CHANDIGARH — In 2016, Kiranjit Kaur was just 20 when she found her father hanging from a tree. The farmer from Jhunir village in Punjab’s Bathinda district had been under a lot of stress because he was unable to pay back loans totalling Rs 8 lakh.
A year later, she set up an organisation called ‘Kisan Majdoor Khudkushi Peerit Pariwar Committee’ for the families of farmers and labourers who had died by suicide, to help them seek compensation and other rehabilitation projects. The committee has 5,500 members.
While the BJP government came to power with the promise of doubling farmers’ incomes, its tenure has been marked by massive farmer protests demanding loan waivers, better crop prices and drought relief. In Punjab, the Congress government has put a loan waiver scheme in place, but The Tribune reported in February, citing data from a farmers’ union, that over 900 farmers and agricultural labourers had died by suicide between 1 April 2017 and 31 January 2019.
Now, Kiranjit has fielded a farmer’s widow, Veer Pal Kaur, as a candidate against sitting Bathinda MP and Union food processing minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal in the ongoing general election. Voting for all 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab will take place on 19 May.
“We are not here to win the election but to show our strength that we too have the courage to fight for our demands. They are trying to bury us, they didn’t know that we are seeds,” said Kiranjit.
To pay the election deposit of Rs 25,000, Kiranjit collected Rs 10 from each family in her organisation. She couldn’t ask for more, she said, as most of the families are able to afford just one meal a day. Kiranjit is a second semester student of MA (Political Science ) from Punjabi University, Patiala. In between campaigning for her candidate, she also stays up late at night to study for her final exams.
White fly shock
“We had over three acres of land and had hired eight acres of land on contract. Everything was going smooth when in 2015, a whitefly attack on our cotton crop shattered my family completely. It was the first time that we took a loan of over Rs 3 lakh to run the house that year,” said Kiranjit.
The whitefly attack that ruined many farmers had damaged over 75 percent of the crop in the cotton belt.
A year later, while working in the fields with her father, a snake bit Kiranjit and she was rushed to a nearby private hospital. While she was unconscious for three days, the hospital gave a bill of over Rs 2.5 lakh, forcing her family to take out another loan.
“We had a debt of over Rs 8 lakh when my father ended his life. We were not aware of who all have given loan to us or how much was actually repaid by my father. We were completely clueless,” said Kiranjit.
When she read cases of other farmer suicides, she said she felt the pain of her father’s death all over again. “I realised that I am not alone and there is a dire need to do something for them. Hence I founded a committee to help the families of suicide victims,” she said.
Kiranjit found that 500 of these families were in Mansa alone, a district in Bathinda, one of the factors that prompted her to take on Harsimrat Kaur. “The constituency reports one of the highest numbers of suicide cases in Punjab. While nine alone were reported from my village, over 450 cases were reported from Mansa,” said Kiranjit.
Agriculture scientist Devinder Sharma said it is astounding that the top political leaders of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh and the Badals, hail from an area that has reported the maximum cases of farmers’ suicides in Punjab and have still not been able to address the issue till date.
“Unlike Maharashtra, where 18 percent cultivated area is rain-fed, over 98 percent of cultivated area in Punjab is under assured irrigation. Punjab tops in the production of cereal crops- wheat, rice and maize in the world. So, contrary to the general assumption, farmers here should lead a prosperous life. Despite the fact, they are dying everyday,” said Sharma.
He further added that since 1970, farmers income has increased only 19 times from Rs 76 to Rs 1450 for a hundred kgs of wheat in 2015.
“If we look at the income in other sectors, an increase of over 150 to 170 times was reported in the income of professors, over 280 to 320 times for school teachers and from 300 to 1000 times for those working in the corporate sector. Even government employees income too has increased from 120 to 150 times. In this scenario, farmers are left with no choice but to commit suicides,” said Sharma.
Jangveer Singh, spokesperson for the Shiromani Akali Dal, Harsimrat Kaur’s party, called Kiranjit’s committee’s campaign a political stunt, saying it has not done anything for farmers yet.
“Now they have collected Rs 10 to pay election fee. Why didn’t her committee collect money earlier to help victim families?” he asked, adding that the state government has failed to address farmers’ issues.
While her organisation wanted Kiranjit to contest, she couldn’t as she’s not yet 25. The committee members are campaigning across villages by travelling in auto rickshaws and public buses or walking. Claiming that she is receiving a lot of offers from various political parties to join them and withdraw Veer Pal’s nomination, Kiranjit said that a senior political leader called and asked her to support his candidate.
“I instead asked him to withdraw the nomination of his candidate and support us. He claimed helplessness, stating that it will hurt his ego as people will call him a coward who ran away from contesting against Badals. I told him, you fight for ego, we for hunger,” said Kiranjit.