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The cotton noose of Punjab CIAT

As a little girl growing up in Punjab, I remember listening to songs about the joyous Punjabi farmers; how they lived simple lives among vast green fields, how they were the epitome of hard work. They represented the strong resilient Punjabi farmers. Punjabis have always felt a sense of pride at this, and for good reason. After all, we were the main agricultural state of India--the providers!

But over the last few decades, the joyous facade painted by the songs and the bollywood movies has been replaced by a grim reality. The cotton farmers of Punjab have been battling, and losing, against circumstances that could have been helped were it not for corruption. Within 45 days during August and October of 2015, Punjab saw 12 farmer suicides. Imagine, within such a short span of time the lives of 12 families are irreversibly disrupted. And now imagine living in a region where that is a reality for the majority of families.

For Punjab, Malwa is that region. Malwa has the 8 districts that comprise Punjab’s cotton belt, and these 8 districts account for 70-80% of the total number of farmer suicides in Punjab, including the 12 mentioned above. And as is usually the case,the marginalized minority are the most affected. The majority of these farmers are Sikh, who comprise only 2% of the total population of India, and have historically faced various injustices.

But what exactly is leading the farmers of Malwa to let go of hope? Turns out, it is a multi-layered problem, as many are, with reasons including political corruption,unsustainable agricultural practices put in place by the “Green Revolution,” a lowering water table, and crippling debt.

As scholars from both India and other countries have talked about the consequences of the Green Revolution in Punjab, I will try to bring attention to the political corruption that has led to this morbid turn of events. Ideally, every year Punjab’s State Government buys pesticides from manufactures through a mandatory tendering process, to sell to farmers at a reduced price. But this year the State’s Agriculture Director, Mangal Singh Sandhu, bought 92,000 liters of pesticides from Oberon of Bayer Crop Science by bypassing the mandatory tendering process, at a price of $55/liter, while the market price was only $46/liter, leaving an excess of $800,000, which was funneled back to individuals in the administration. It should be noted that Punjab’s Chief Minister Prakash Badal is also a man well known for his corrupt activities.

But while this is an obvious problem in the administration of Punjab, how does it connect to the farmers of Malwa?

Well, as it turns out, the pesticides bought from Oberon were watered down, to the point where farmers had to spray them 10-12 times more than the intended amount, increasing their already crippling expenses and leaving them with a combined damage of up to $650 million in crops.

So why use the pesticides at all, you may be wondering? Well, because of the Green Revolution, the most common crops basically lost their ability to survive without pesticides. And now that the traditional pesticides are becoming ineffective, crops have to be doused over and over again, increasing the exposure faced by farmers and harming the harvest with chemicals that are ingested by humans.

When crops yields are less than expected, farmers cannot pay back loans, which then accrue interest and accumulate until they become unmanageable.

farmers.jpgPunjabi Farmers
Image: CGIAR Climate

It is this crushing debt and constant exposure to toxins that many think cause the suicides. 

To make matters worse, they are often unable to turn to their government for help.

Punjabi Farmer.jpgImage: CGIAR Climate

While the western world, and other developing countries are recognizing the importance of supporting their farmers with campaigns such as #StartsWithFarmers, India and Punjab are not even in the picture of this progressive shift. Punjab’s unemployment rate is a staggering 58%, and 34% of the marginal farmers of Punjab live below the poverty line, yet no substantial steps have been taken by the administration--nothing that has made a long-lasting impact, anyways.

Although inter-community organizations are set up by Punjabis in the diaspora to help these families, Punjabis and Punjabi Sikhs are still a minority in India, meaning this issue has generally gone overlooked. These injustices in Punjab need to stop. Farmers deserve access the modern tools that are safe and can lead to prosperity. Farmers deserve justice.