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Between Farmer Suicides, The Drug Menace And Corruption, Expect The Unexpected In Punjab

This year's contest can be described as David taking on two Goliaths at the same time.

30/01/2017 9:54 AM IST | Updated 30/01/2017 11:04 AM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
An AAP rally in Lambi, Punjab.

MANSA -- Sitting on a charpoy in the courtyard of her house in Hassanpur, Mansa, in a tone bereft of emotion but with tears rolling down her face, she told us her husband's, and then her son's, suicide. Jaswant Kaur's story was raw with pain.

In 2001, the crops failed, but her husband had too much debt. "I guess he could no longer bear the pressure to pay up," she said. Then, in 2014, two of her sons — Jagrag Singh and Jagtar Singh — also tried to commit suicide. The cotton crops had failed again, as they did 13 years ago.

Both her sons had been under a huge debt since then. In the intervening 13 years, they had sold off half their land and pawned their wives' jewellery. Still unable to pay back their dues, they did what their father had done — drink pesticide. Jagrag died. But after a long treatment — for which the family had to borrow money again — Jagtar was saved.

Jaswant Kaur said she is 50 years old, but she looked much older and shrivelled up. Today the family is still sunk under debt. "Paying back never ends," Jagtar said. "We will soon have to sell all our land," he added, when asked how he planned to settle his debts.

Green Revolution To Suicide Belt

In Punjab — where the Green Revolution began in the 1970s to make India self-sufficient in food grains — districts like Mansa, Bhatinda, Barnala, Sangrur are better known as the "suicide belt". Falling crop yields, small land holdings, steadily increasing input cost and ever mounting debts have driven farmers to suicide. According to some estimates, crop yield has gone down by as much as 50%. "With the water table sinking, farmers can't change to a different crop," said Iqbal Singh, a farmer activist.

If that wasn't enough, spurious pesticide sold to farmers ensured that the cotton crops in 2014 and 2015 failed, sealing whatever hope they had. "A cartel pushed spurious pesticide, so the cotton crop was bound to fail," said Major Singh, a former government employee who now documents farmer's suicide.

Pests destroyed the cotton crop as bogus pesticide flooded the market. After a series of deaths — almost a dozen between August and October last year — the Punjab government did accept that bogus pesticide had flooded the market. But the Punjab Agriculture Minister Tota Singh was still given a clean chit.

Over 6,000 farmers committed suicide between 2001 and 2010, a study commissioned by the Punjab government revealed. The latter has also commissioned a fresh study on farmers' suicide in the last seven years, but the report hasn't been made public yet.

In 2015, while compensating families of farmers who committed suicide, the state government accepted that at least 55 farmers committed suicide between 2013 to November 2015. The relatively low numbers have puzzled peasant outfits and activists.

Over 6,000 farmers committed suicide between 2001 and 2010, a study commissioned by the Punjab government revealed.

All political parties — the Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — contesting elections in Punjab have promised relief to farmers. These include measures like loan waivers and better agricultural facilities.

People, however, feel just a loan waiver won't work. "Most of those who committed suicide had taken loans from local middlemen. These are difficult to cover in a loan waiver scheme," said Darshan Singh, an activist in Mansa.

Lambi: Where A David Is Taking On Two Goliaths

"We have better infrastructure than many places in the country, but that isn't all. The drug menace will have to controlled," Dilraj Singh, a farmer in Lambi said. Indeed, apart from being prosperous, Lambi has the appearance of a town that is well-looked-after. There isn't a road in Lambi that is not metalled. Lambi is also an Akali fortress. The Badal family dominates this area. Everything here from roads to infrastructure have their stamp. Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal has won the seat four times in a row starting 1997 — a rare feat in Punjab.

This contest that can be described as David taking on two Goliath's at the same time is the defining contest of Punjab

This election will put to test this past constant. In January, in a surprise move, Captain Amarinder Singh, the Congress' chief ministerial candidate, announced he too would contest from Lambi besides Patiala, his traditional seat. AAP has fielded former journalist and former Delhi MLA Jarnail Singh. Jarnail had, infamously, flung a shoe at the former Home Minister, P Chidambaram, when he had announced that no evidence against Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar had been found in the 1984 anti-Sikh riot case. The contest in Lambi, which can be described as David taking on two Goliaths at the same time — will be the defining contest in the state.

We found Jarnail Singh campaigning at Lal Bagh, a small hamlet in Lambi. There were over 200 people in the street-corner meeting. Many of them were women and youth and were listening to him intently. "Even if Captain Amarinder Singh wins here, he won't retain Lambi. At the same time, we need someone to put an end to the loot and corruption," Paramjit Singh, a farmer, said. Clearly, people here are thinking hard about who to vote for this year.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

"My chances haven't been skewed by Captain Amarinder Singh. I am winning, on the contrary Captain Amarinder Singh will lose his deposit," Jarnail told HuffPost India.

"Everyone here knows that Captain Amarinder Singh decided to contest from Lambi" — making it a three-cornered contest instead of a straight fight between the Akalis and the AAP — "to help the beleaguered Akali Dal Chief Minister," Jarnail added. The locals who had gathered around him agreed vociferously.

Who Wins Punjab?

Pollsters and political parties quote surveys and different reasons to claim victory in the forthcoming polls. But, on the ground, most people aren't yet openly voicing their choices. "People are silent. And when they keep their choices close to their chest, expect the unexpected," a senior journalist of a well-known Punjab-based daily who didn't want to be named said.

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