Election In Pincodes: Farm distress casts a long shadow on Punjab politics | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Election In Pincodes: Farm distress casts a long shadow on Punjab politics

May 22, 2024 01:08 AM IST

80-year-old Mohinder Singh Kaur's family story reflects Punjab's agricultural crisis. Sangrur's upcoming Lok Sabha polls will be shaped by farmer distress.

Her hands are creased with age, and tremble often in pain. She scowls in irritation as her fingers struggle to encircle one battered end of a charger pin, refusing to enter the socket of an old mobile phone. There is eventual success and the phone gently beeps into life. Yet, 80-year-old Mohinder Singh Kaur continues to mutter to herself, the cheap phone and dilapidated two-room shanty a constant reminder of a life of deprivation that she once thought impossible. She gazes into her phone; there are no messages. There is nobody left to message her. As she speaks, frequently collapsing into tears, her mind is burdened by memory; of what once was, and what now is.

In Gaggarpur village, agriculture is now seen as bringing poverty and difficulties. (KeshavSingh/HT)
In Gaggarpur village, agriculture is now seen as bringing poverty and difficulties. (KeshavSingh/HT)

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For most of her life, Kaur led a life of relative comfort. She married into the village of Gaggarpur, nine kilometres away from the bustling district headquarters of Sangrur; far enough from urban centres for fields to stretch out as far as the eye could see; but close enough for a jaunt into town if boredom came calling. Importantly, the family had 26 bighas (16 acres) of farmland that brought in both income and respectability. Then, in the twilight of her life, something changed. Agriculture became risky and unprofitable; the wheat and paddy yields started bringing in lower and lower profits; the debts began piling up; and she watched her husband grow more weary by the day.

In 2017, he died by suicide.

“We had a debt of 3 lakh that he was just unable to repay. It weighed on him and he couldn’t take it anymore. That burden fell on my son, who couldn’t arrange the loans either, so some months later, we found his body floating in the village pond,” Kaur said.

The two deaths shocked the extended family into action. Some money was pooled together, and 16 bighas of the land was sold off to return the debt with the mounting interest. It left very little for sustenance. The 10 bighas that remained were divided between Jagseer, 36, Mohinder’s younger son, and 28-year-old Amandeep Kaur, her dead son’s widow. But the land is now on lease because the family has no money to buy implements for the fields. “Amandeep has to work as a household help in rich homes in the village. And Jagseer is in severe depression and does drugs,” Mohinder said.

The flux in her family resonates across Punjab, home to some of the most prosperous class of cultivators in the country who once reaped the benefits of mechanisation of agriculture after the green revolution. But the downturn over the last two decades, due to structural issues of poor capital spending, under-investment in agriculture and market vagaries, has left cultivator families such as Kaur’s in the lurch.

It is a turmoil seen in many parts of India, and perhaps the factor behind protests by once dominant agrarian communities such as the Jats, Patidars and Marathas (across states) seeking the benefits of reservation in government jobs and admission to educational institutions.

And it is a turmoil has made itself heard and seen on the national stage with the 2020-21 farm protests and the complete rewiring of political dynamics. The 2022 assembly elections captured some of this restlessness that saw the Aam Aadmi Party storm to power.

For one full year, villages such as Gagarpur emptied out, sending its young and old to Delhi’s borders. For that one year, Punjab watched as its farmers clashed with the government, getting angrier by suggestions that the protests were engineered by foreign interests. They stormed the Red Fort at one point, took water cannons in the chest at another. As Lok Sabha elections approach, the anger in the fields may not be relevant nationally in the way they were five years ago. This year’s farm protest was a tame whimper in comparison, and never got off the ground. But in Punjab’s 13 seats, this ferment around the mobilisation – and the related distress among its cultivators – will shape the Lok Sabha polls on June 1. Sangrur – home to chief minister Bhagwant Mann – defines this churn.

The distress in the fields

Sangrur has a history of protest. It was here that thousands of Punjabi farmers occupied prisons, first under the British, and then in a nascent independent India, battling for tilling rights for tenant farmers; a struggle called the Mujhara Leher. In 1952, the then government announced that 800,000 acres were being transferred in the names of the state’s tillers. It is Sangrur that served as the headquarters of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan) that commandeered 150,000 farmers for the protests at Delhi’s Tikri border. It is also Sangrur that records the highest per acre production of both wheat and paddy in the state; at 55 and 81 quintals per acre respectively, according to data from the state agriculture department.

But Sukhdev Singh Kokrikalan, general secretary of the BKU(Ugrahan) said that Sangrur, like the rest of the state, is deep in an agricultural crisis. “Input costs are constantly rising, while farmer incomes are falling. Marginal farmers just cannot survive, especially when there is no other income from additional sources. So people want a waiver on their mounting debt and an MSP (minimum support price, a base price set by the government for some crops) on 23 crops that they produce. This is just a result of years of political apathy that is now coming to the fore,” he said.

In Nadampur, Kartar Singh spoke of a generational disinterest in agriculture growing by the year. “When my father and grandfather farmed, we would get some profits and eat comfortably. But now, it’s getting more difficult. Our children want to get away as far as possible. Political parties should bring a separate manifesto for farmers, but we have little hope, because all they want to do is fight over petty matters,” he said.

In her shanty in Gagarpur, Mohinder Kaur knows that the Lok Sabha elections are meant to elect the country’s Prime Minister, but argues that the decision of who should run the country stems from local issues. “This government is doing no good to the farmers. As a result, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. We are now firmly in the second category,” Kaur said.

Across India, data from the 2018-19 NSSO SAS surveys show that farmers are reducing their stake in agriculture and diversifying into other sectors. But even this option is limited in Gagarpur. 32-year-old Amandeep Kaur, sits in a two storeyed home, the floors marble. Her father is Sada Singh Chahal, the sarpanch of the village, and she has a masters degree in education.

She, most villagers believed, was headed for good things. But there are no good jobs, she complained loudly. “I could have joined some private companies but the salary was too little. Now I am married with two children, but keep thinking that the best thing to do will be to migrate to Canada. But from what we hear from there, it isn’t great either,” she said.

Amandeep’s father was elected Gagarpur’s village chief in 2019, when the Congress was still in power; Captain Amarinder Singh was chief minister; Now, her father is closely associated with the AAP, but even in this little time (the party has been in power for only around two years), there is already some disillusionment setting in. “They promised “badlaav (change)” but nothing has changed. In fact, if anything the scenario is worse on the ground,” she said.

The politics in Sangrur

Once the capital of the Jind principality, the Sangrur constituency has seen 17 Lok Sabha polls since 1952, and its allegiances have swayed from the Congress to the Shiromani Akali Dal. But in 2014, Punjab saw the entrance of a new player in its politics; loud and noisy from a neighbouring state, promising to break through the duopoly of the SAD and the Congress — the AAP.

For a while, they hunted for a local leader – the AAP’s undisputed face was Arvind Kejriwal, but he was Delhi chief minister and in a state with strong identity politics, a rooted face was key. They landed on Bhagwant Mann, actor, comedian and political satirist from the dusty lanes of Satoj in Sangrur.

In 2014 and 2019, as the AAP began building support, Bhagwant Mann was the Punjabi symbol of that growth, winning Sangrur both terms.

But there was a twist. In March 2022, as the AAP rejoiced, sweeping to victory with 92 seats of 117 in the state, Mann resigned from the Lok Sabha seat to become chief minister. A by-poll followed and pro-Khalistan leader Simranjeet Singh Mann, the leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), beat the AAP’s Gurmail Singh by 5822 votes.

Jagrup Singh Sekhon, former head of the political science department of the Guru Nanak Dev University, said that the by-poll loss was a symbol of a nascent, but potentially troublesome disconnect of AAP leaders in Sangrur with the local population, most of whom were farmers.

That anger, once expressed, Sekhon said, may no longer be quite so visceral due to a string of pro-farm policies pushed by the state government.

“Schemes such as free-electricity up to 300 units offered by the Mann government may cause a change of heart. The other important factor is the farmer’s protest against the Union government which will certainly have an impact. If the BJP’s candidates are facing that opposition, the AAP is being evaluated on their performance at the state level,” Sekhon said.

His reference is to BJP candidates not being allowed to even enter many villages to campaign.

Encouragingly for the AAP, the party has a robust organisational network in the district, winning all nine of the assembly segments in the 2022 assembly elections. Their candidate is the experienced Gurmeet Singh Meet Hayer, the cabinet minister for higher education and governance reforms, and the MLA from Barnala. “The AAP faces no challenge and Sangrur will be won by a huge margin,” one senior AAP leader said, requesting anonymity.

But the challenge is far from easy. The Congress candidate from the seat -- the two parties are part of the INDIA grouping but have agreed to fight it out in Punjab -- is the former leader of opposition in the Punjab assembly, Sukhpal Singh Khaira, once of the Aam Aadmi Party himself. Khaira said, “The people of Sangrur will give Mann a befitting reply to their various failures in their two years of power.” The BJP and SAD candidates are Kewal Dhillon and Iqbal Singh Jhoonda, respectively, but in this Sikh heartland, the fight is limited to the two principal parties.

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Back in Gaggarpur, Kaur is still staring at her phone, the letters on its type-pad peeling off, just like the plaster on the walls around her. She is too tired for hope; too weathered for aspiration. But what will drive her weary feet to Gaggarpur’s polling station is loss. She blames the fields, and the people who turned the gold to dust.

“My husband and son are both dead, and there are many families like mine that have been torn apart. When I vote, that is what I will think about,” she said.

This is the 27th in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens.

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