The plight of Punjab farmers: few takers lead debt settlement forums


Under fire from the failed debt fight leading to a surge in farmer suicides, the Akali-BJP government decided to form district-level forums for the settlement of agricultural debt before the session of the meeting which will begin on September 19.

But the delayed efforts have hit a roadblock as there aren’t many takers to run the three-member forums. Reason: The remuneration “seems to be too low”.

Under the Punjab Farm Debt Settlement Act 2016, a retired sessional judge or additional sessional judge would head the district forum and receive 5,000 rupees per session. But he cannot address more than 20 sessions in a month, resulting in a maximum monthly pay of Rs 1lakh. It is said that those who run the forums may otherwise earn more.

“We only received seven applications for the post, two of which were rejected for technical reasons and we only have candidates left,” said Agriculture Director JS Bains.

In a fix on the lukewarm response, the government has now decided to go ahead with five forums, to be formed at the divisional level in Patiala, Jalandhar, Ferozepur, Faridkot and Rupnagar.

“We were asked to complete the process by next week. Covering all districts will take time, ”Bains said.

As mandated by law, the three-member district forum will include a farmer and an arhtiya (commission agent). According to reports, the government has chosen five farmers and five commissioners to represent these forums at their level, and they will hand the lists over to the agriculture directorate.

Farmer suicides are on the rise in the state due to poor harvests, declining yields, steadily declining income and growing debt. The state government was under pressure to pass a law to deal with the situation. The bill was proposed in 2001 and again in 2006. But it took the government 10 years to notify the law.

ROLE OF PANELS

The forums will have the power to declare the debt paid and to waive the entire loan amount with interest and to order the release of the mortgaged property by a debtor.

Their provisions are limited to non-institutional agricultural debts up to Rs 15 lakh – mainly loans granted by commission agents. The forum cannot deal with cases of loans taken out by villagers for activities other than agriculture or institutional loans.

Although deed warrants transfer all disputes regarding loan amount up to Rs 15 lakh pending in civil courts at these forums

Of the roughly Rs 36,000 crore debt of Punjab farmers, an estimated Rs 12,000 crore is non-institutional, donated by commission agents. In addition, there is a rural non-farm loan of Rs 27,000 crore on farmers which is outside the jurisdiction of these forums.


Naomi C. Amerson