By Aman Thind:On Tuesday, April 26, The Centre shared the statistics of farmer suicides in 2016 so far revealing a grim picture of an issue that has remained unchanged since 2014. As per the report, 116 farmers have ended their lives across India in the first three months of this year. Punjab is second on the list, with 56 suicides, after Maharashtra.
In another tragic news, reported a couple of days back, a young farmer Baljeet Singh, 32 and his mother Balveer Kaur, 60 consumed pesticides and ended their lives as they were unable to pay back a loan of just Rs. 1.10 Lakh that they took back in 2002 by mortgaging their small piece of land and house. All of this happened while district officials and a loan commission agent were at their home trying to evict them out of their property.
When the situation concerning agriculture is so bad, one would expect the state government and the state machinery to devise policies and measures to figure out a solution to the problem. On the contrary, a major food grain scam has come to light over the last few days in Punjab after an audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), revealed a total lack of empathy on part of the Punjab government towards its farmers and their livelihood.
A consortium of top Indian banks, led by the State Bank of India (SBI) lent a sum of Rs. 20,000 crores to the Punjab government for procurement of food grains from the farmers. But as per the recent audit by CAG, stocks worth Rs. 12,000 crores have gone missing from the state FCI godowns. While the Punjab government contests that they did use the money to buy the grains, there are no records of the said stock. Moreover, an investigation by NDTV found that registration numbers of the trucks used for transporting the grains from the market to the godowns were fake or made-up. As many as 3,000 trucks mentioned in the records either don’t exist or in some cases, registration numbers of two wheelers have been cited.
Punjab government, which is on a defensive after the allegations, even admitted to diverting funds appropriating to nearly Rs. 900 crores to another state government scheme (the ‘atta-dal’ scheme for providing food grains for free to the poor). This practice is illegal as loan money meant for one purpose cannot be used for anything else but the said purpose.
As a fallout, the SBI led consortium, after a meeting in New Delhi, decided to stop lending to the state government until the issue was resolved. Although the RBI has directed banks to declare the loan as NPA (non-performing assets), banks are worried about recovering previous loans amounting to Rs. 40,000 crores to the Punjab government.
Not surprisingly, in the wake of the upcoming assembly elections, this issue has already created a political storm in the state which is expected to escalate further in the coming days. Congress, the major opposition party in the state, declared on Tuesday that it would file a criminal case against the Badal government for ‘theft’ of Rs. 12,000 crores worth of food grain.
“If the ED can pursue a case against Vijay Mallya for diverting Rs. 430 crore of the Rs. 900 crore bank loan to acquire properties abroad, the Centre should also act against the Punjab government for diverting Rs. 900 crore of procurement money for the Atta- Dal scheme”, said party spokesperson Sunil Jakhar, an MLA from Abohar.
The other upcoming political force in Punjab, the Aam Aadmi Party has made similar demands and accusations into the matter and together with Congress demanded a court-monitored audit by CAG into the procurement process.
As per the CAG report, the last audit happened six years ago, which means this scam could have been going on for the past few years turning out to be a major contributor to the current situation of agriculture in the state.
The report presented by the Central government in the Parliament states that one of the major reasons for the farmers committing suicides was the delay in payment for their produce. Though the Centre did its part by helping the state government secure the said loans, it’s a complete failure on the part of the state machinery which willfully siphoned off vast sums of money meant for the farmers. This points towards a possible correlation between the missing funds, the late payments to farmers and subsequently, the resulting suicides.
The resulting chaos also brings up the financial black hole that the state is heading towards. As per a report by India Ratings, “The financial situation of Punjab, particularly with respect to liquidity, has remained quite precarious over the past few years. The situation has deteriorated considerably now,” the agency said in a note last week. The situation is so grave that the state government has mortgaged several of its assets such as ashrams and even jails to raise money to pay salaries to its employees.
While farmers and their families are killing themselves over meager sums of money amounting to a few lakhs the shameless political elite of the state have gorged up funds worth thousands of crores (ironically meant to help the same farmers) and are yet out of the purview of any law which could hold them accountable for their acts. However, as the elections are just around the corner, those in power must remember that sometimes justice is delivered in the form of the ballot instead of courtrooms.