Death by Debt: 86% farming households in Punjab under debt; over 16,606 farmers died by suicide between 2000-2015

Unable to repay loans, every year, more than 1,100 farmers in Punjab, mostly small and marginal tillers, have been taking their own lives. Their ‘farm widows’ join the farmers' protests in Delhi.

Vivek Gupta
| Updated: December 19th, 2020

Amarjit Kaur from Sangrur shows picture of her dead son, a farmer, who consumed poison three years ago due to financial distress. Pic: By arrangement

Forty-eight-year old Gurmeet Kaur is a ‘farm widow’ of Punjab. Thirteen years ago, in 2007, her husband, Gurcharan Singh of Jethuke village in Bhatinda district took his own life. Single handedly she raised her two children and cared for an aged mother-in-law. She leased out her meagre one and half acres of farmland, looked after cattle and even worked as domestic help to support her family. But without her spouse, every day is a struggle. 

Gurmeet’s husband was a farmer who tilled his 1.5 acre land to make both the ends meet. The income from farming was insufficient. He fell into the debt trap. As debt mounted, he found himself unable to pay back a loan of Rs three lakh to the local money lender. One morning, he consumed poison and died.  

Like Gurmeet, there are thousands of ‘farm widows’ in Punjab, which is often portrayed as a land of prosperous and rich farmers. Between 2000 and 2015, approximately 16,606  farmers took their own lives, according to a 2018 joint report on farmer suicides, by Patiala-based Punjabi University, Ludhiana-based Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), and Amritsar-based Guru Nanak Dev University. This report was commissioned by the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party government (2012-2017), and as per it, on an average, 1, 107 farmers died every year by suicide in Punjab.

Several widows from Sangrur and Barnala districts of Punjab have come to Tikri border, Delhi for protest against the three agri laws. Pic: By arrangement

The 2018 report notes that the maximum number of suicides (97 per cent) were in the Malwa region of Punjab that has a majority of ‘small and marginal’ farmers, having less than five acres of land. Sangrur, Barnala, Bathinda, Patiala, Ludhiana were among the worst affected areas in Malwa region.

The report also revealed that of the farmers who took their own lives, 44 per cent were marginal farmers (having upto one hectare of land), 30 per cent were small farmers (having upto two hectares), 18 per cent were semi-medium farmers (having land upto 2.5 hectares), seven per cent were medium (having land upto 4 hectares) and one per cent was made up of large farmers.  

“Rising debt was the major reason for the farmers’ suicide,” Kesar Singh Bhangoo, professor of economics at Punjabi University, Patiala and one of the contributors to the joint study on farmer suicides, told Gaon Connection.

And while the ‘farm widows’ are still coping with the loss of their spouses, they fear the central government’s three new agri laws will add to their miseries and further impoverish them and their children.  

“The debt took away my husband. How will my son survive with a meagre landholding when new laws are taking away whatever assured income for our crops we were getting till now,” Gurmeet Kaur told Gaon Connection, while stressing how her struggle as a ‘farm widow’ continued and her ordeals were far from over. 

Paramjit Kaur of Baras village in Patiala, Punjab lost her husband, a farmer, nine years ago. He took his own life. Pic: By arrangement

A large number of ‘farm widows’ from Punjab have recently joined the farmers protest in Delhi to demand a repeal of the new farm laws. Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), one of the farmers’ union which has been vociferously protesting against the Centre’s agriculture laws at the Tikri border for the past three weeks, said several widows of farmers have joined in and raising their voices against the agri-laws.  

“Since December 16, more than 2,000 widows of farmers who died by suicide have arrived at Tikri border in Delhi,” Harinder Bindu, president of BKU Ekta- Ugrahan’s women’s cell, told Gaon Connection. They are there to share the plight of the farming community in Punjab and reinforce to the Centre that these laws are anti-farmers and will push many more women into widowhood, she said. “There are families in Punjab with no men in them. They have all died. The government must wake up before it is too late,” said Bindu. 

Joginder Singh Ugrahan, president, BKU (Ugrahan) pointed out to Gaon Connection that the large scale suicides in Punjab shows serious chinks in the rural economy of Punjab that is finding it difficult to survive, despite the minimum support price (MSP) based procurement system. “How will the family of the farmers who died by suicide, clear their debts,” asked Ugrahan. If the government stops purchasing at MSP, the families in debt will be further exploited by the private players, he said.  

Mohinder Kaur, from Baras village in Punjab, is still mourning the loss of her school-going grandson Kulwant Singh two years ago. Pic: By arrangement

Rising farm debt in Punjab

A 2017 study, titled Indebtedness among Farmers and Agricultural Labourers in Rural Punjab, sponsored by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi, revealed that 85.7 per cent of farming households in the state are under debt. The average amount of debt per farm household in rural Punjab is Rs 5.52 lakh that was taken for the purchase of farm inputs and machinery. But these investments in no way led to an increase in income, due to rising input costs and a near freeze in the MSP of wheat and paddy that accounts for 85 per cent of cultivated farm area in Punjab.

“Our land is still mortgaged with the local arthiya. My mother and I do odd jobs to survive,” 20-year-old Parvinder Kaur, of Harigarh village, Barnala district, told Gaon Connection

Parvinder’s father, Palla Singh, ended his life last year in August as he could not repay a four-lakh-rupee loan that he had accumulated since the farm income had become virtually stagnant.  

According to Bhangoo, the agri laws did not address this crisis and may make things worse for the debt-ridden farmers by giving free access to open market forces.

“The new acts will end up escalating the rural economy’s distress and force many more farmers to commit suicides,” he stated adding that there was a good reason the farmers were sitting for weeks in Delhi in the bitter cold opposing the agri-laws as they knew fully well that they will not be able  to compete with market forces, he added.

As per the 2017 study, the collective debt of Punjab farmers, which stood at Rs 5,700 crore in 1997, had risen to Rs 9,886 crore in 2002, Rs 21,064 crore in 2005 and Rs 35,000 crore in 2015. As much as 64 per cent of the total farm income goes into repaying loans, it added.

In 2011, Balwinder Singh from Baras, Patiala district, killed himself as he could not discharge his debt of Rs seven lakh. He left behind his wife Paramjeet Kaur. There was no government support extended to her after that, said Paramjeet. “My son now takes care of the farming but it is not enough to survive. He does a part time driving job to earn additional income,” said the 45-year-old widow.

Mohinder Kaur, also from Baras village, is still mourning the loss of her school-going grandson Kulwant Singh two years ago. “We were heavily in debt and we could not pay his school fee on time. He consumed poison and killed himself,” said the grief-stricken 65-year-old who described the life of her family as hell now. “Our two acres of land was sold to clear the debt. My son is forced to do a labourer’s job,” she said.  

20-year-old Parvinder Kaur from Harigarh village in Barnala district lost her father last year. He died by suicide. Pic: By arrangement

Reach out and revisit land reforms

Land reforms must be revisited, and they should benefit the marginal and small farmers, said Gian Singh, former economics professor at Punjabi University. “This will help increase their incomes. The agricultural labourers, an important section of the farming community that has been ignored for ages, must be equally considered while revisiting the land reforms,” he said.

More agro-based industries owned by the producers’ cooperatives in the rural areas should be set up on a priority basis, said Gian Singh. “It will produce gainful employment opportunities at the village level and the benefits of value addition would go to the producers,” he added. Ideally, cooperative societies should be promoted that would market agricultural products, and augment farmer incomes, and make available machinery on rent to them too, he said.

“There is a need to push farmers into crop diversification while protecting their assured income. Crop insurance schemes and public health infrastructure ought to be strengthened too,” said Bhangoo. He added that streamlining social schemes like old-age pension to farmers and labourers, besides curtailing unscrupulous activities of micro-finance agencies and moneylenders, etc. had to be done.

For now, the ‘farm widows’ of Punjab are dreading the new agri laws. Paramjeet reiterated that the farm laws did not bode well for the future of Punjab. “We voted for the present government after their assurance that our income will be doubled in a few years. Instead they brought laws that compromise our very survival,” she said. “More farmers will go deeper into debt and will be forced to take their lives, leaving their children orphaned,” she warned.