers, living with the burden of debt palpably hanging around their neck.

Killer Farm Loans

By the time April 2016 had ended, 93 farmers had committed suicide in Malwa. One of them was Badal’s neighbour Gurtej Singh, 35. “He had taken a loan,which kept increasing due to interest,” said his 70-year-old mother Gurmeet Kaur, sitting under the photograph of her son in the room attached to the verandah. “When it reached 5 lakh rupees, he gave up.”

Unseasonal rains and erratic weather patterns negated the hard work and investments of Malwa’s farmers. The cotton crop that Gurtej had been cultivating on his 2-acre farmland dried up. He sold half-an-acre of the land, but that too did not ease his debt burden.

There is not a single farmer here who is not grappling with debt. The devastating crop loss was the last straw for my son.

Gurmeet Kaur 

Small and marginal farmers – with land holdings of up to five acres – make up for almost 80 percent of the farmer suicides. In Punjab, such farmers – as well as farmer suicides – are concentrated in Malwa. With variable costs like fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, diesel etc increasing, and additional fixed costs, even a good crop barely delivers a satisfactory profit margin. This makes agriculture economically unviable for Malwa’s marginal farmers, compelling them to turn to commission agents (called arhtiyas), who charge interest rates of up to 36 percent for loans.

Single-Crop Culture Adds to Woes

Sukhpal Singh, senior economist at Punjab Agriculture University in Ludhiana, said the state’s agrarian sector is burdened with Rs 80,000 crore debt.

Per household, it (debt) comes to around Rs 8 lakh. An average income of a farmer in a good year does not exceed Rs 5 lakh.

Sukhpal Singh, Senior Economist, Punjab Agriculture University

Malwa predominantly suffers from the mono-crop culture, or growing a single variety of crop. This is why the government introduced a policy of diversifying cropping patterns. However, agriculture experts believe, merely announcing a policy without offering any incentives like a minimum support price would have no real impact, as a farmer would not risk a change of crop. Further, with no measures to deal with climate change, the farmers’ plight has only intensified with time.

Sukhpal said despite Punjab having been an overwhelmingly agrarian state, it is bizarre it does not have agro-based industries in rural areas that would process and market crops. He added that agro-based industries would generate employment as well.

Forget creating a suitable atmosphere for farming, the government has virtually discouraged people from persisting with it.

After the whitefly attack that destroyed the cotton crop in 2015, the government had provided pesticides at subsidised rates. While farmers said the pesticides were bogus and only worsened crops, agriculture minister Tota Singh accused them of buying spurious pesticides from “outside sources”.

For the crop loss that ran into lakhs according to Gurmeet, the government’s compensation of Rs 8,000 only rubbed salt into their wounds. “It does not even cover the cost of the fertilisers we buy,” she said with a wistful smile that deepened her wrinkles. “The people running the state are having a good time while we are dying. It’s our fault that we elected them twice.”

The Road to Power Runs Through Malwa

The anti-incumbency against the Badals in Malwa is palpable and has been galvanised almost single-handedly by the Aam Aadmi Party. The relatively muted AAP campaign in Majha and Doaba springs to life in Malwa, with bike rallies and tractor parades being seen through the region.

AAP has captured the imagination of the region, which can be safely called the road to power in the Punjab Assembly. Most of the Chief Ministers of Punjab have come from Malwa. Out of the 117 Assembly seats, it accounts for as many as 69. And AAP would be targeting around 45 of them, with a reasonable share from Majha and Doaba seeing them through the halfway mark.

The whole village of Bhaini Bagha is set to “vote for Arvind Kejriwal”, who is seen as a messiah over here.

The village holds a meeting and we vote for the same candidate after consulting each other. We think only he (Kejriwal) can rescue us from the goonda raj of the Badals. He is a simple man who thinks of the poor.

Gurmeet Kaur

Shinder Pal, 35, a cab driver in Bathinda, said the state has only seen a two-way electoral contest till date, and it is now in shambles with no law and order or employment.

Though the Congress is far better than the Akali Dal, that does not say much about the party. The benchmark for political parties is already so low that AAP’s arrival cannot make it any worse.

Shinder Pal, cab driver

AAP, A Strong Contender

Malwa has often dominated Punjab politics and even in this election, some of the most intriguing battles are being fought here. In Jalalabad, deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal has locked horns with AAP’s Bhagwant Mann, who has managed to get under the skin of the Badals. The family that practically runs the state has been subject to contempt and criticism but Mann, with his humour and unique ability to attract crowds, has reduced them to a bunch of jokers. Ground reporters say he has his nose in front at the moment.

In Lambi, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal is engaged in a three-way fight with Congress’ CM candidate Captain Amarinder Singh and AAP heavyweight Jarnail Singh. The split of votes between AAP and the Congress should ensure the CM holds on to his bastion, which he had first served as it’s youngest sarpanch at the age of 19. Nonetheless, participants at his recent rally in Lambi spoke out vehemently against the family, which is indicative of the mood in the entire state.

Jitendra Singh, who sells samosas and noodles in the village, said Parkash Badal is a good man but his son Sukhbir has ruined the image of the party.

The kind of people Sukhbir has been encouraging is deplorable. They are all goons who have the government’s support.

Jitendra Singh, Stall Owner

Raking Up Khalistan

Realising this trend, Sukhbir tried to paint Kejriwal as pro-Khalistan. Referring to the blast that killed 6 in Bathinda, the deputy CM said Kejriwal’s ascent would mean the resurgence of radicals. While the AAP has been entertaining radicals, Malwa’s electorate are facing too stark a problem to fall for the Akali propaganda. Living with extreme poverty and debts, they have pinned their hopes on AAP as “the rescuer from the swamp in which the Akali Dal has pushed them”.

With the government’s failure to create jobs, farmers say it makes it even more difficult to explore other opportunities. Yet, two lakh marginal farmers have hung up their boots in the last five years, said Sukhpal. “It has led to consolidation of land with big landowners, while small farmers have become poorer,” he said.

In June 2014, Sukhdev Kaur, 50, leased out the farmland after her son Gurpreet Singh, 29, committed suicide by consuming pesticide, succumbing to the pressure of debt. Sukhdev, who lives in the lane adjacent to Gurtej’s house in Bhaini Bagha, said she will do odd jobs and ensure her other son, Gurjeet, 19, gets a proper education. “No matter what happens, farming is a no-no,” she said. “I have lost one son. I do not want to lose another.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *